THE 16 MOST IMPORTANT RESTAURANTS IN HOUSTON
In today’s society, some would say that every restaurant is important to Houston -- but we grew up in an era without participation trophies. From longtime legacies to modern spots flexing their culinary muscles and changing the game, these eateries have played a major role in shaping how the Bayou City eats. And for that, they win a real award. Here are the 16 most important restaurants in Houston:
In 2002, while Tex-Mex heavy restaurants were ruling the city, this Montrose haunt from award-winning restaurateurs Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught was introducing Houston to the bright, fresh flavors of interior Mexican cuisine. To say Houston caught on quickly is an understatement. With light, refreshing ceviches and dark, complex Oaxacan moles, Chef Ortega’s love for old Mexico can be seen in every aspect of his inspired food. But even more inspiring is his story. The chef worked his way up from a dishwasher and crossed the Mexican border three times before opening his trio of successful restaurants (Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol). It’s the epitome of the American dream.
With over-the-top service (and an expense account-required menu to match), Tony Vallone’s namesake Italian restaurant is the kind of old-school fine dining that is all too rare these days. Open since 1965, the timeless see-and-be-seen resto has hosted the likes of Tony Bennett, Oscar de la Renta, and seven sitting presidents. It’s also spawned powerhouses like Ciao Bello, Vallone’s, La Griglia, and Grotto (the latter two of which were sold to Landry’s Restaurants in 2003). Tony’s soaring black truffle soufflé goes unmatched, as does its world-class wine list.
Fun fact: this retro diner -- opened in 1967 -- was one of the first establishments in the burgeoning Pappas Empire. One could argue that without its success, Houston wouldn’t have Pappas Bar-B-Q, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Pappasito's Cantina, and Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen (to name a few), and the Pappas family may not have expanded to over 80 locations in seven states. Luckily, we don’t have to argue that. Because to this day, Dot still serves up scratch-made biscuits and jumbo chicken-fried steak 24/7... and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?
As discussed, the Pappas are local legends. And at the very top of their bona fide empire lies this quintessential Texas steakhouse, with culinary nods including “Top 5 Steaks in America” (Food Network) and “No. 1 Steakhouse” (Texas Monthly). Its steaks can’t be rivaled, thanks to superior cuts of beef, in-house butchery, and an intense 28-day dry-aging process, also completed in-house. The result is finely marbled, nutty, and rich USDA prime steaks that you can slice like butter.
The span between 2012 to 2013 was a special time for Houston. With a trinity of homegrown restaurants garnering titanic levels of recognition on the national stage, our culinary landscape was finally getting the attention it deserved. This dual concept number from Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan was (and remains) a vital part of the holy three. Hit the urban-rustic Provisions if you’re feeling shared plates, house-made pasta, and blistered pizzas. Or put on your fancy pants and enter a secret door to The Pass for a five- to eight-course tasting menu that tiptoes the edge between polished and edgy the way no other can.
James Beard Award-winning Chef Chris Shepherd is a Houston titan. So it’s no surprise his lower Westheimer restaurant -- serving what is dubbed “The Story of Houston Food” -- has been a standout since inception. Another one of the 2012 breakout stars, UB blends ethnic cuisines with refined Creole and down-home Houston charm. Sit back as the open kitchen sends outs plates of Korean-braised goat dumplings, whole-roasted fish, and locally raised beef (butchered in-house, because obviously). Everything is best eaten family-style, that way you can order the entire lineup, all the way to dessert.
This intimate 31-seater is from husband-and-wife team (and native Houstonians) Justin Yu and Karen Man. The progressive eatery is the gold standard for tasting menus in Houston, with each course thoughtfully composed and painstakingly plated. It also set Houston’s veggie revolution ablaze. Though it serves some terrific meaty specialties -- think lightly smoked wild boar with pork thailande, and fermented mustards -- it is revered for its brilliant four- and seven-course vegetarian offerings. Oh, and pastry chef Man’s celestial desserts.
This landmark restaurant, sister to the Crescent City’s Commander’s Palace, brought “haute Creole” to Houston in 1967. Since then, it has sparked the Creole-Cajun trend and helped launch the careers of revered chefs like Chris Shepherd (Underbelly), Mark Holley (Holley’s Seafood), Jamie Zelko (Zelko Bistro) and Randy Evans (of the former Haven). The menu flawlessly mingles throwbacks like turtle soup with bold Bayou City-inspired dishes like Texas pecan crust Gulf fish. Whichever way you go, loosen that belt and finish your meal with tableside-flambéed bananas Foster.
This Asiatown staple helped Vietnamese crawfish earn their place on the Bayou City’s roster of indigenous cuisine. Since then, a million Viet-Cajun mudbug spots have spawned, but C&N’s garlic-butter-soaked, spicy and succulent version remains the crown jewel. Get the hall of fame-worthy mudbugs along with whole-fried Dungeness crab in a fiery tamarind sauce. And make sure you order hunks of bánh mì so you can sop up allllllllll the juice.
Who knew a place that started as a humble taco stand in 1973 could prompt a fajita frenzy that ultimately introduced Tex-Mex to the entire country? Original owner “Mama” Ninfa made her fajitas the only way they should be made -- with outside skirt steak sizzling on an impossibly hot cast-iron plate. The original location of Ninfa’s remains the greatest (its predecessors were sold off and never quite lived up to the hype), so hit it to get Mama’s legendary fajitas alongside scratch-made tortillas, bigger-than-your head frozen margs, and Chef Alex Padilla’s noteworthy Tex-Mex plates.
This relative newcomer has ushered in a new way of thinking about Italian. You won’t find your nonna’s red sauce staples or uptight, fine-dining veal chops. Instead you’ll find sharable plates speckled with sibling resto Revival Market’s in-house charcuterie and fresh produce picked right from its side yard garden. You’ll also find yourself drooling over bowls of cacio e pepe, charred chile basil chicken wings, and wood-fired pies with your crew. It’s the kind of neighborhood spot Houston was craving long before the city even knew it.
While joints like Gatlin’s, Brooks’ Place, and Corkscrew ignited Houston’s barbecue flames, it’s Chef Ronnie Killen’s Pearland barbecue spot that really put HOU ‘cue on the rest of the country’s radar. Killen takes care to make sure every pound of bronto-sized, salt-and-pepper-kissed beef ribs; meltingly tender, fatty brisket; and snappy, juicy, house-made links exceeds Texas standards. It does.
Houstonians love grubbing at dives, but it’s not just because the food is greasy as hell and we’ve had a few drinks. It’s because places like this gastro pub-meets-Texas icehouse exist. Backed by serious local talent (chefs Jonathan Jones and Monica Pope and bar god Bobby Heugel are just a few of its famous alumni) the bar and kitchen set out to bring a diverse community together through clever and playful food and drink. Judging by the crowds scarfing down tempura-fried pickles and sloppy chick-wiches on any given night, we’d say it's reached its goal.
The overwhelming success of the Houston outpost of Austin’s famed Uchiko let savvy restaurateurs know one important thing: Houstonians know good food… and they’ll pay to eat it. Since Uchi's opening merely four years ago, Houston’s seen an influx of eateries trying to make their mark, some without success. It’s Uchi’s willingness to blend its standby Japanese flavors with our fresh, local vibe that has allowed it to survive here so effortlessly. Only the best will endure, but Houstonians don’t seem to mind giving deserving restaurants a shot.
Don’t let the name fool you. The specialty here isn’t the barbecue (though that’s pretty good, too); it’s the cracking Southern fried chicken. The dish helped put Houston on the map with national praise from Food & Wine magazine, Travel & Leisure magazine, and even us (we named it one of the 21 best fried chicken spots in America). That exposure has helped, but locals, who have been hitting the landmark hard since 1946, didn’t even need it to know they had a good thing going. Not even a 30-minute chicken-fried wait time can stop them from showing this legend some love.
Landry's Inc., the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant group, has over 450 operations and 40 unique brands under its belt, including Chart House, Morton's – The Steakhouse, and Rainforest Cafe. The culinary kingdom all started when Tilman Fertitta, president and CEO of Landry's Inc., opened this seafood spot in Katy, Texas in 1980. It has since become the flagship restaurant for the brand, not only shaping the way Houstonians dine out, but shaping the way the entire nation does.