Houstonians like to tout our city's vibrant ethnic tapestry, especially when it comes to food. Chinatown. The Mahatma Gandhi District. Little Nigeria. All areas in which various cuisines cloister tightly together, affording the opportunity for a dumpling crawl across Bellaire Boulevard or a chaat sampling down Hillcroft.
But the real beauty of Houston's ethnic tapestry is in the spots where all those threads blend together: Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, European, Thai, South American. And one of the best places in the city to explore the world in one weekend is in Spring Branch. Here you'll find Polish restaurants down the street from Argentinean, Thai sharing a strip center with Mexican and taco trucks of every stripe up and down Long Point -- the main artery that runs through the center of it all.
Disclaimer: For the purposes of this post, Spring Branch is defined as bordered by Clay Road and Highway 290 to the north, Beltway 8 to the west, Katy Freeway to the south and Loop 610 to the east, but excludes the Memorial Villages (as those are categorized as Memorial).
10. Korea House
Korea House is decorated in a cute, traditional manner to match its traditional Korean food. Koreans, Americans, Korean-Americans and plenty of local chefs who crave Korean food have made it a favorite destination. Popular dishes include meats grilled or barbecued in the traditional way: galbi (short ribs), rib-eye and Korean bacon. Side dishes of banchan are made fresh and include cabbage, chive pancakes and tofu. Soju (a Korean distilled spirit similar to vodka) is served at the end of the meal, although you can get Korean beer too. Private rooms are available for larger parties, and you'll automatically be seated in one if you come with lots of friends.
There's a solid comfort-food menu with meat loaf, pot roast and burgers at lunch time, and ambitious New American cuisine preparations of fresh seafood for dinner. Don't miss the crab cake Benedict on Hollister's terrific Sunday brunch menu. But the real charm of this neighborhood cafe is in the incredible service -- the owners are genuinely interested in everyone who walks in the door. And they've been so successful with their little restaurant, a second is opening on Washington Avenue next year.
Real Polish kielbasa, homemade sauerkraut, kwas soup, terrific latkes, silky golonka, fat gołąbki and three kinds of pierogi are the irresistible lures that bring Houston's Eastern European community to this schmaltzy little Polish restaurant not far from the area's Polish Catholic church. Don't even bother trying to get in Polonia on Sunday when the after-church crowd packs the place. And if you want to go full-tilt Polish, order some vodka to go with your meal.
There are several locations of this Houston-only chain scattered around town, but the Long Point location is a favorite for the always cheerful service. The restaurant is best known for its tacos de trompo -- the Monterrey version of al pastor -- served on fresh corn tortillas, but branch out a bit and try the bright and clean-tasting enchiladas del Julio or the chicken-and-avocado-filled caldo Tlalpeño. No gooey, cheesy Tex-Mex here, just simple northern Mexican food in a pleasant setting.
6. Pho Huy
This is proof positive that you can get amazing pho outside Chinatown and outside the Pho Binh trailer on Mangum. The pho broth is a dark, rich mahogany color and -- especially if you order the pho tai nam gau gan sach bo vien -- comes absolutely filled with plenty of meat and noodles. No skimping here. Bun thit nuong is equally good, as is the addictive Vietnamese iced coffee. Apparently, Pho Huy also feels that their coffee is unparalleled; bright yellow posters in several areas of the restaurant command customers: "YOU TRY IT!" and "YOU LIKE IT!"
5. Super H Mart
Can't pick just one Korean cuisine to eat for lunch? Head to the food court at Super H Mart, where you can indulge in everything from Korean fried chicken at Toreore to bibimbap and bulgogi. Freshly baked pastries are available for dessert at Tous Les Jours and -- if you aren't too full to do more than waddle out afterwards -- you can even get your grocery shopping done while you're there.
You can feed an army with a whole roasted baby goat or spend a reflective lunch over some enchiladas at El Hidalguense; it's your call at the cozy, family-run restaurant on Long Point that shares strip center space with another favorite, Vieng Thai. Either way, you win because the food here is consistently wonderful. The restaurant's twin specialties are barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo, which is Hidalgo-style lamb cooked in maguey leaves, and chivito asado al pastor, whole goat roasted over an open charcoal pit right there in the restaurant. In the evenings, El Hidalguense is filled with expats from Hidalgo and a live mariachi band playing Huatecan music you can't resist dancing to.
This small, family-run Argentinean steakhouse specializes in beef in various forms and at very inexpensive prices. Flank steak, skirt steak, short ribs, rib eye and tenderloin can all be had for around $10 at Pampa Grill & Market, although you will also find some terrific empanadas and pizzas straight from the brick oven. Other specialties include choripan, an Argentinean sausage sandwich, or morcipan, a blood sausage sandwich. Order a parillada para dos and you'll get a mound of meat served on a table-top grill that four people would struggle to finish. Simply put, it's a carnivores paradise. Plus, it's BYOB.
Dadami bills itself as a Japanese restaurant, but it actually serves Korean-style sashimi called hwe. If you go at night, bring a large group -- you'll want to indulge in one of the multi-course dinners like the "deluxe sashimi" meal that feeds four to six people and features a stunning array of fresh, raw fish, fried seafood, grilled vegetables and dozens of banchan. At lunch, seriously cheap specials let you try smaller portions of the large dinners one at a time.
1. Vieng Thai
Vieng Thai, Houston's best and most authentic Thai restaurant, is a humble mom-and-pop operation in the Long Point area with scuffed concrete floors and a blaring wide-screen TV. But its fiery soups, slippery noodles, incendiary curries and tart Thai salads blow the city's fancier Thai restaurant fare away. And like Pampa Grill, it too is BYOB. You already feel like you're eating in someone's living room here, so it's only natural to crack open some cans of beers while you bury your face in Massamun curry or pad see ew -- after all, much of Vieng Thai's food is ultra-hot and begs for an IPA to match the heat or a lager to cool it off.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose Top 10 in the Heights Top 10 in Rice Village Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the East End Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown