One of the questions I get most frequently from friends who travel is this: Why isn't there anywhere to eat around Hobby Airport? To which I say: There are lots of places. You're not looking hard enough.
Hobby is in one of those parts of town that require a finer-toothed comb than, say, the Montrose or Upper Kirby areas, where good restaurants are on prominent display. But this just makes finding truly great spots that much more rewarding.
Moreover, some of the genuinely best restaurants in Houston in their categories can be found in the neighborhoods near Hobby: Frank's Grill, where time in the old diner seems to stand still; Shuttle Burgers just south of the airport on Almeda-Genoa; Dot Coffee Shop in the massive Gulfgate shopping complex, an old-timer amidst a thicket of boring chain restaurants; 888 Chinese, where old-school American-Chinese cuisine has never gone out of style; and even an outpost of James Coney Island, Houston's oldest and most beloved hot dog joint.
And that's not even cracking the Top 10.
If you're on the way to Hobby from down south, C&D Burger Shoppe is an easy stop. Equidistant from Beltway 8 and I-45 at the corner of Beamer and Fuqua, this former Dairy Queen has been a mainstay in South Houston since the early 1980s. It turns out better burgers than you'd get at a fast-food joint, for the same price. And here, you can get a Frito pie and a grape Kool-Aid to go with your cheeseburger, along with a heady dose of nostalgia. At lunch, it's a working man's destination, but it's all sleepy small-town vibes at night -- perfect for stopping in for a meal and decompressing on your way home.
As with another favorite, Joyce's Seafood and Steaks, Mannie's serves a hybrid of Mexican and Cajun food -- two cuisines that have historically employed seafood to great acclaim. Mannie's is the only place I know where you can order horchata and gumbo, micheladas and fried frog legs. It's as reliable for its fresh seafood such as cheap Gulf oysters as it is for its fried shrimp and fish platters. And in the grand tradition of other Mexican seafood joints such as Tampico and Connie's, those fried platters usually come with a side of fried rice.
Located just north of Hobby on Airport Boulevard, the aptly named Airport Italian Deli is the closest dining destination on this list. But that's not all this Italian-Cajun deli has going for it. Try the New Orleans-style muffulettas on soft, squishy bread or the homemade lasagna if you're not in too much of a hurry. You'll notice, however, that most people take their po-boys and sandwiches on freshly baked bread to go. Both the price and the food itself will make the idea of stopping by a Subway on the way out of town simply anathema.
7. Thai Jasmine
For those days when you need to get good and liquored up before a flight -- or want to celebrate touching back down in Houston -- Thai Jasmine is the spot for you. The Thai restaurant is BYOB and doesn't have a corkage fee, so bring that classy hooch you bought at the duty-free shop on the way home. The restaurant has an allure beyond cheap booze, though, offering some of the honestly best Thai food in town for next to nothing. At lunch, most dishes are only $5.99. At dinner, the most expensive item on the menu isn't over $15.
This is not your average Chinese restaurant. Shan Hu has specialized in Korean Chinese food for over 30 years, a cuisine that has its roots in a mass emigration of Chinese from Korea in the 1960s after Korea enacted laws that prevented foreign ownership of property. The Chinese expats who had been living in Korea up until that time had invented their own hybrid cuisine, which lives on in places like Shan Hu, where you'll find dishes such as jaam-bong (a spicy seafood stew) alongside Korean favorites like bulgogi and Chinese favorites like crispy duck.
This traditional American diner -- a little piece of the old-school Telephone Road that borders Hobby Airport to the west -- caters to the early birds rather than the night owls. Tel-Wink Grill will serve you breakfast whenever you want it -- as long as you want it before 2:30 p.m., which is when it closes. The prices seem to have ignored inflation since the place first opened in the 1950s, and the dishes are the same, too -- bacon and eggs, pancakes, chicken-fried steak, waffles, grits and homemade hash browns. If you get there anytime after 9 a.m., be ready for a long but reasonably quick-moving line. That said, this is not the place to get in and out quickly before a flight.
As with Mannie's Seafood, Casarez specializes in a distinct blend of Cajun and Tex-Mex that it calls "Creole-Mex," with dual signs out front in English and Spanish that read simply: "Coma aqui! Eat here!" Look for shrimp and crawfish enchiladas topped with etouffee sauce or a battered and fried avocado, stuffed with shrimp and served on a bed of rice and beans. Affable owners Bobby and Charlie are always on hand, visiting with regulars and making sure each tables' order come out correctly. And although it's not a fast food joint, it's a terrific last lunch before boarding a plane headed away from our bounty of Cajun and Mexican food.
3. Burger Park
Burger Park -- a humble, low-slung burger joint on Martin Luther King, just off the South Loop -- turns out anywhere from 400 to 500 burgers a day. Dinner is the 45-year-old restaurant's busiest time, as neighborhood residents crowd the tiny parking lot and line up outside to get their burger fix before it closes at 7:30 p.m. But if you're swinging past on the Loop on your way to the airport, it's a breeze to grab a quick cheeseburger and fries from friendly owners Gil and Oak Kim on your way out of town. (Ask for your fries extra crispy, and don't forget a peach slush.)
2. City Cafe
Depending on which side of the house you sit in, City Cafe is either a throwback to the late '80s or the mid '50s. It's the latter that I prefer, and not just because you can smoke (!) on that side of the building (although the anachronistic sight of cigarettes and coffee at City Cafe's long diner counter is pretty mesmerizing). It's because this side is closer to the bustling kitchen, steam table and counter, which ensures you'll get plenty of sassy service and people-watching in while you wait for your golden malted waffles at breakfast. Breakfast is the best time to go, too, and offers the same excellent Texas-style grits and biscuits as Tel-Wink Grill without the interminable wait.
The other two locations of Pho Binh (on Beechnut and Mangum) are larger and more convenient and offer more complete menus. But pho fanatics all agree that it's worth the drive to the original Pho Binh in the trailer near I-45 and Beltway 8. Even if the pho tasted exactly the same, the colorful experience of eating an early-morning bowl of breakfast soup at Houston's favorite pho trailer is worth the extra effort. If you've been out of town for too long, this should be one of your first stops after arriving back in Houston -- and it's one of the places we absolutely love to take out-of-towners.
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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 Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown Top 10 Restaurants in EaDo Top 10 Restaurants in River Oaks Top 10 Restaurants in Garden Oaks/Oak Forest Top 10 Restaurants in Westchase Top 10 Restaurants in the Third Ward