The Best and Worst Restaurant Leftovers

It’s a shame to waste food, but restaurant portion sizes tend to be hefty. These days, plates are often filled with enough food for two servings, but not everything makes for joy-inspiring leftovers.  

Here’s a list of some of the foods that will inspire a joyous breakfast or lunch recipe the next day — and the ones that are best left at the restaurant.

Best Leftovers

Pancakes: Avoid dousing a pancake or two with syrup during that Saturday or Sunday morning brunch. They’ll reheat beautifully in the microwave the next day. Where to get: Buffalo Grill, Lola or Avalon Diner. 59 Diner, House of Pies or IHOP if it’s 3 a.m. and you just helped shut down a bar.

Pizza, If You LIke It Cold: If you’re the kind of person who's happy to grab a slice of cold pizza out of the fridge, then pizza is a worthwhile leftover. Some of us consider that a quick breakfast, even. Advanced pizza lovers will secure their base materials from a good local restaurant, not a chain. However, if you’ve got to go the delivery route, Papa John’s tastes the freshest and is the least grease-laden the next day. Where to get: Pizaro’s Pizza, Pi Pizza Truck, Coppa Osteria, Coltivare, D’Amico.

Hot Wings: The deep-fried and sauced version is another leftover that reheats beautifully in the microwave, unless it’s been battered and fried. Where to get: Dak & Bop, The Hay Merchant, Pluckers Wing Bar, the Chicken Chiccarone at Piqueo.

Mashed and Roasted Potatoes: Truly, most leftover potatoes lead to feats of awesome breakfast creativity the next day. Mashed potatoes can be formed into pancakes and seared over high heat for a nice outer crust. Sauté roasted potatoes with breakfast sausage or chopped bacon and lay a fried egg over the top. Alternatively, use them as one of the ingredients of a frittata along with chopped and sautéed fresh veggies. Where: Check out our recent post on where to find the best mashed potatoes in Houston. Most steakhouses and French restaurants offer roasted or fried potatoes as a side, so check out Bistro Le Cep, Bistro Provence, Rainbow Lodge, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. 

Fried Chicken: Some love cold fried chicken the next day. Others think it’s an abomination. If you’re among the former, though, there’s nothing that can inspire morning happiness like discovering a box of fried chicken in the fridge the next day. Throw some in a container, add a reheated side dish and use it as an excuse to have a picnic in the park. If you absolutely have to reheat it, use the oven, not the microwave, or the crust will turn mushy, just like the fried chicken on a Banquet TV dinner. Where to get: Would you hate me if I said Popeyes? Local options: Barbecue Inn, Punk’s Simple Southern Food, Lee’s Fried Chicken & Donuts, Frenchy’s.

Soups and Stews: There's a truism that most soups and stews are better the next day, but there's a caveat, too: no noodles. Otherwise, chili, pozole, French onion and many other kinds will be even better after an overnight stay in the fridge. Pro tip: Order pho to go and noodles will be packed in a container separate from the broth. Just add what's needed for one serving and reserve any leftover broth and noodles separately in the fridge. Where to get: the pozole at El Big Bad, chili at James Coney Island or El Real Tex-Mex, hot and sour soup (if it was good to begin with — my favorite is at Hunan Garden in Kingwood), French onion soup from Mockingbird Bistro, vichyssoise from Bistro Provence.

Steak and Pork Chops: A quick pan-sear will bring a steak or pork chop back to life, and these are some of the better leftovers to take to lunch the next day. If you find you have no choice but to microwave it, just be careful not to overdo it or your medium-rare meat will turn into well-done. Speaking of that, steaks with any pink in the middle really need to be consumed by the next day for food safety reasons. You don’t want those to linger. Where to get: Vic & Anthony’s, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland, B&B Butchers, Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille, i.e., anywhere fine steaks are sold.

Corned Beef Hash: Just kidding. There's never any leftover corned beef hash. 

Chinese Food: This is one of those rare times when it doesn’t matter if there’s a batter crust or not for successful reheating in the microwave, especially for really saucy dishes like General Tso’s chicken. (Items like sweet and sour chicken don’t do nearly as well, though.) Leftover rice is absolutely fantastic to have around, since it makes the best fried rice. If there are leftover barbecue spare ribs, debone them, chop the meat up and throw it in along with leftover or frozen vegetables. As far as noodle dishes go: Forget about it. They all reheat beautifully in the microwave. Where to get: Rice Box (food truck and storefront in Greenway Plaza), Café Chino, Hunan Garden in Kingwood, Ambassador Chinese Restaurant, Fu’s Garden, Fung’s Kitchen

Pasta With Tomato-Based Sauce: You will never have anything more glorious in your fridge than a big hunk of leftover lasagna. Spaghetti with meatballs and all sorts of other saucy pastas will reheat beautifully. Where to get: Brooklyn Meatball Co., Paulie's, D'Amico's, Mandola's Deli.

Barbecue: Having leftover barbecue is like winning the leftover lottery. All your co-workers will develop a lunch inferiority complex when they smell your smoky leftovers reheating. Better still, chop up leftover brisket and turn it into a beautiful breakfast hash. Leftover roasted potatoes (see above) make this a snap. Where: Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland, CorkScrew Barbecue in The Woodlands, Jackson Street Barbecue, Ray’s BBQ Shack, Roegels Barbecue Co.

Mexican Food Sans Crispy Tortillas

The mightiest of all restaurant leftovers might be Mexican food — provided it doesn’t rely on a crispy tortilla. That makes enchiladas, fajitas, beans and rice superior leftover fodder. Quickly pan-fry the fajitas so as not to lose moisture. The other stuff does just fine in the microwave. If you have fresh flour tortillas at home, make quick burritos with the rice and beans. Add fresh lettuce and tomato for some fresh pop. Really, the possibilities are endless. Where: El Real Tex-Mex, The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation, El Tiempo, Soto’s Cantina and many other Houston Mexican restaurants.

Worst Leftovers

Hamburgers: There’s no way the bun isn’t going to be soggy by the next morning, and fresh toppings like lettuce and tomato will turn really gross. Let it go.

Baked Potatoes: If you've put sour cream on your baked potato, it's not going to be anything you want to see the next day. 

Eggs: The eggs were perfectly cooked when they were served, and there’s no reheating that’s not going to destroy them.

French Fries
: Other kinds of potato dishes reheat nicely. This is not one of them. There’s a faint hope you can save them by spreading them on a pan and toasting them in the oven, but it’s not even worth it. French fries are best fresh out of the fryer.

Pizza, If You Like It Hot: As with french fries, baking is your best chance to bring it to life, but there will be casualties. Thin crusts will go limp and meaty toppings will start to exude all that gross oil. Don’t even think about trying to nuke it. Eat it cold or toss it.

Pasta With Cream-Based Sauce: The problem with fettuccine alfredo, cacio e pepe and the like is that upon reheating, the sauce will break. The dish will be incredibly guilt-inducing when you see exactly how much butter was used. 

Chicken-Fried Steak: Cold fried chicken is good. Cold chicken-fried steak loses all its magic. The crust is just too thin and loses all its beautiful crispness.

Green Salad: The only lettuce salad that can be saved is an undressed one. Order dressing on the side and the greens might keep until the next day.

Cooked Green Vegetables
: Reheated vegetables is why kids grow up to be vegetable-hating adults. Do them fresh or not at all. Exception: casseroles.

Mexican Foods That Rely on Crispy Tortillas: Either eat nachos, chalupas and crispy tacos in the restaurant or order something with no fried tortillas if you want something to take home. Exception: a bag of housemade tortilla chips with nothing on them. Get a pint of salsa, queso or guacamole on the side — whichever one the restaurant does best.

Noodle Soups: There is little more disgusting than leftover ramen or pho with the noodles included. They release starch into the liquid, make the broth cloudy, soften up and just get really gross. 

Sushi: The inherent danger of getting food poisoning from raw fish held at improper temperatures is why some Japanese restaurants implement a “no sushi or sashimi to-go” policy. Unless you live particularly close to the restaurant and are going straight home, attempting to hold sushi overnight is a no-no. Besides, the rice will dry out and it’s just not going to be as good. Just don’t order more than you can consume in one sitting.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook