With Super Bowl LI in town, Houston has been receiving a bevy of national attention. A lot of that has focused on just how much the city has changed since the last time it hosted the Super Bowl, in 2004, and we couldn’t agree with that sentiment more. For starters, there’s the fact that back then, Discovery Green was just a parking lot, and that the Houston area's population jumped from 5.1 million to today’s 6.6 million. And then there’s the food scene.
In 2004, Houston’s culinary landscape was — for the most part — an unnurtured diamond-in-the-rough. Today the city is experiencing a full-blown culinary renaissance. As one of the most culturally diverse cities in America, “Mutt City” dining reps a mosaic of ethnicities, from tiny mom-and-pop shops dotting neighborhoods like Montrose and Chinatown to fine-dining restaurants changing the way we think about Houston food.
It’s hard to get a taste of it all, so we put together a list of homegrown eateries (both longtime favorites and today’s hottest tickets) that best showcase the city’s diverse culinary palate. These aren’t just “any” restaurants. Each is at the top of its game and checks off one major criterion: You won’t find anything like it anywhere but Houston.
Note: Some top critic darlings, including The Hay Merchant/Underbelly and Oxheart, are already booked up or closed for private events for the majority of the week, but there are still plenty of places that shine.
One Fifth Houston
Locals were saddened to say good-bye to longtime fine dining establishment Mark’s American Cuisine when it announced its closure last year. Luckily it didn’t take long before one of the hottest chefs in the city announced his game-changing plans to take over the iconic space (housed in a former church, it was perhaps one of the most beautiful restaurants in Houston). Over the next five years, chef Chris Shepherd and his team will turn One Fifth Houston into five separate restaurant concepts. The first up, open now, is One Fifth Steak. Just like at Underbelly, the goal here is to emphasize all cuts of the animal, and while there is definitely a focus on beef, an impressive raw bar (a cold seafood tower comes in two sizes, “big” and “bigger”) and dishes inspired by local produce also await. Go for Shepherd and chef de cuisine Nick Fine’s dry-aged, 44 Farms long-bone rib eye or wet-aged 100 day hanger steak, then tack on comfort food sides like pot roast braised carrots, sweet potato gratin and bacon sausage creamed greens. There’s even a 1.5-pound wood-fired apple pie with cheddar ice cream to hit the sweet spot at the meal's end.
Crawfish & Noodles
11360 Bellaire, 281-988-8098
Crawfish season is in its early stages, but if you’re taking a YOIHO (you’re only in Houston once) mentality, the time to peel, pinch and suck up mudbugs is now. Just outside of Chinatown, Vietnamese hot spot Crawfish & Noodles does them the Mutt City way, in Cajun-Asian style. You’ll want to get messy here (don’t worry, there are paper towels); but getting your hands dirty is worth it for the garlic-butter-soaked crawdads, and stir-fried blue crabs stacked high and bursting with flavor. Pro tip: Get a few orders of banh mi (hunks of fresh bread) to sop up every last bit of juice.
1600 Westheimer, 713-524-7744
With multiple Houston operations under their collective belt — including Hugo’s, Caracol and the brand-new Xochi — owner-chef Hugo Ortega and his wife and restaurateur, Tracy Vaught, are bona fide Houston legends at this point. Hit the chef’s namesake restaurant to see exactly why he’s been nominated for a James Beard award every year since 2012. Or perhaps more accurately, to taste why. You can do that through plates that read like a trip through Mexico, from Yucatan-style cochinita pibil (slow-roasted suckling pig) and bright ceviche Acapulqueño to huachinango a la Veracruzana (whole-roasted snapper).
Just make sure to save room for the sweet stuff, as Ortega’s brother, pastry chef Ruben Ortega, makes desserts that are absolute knockouts.
6652 Southwest Freeway, 713-532-2837
Part of learning to love Houston is learning to love its tapestry of hole-in-the-wall, no-frills eateries. And Himalaya just so happens to be one of its best. Despite being up against all things Southern-fried, the Pakistani-Indian restaurant earned our vote for the Best Fried Chicken in our 2016 Best Of Awards. Affectionately known as “HFC,” chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari's fried chicken begins with a brine spiced with things like garam masala and ginger. After a nice, long soak, the bird is generously dredged in seasoned flour and fried to an absolutely gorgeous, golden-brown crisp before being served family-style. Just be aware: You may want to call ahead for this one, as it’s not always available and can very well sell out. If it does, you can still dive into plates of fork-tender lamb shank masala, complex chicken curries and hunter’s beef, a sort of Pakistani version of pastrami.
1927 Fairview, 832-831-9109
If you’re looking for what’s “haute” right now, this brand-new hit from chef Ryan LaChaine is one of the most buzzed-about restaurants today. The über-talented chef takes a touch of local inspiration, sprinkles in a little Ukrainian and French-Canadian seasoning, and adds a dash of Southern and Asian influence to create melting-pot fare that feels wholly Houston. Hit the 65-seater to feast on 44 Farms hanger steak with pierogi and horseradish cream, Gulf fish karaage and tourtière, a meat pie from Quebec by way of Houston. Bar offerings, including a solid roster of Scotch, bourbon and whiskey and specialty cocktails like the Borscht Sour, will round out that feast quite nicely.
2231 South Voss, 713-586-0223
There’s a reason chef Ronnie Killen is one of Houston’s favorite chefs, and that reason is that the man knows his meat. After achieving well-deserved fanfare from his first three concepts, Killen’s Steakhouse, Killen’s Barbecue and Killen’s Burgers, Killen opened this live-fire steakhouse and barbecue hybrid (his first concept within the city limits) in November. Since then, the house has been packed with locals looking to dig into Killen’s pork belly burnt ends, dry-aged pork long bone chop, short rib tamales and smoked brisket bolognese. Oh, and his bacon tres leches bread pudding; locals crave that too. There are limited reservations left, but if all else fails, you can check out Killen’s other winners in Pearland.
2800 Kirby, 713-522-2022
Remember that caveat we had about not being able to find anything like the restaurant, anywhere but in Houston? We have but one exception, and that’s Pondicheri, an Indian street food concept that made its way from Houston to New York City last year. Houstonians are pretty well acquainted with restaurant imports coming into town, but when a restaurant pulls off the reverse commute, it solidifies its status as a full-on powerhouse. Not-so-surprisingly to any local from H-town, the Big Apple was impressed with Pondicheri right off the bat. With an upstairs bake lab adding to the excitement of the downstairs cafe, the West Ave stunner is an all-day affair. At breakfast, get the Morning Thali; the traditional Indian variety plate offers a tapestry of flavors, from a spiced potato curry and rich lamb keema to bright saffron cucumber raita, plus a yolky egg and carrot paratha that you can use to dip and top as you please. The thalis carry on into dinner, with varieties including an earthy butter chicken and smoked eggplant thali and vegetarian yogi platter. There are curries, dosas and plenty of cardamom-spiced, sugar-coated and whipped-cream-dolloped sweets to dig into too.
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The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
2704 Navigation, 713-228-1175
“Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo’s tacos al carbon — later known as fajitas — have been captivating locals since 1973 (rumor has it Mama may have been responsible for launching the national fajita craze). Today, old-school consistency remains the key to Ninfa's success. Every sizzling comal comes with perfectly tender, Hereford outside skirt steak, seasoned simply and served with all the proper Tex-Mex accoutrements (including housemade tortillas that would make any abuela proud). The restaurant has kept its old-school charm, but in the last year, it underwent renovations to add a top-of-the-line Mugnaini wood-burning oven and retained Julep’s Alba Huerta to consult on an impressive new cocktail menu. That means diners can now choose between those addicting wood-fired fajitas, plus inspired dishes like chef Alex Padilla’s whole roasted red snapper, beef short ribs, Mexican flatbreads and Dungeness crab made according to Padilla’s family recipe. Your best bet? Bring some friends so you can try it all.
3320 White Oak, 713-637-4095
Sure, you can get Italian anywhere these days, but the thoughtfully composed menu at this neighborhood favorite feels different. Perhaps that’s because its focus is on garden-to-table pies, pastas, entrées and sides, with fresh herbs and produce picked straight from the restaurant's 3,000-square-foot garden. The menu is a combination of staples — like the perfectly al dente spaghetti with black pepper, heaven-sent ricotta gnocchi with balsamic greens, and whole wood-roasted fish — with mix-and-match plates inspired by the season. Right now, guests can (and should) dive into casserici pasta, rich with oxtail sugo and pearl onions; Swiss chard ravioli with rabbit ragù; and cotechino sausage with lentils and local autumn squash. Be warned: The restaurant tends to get packed and it does not accept reservations, but that just gives you more time to enjoy an expertly crafted cocktail or two in the charming garden before dinner.
Bernadine’s: 1801-B North Shepherd, 713-864-2565
Hunky-Dory: 1801-A North Shepherd, 713-864-2450
Though these are two separate concepts, the restaurants are right next door to each other and are run by the same restaurant group (Treadsack), so consider this a two-for-one. Seafood fans should head straight for Bernadine’s, with a menu that’s a self-proclaimed “love letter to the Gulf coast” from the talented chef Graham LaBorde. The chef's refined Creole cooking shines through in dishes like barbecue shrimp toast, grilled Gulf fish and grits and (for landlubbers) cochon de lait au presse, a pressed suckling pig that is worth a trip to shore. At Hunky Dory, former Feast chef Richard Knight champions nose-to-tail techniques through thoughtful British tavern plates — think crispy black pudding, "cake stand" pork chops, local fish pie and a double-patty cheeseburger made with chuck, brisket and tongue (when in Houston!). Both restaurants offer lunch, dinner and weekend brunch.