By Eric Sandler
Nov 25, 2019, 11:15 am
The holiday season has arrived, which means lots of entertaining out-of-town visitors. Cooking for a crowd gets old fast — why not take them to a restaurant instead?
CultureMap’s inaugural Top 100 list of Houston’s best restaurants represents a good starting point for deciding where to eat. Clearly, any of them would make a good choice depending on each group’s cravings.
Consider these 10 restaurants as a starting point for a conversation. They include establishments that have been featured on TV, restaurants owned by James Beard Award winners, and a couple of bona fide Houston classics. Collectively, they take great care of Houstonians every day and will do the same for visitors.
Restaurants people have seen on TV
Anthony Bourdain visited the beloved Indo-Pak restaurant during the Houston episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown. Chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari makes it easy to know what the author and TV personality ate during his visit; the menu lists the dishes with the word “Bourdain” next to them. Seeing as those selections include signature items like chicken hara masala (a spicy curry that’s partially inspired by salsa verde), mutton biryani, steak tikka, and Hunter’s Beef (a cured and smoked beef dish that Lashkari calls “Pakistani pastrami”), first-time visitors would do well to follow Bourdain’s lead. Just make sure to add some garlic naan.
Crawfish & Noodles
The Viet-Cajun restaurant features prominently in both an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s The Zimmern List as well as David Chang’s Netflix series Ugly Delicious. Admittedly, November may not be prime crawfish season — informally it runs from about Valentine’s to Memorial Day — but the restaurant’s menu includes other seafood options as well as signature dishes like stewed turkey necks that more than justify visiting year round.
Restaurants with James Beard Award-winning chefs
UB Preserv/Georgia James
Chris Shepherd may have closed Underbelly, the restaurant where he won his Beard Award, but its spirit lives on at both of these restaurants. At Georgia James, the ethos manifests itself in a commitment to serving Texas beef, Gulf coast seafood, and side dishes that utilize local produce. It also rejects traditional steakhouse by eschewing broilers in favor of searing steaks on cast iron or grilling them over wood.
Similarly, UB Preserv continues Shepherd’s mission to tell “the story of Houston food.” Led by chef de cuisine Nick Wong, the restaurant takes its inspiration from the various immigrant communities that have settled in Houston. For example, Wong gives a Texas spin to the Chinese classic honey walnut shrimp by using pecans instead. The crispy rice salad puts a light and bright spin on Thai flavors.
While a baller board at Georgia James is a decadent splurge, taking the “tour of Houston” at UB Preserv only costs $55 per person (plus drinks, tax, and tip), which makes it the perfect way for first time visitors to sample the restaurant’s best dishes.
Justin Yu won his James Beard Award for teaching Houstonians to eat their vegetables at Oxheart, but core aspects of the restaurant live on at its replacement. The kitchen still utilizes the best locally-sourced produce it can get its hands on, but the a la carte format and less frequent menu changes mean diners can come back multiple times for the favorite dishes.
Dishes like the tomato toast and Paris-Brest dessert have become instant classics, but Yu and chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets always seem to have something new to try. An eclectic selection of natural wines gives oenophiles interesting options to pair with their meals.
Many years ago, when a chef I know visited Houston from out of town, he requested to dine at someplace that he couldn’t experience in his native New Orleans. Of course, we sent the visitor to Hugo’s, and he agreed that it satisfied his request.
Picking a favorite from chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught’s Mexican restaurants comes down to taste more than quality. For cochinita pibil and and carnitas, go to Hugo’s. For wood-roasted oysters, ceviches, and whole fish, go to Caracol. For mole tastings, tlayudas, and a deep selection of mezcal, choose to Xochi.
Regardless of where someone chooses to dine, they’ll find a sophisticated beverage program that focuses on agave spirits and Mexican wines, as well as polished service. At Hugo’s, that service extends to the valet stand, where one of the city’s better carwashes can be had for only $20.
Bona fide Houston classics
The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation
The restaurant that helped popularize fajitas continues to serve sizzling plates of grilled meats to generations of Houstonians and their guests. Under the direction of executive chef Alex Padilla and the ownership of Legacy Restaurants, Ninfa's has expanded its dining rooms, upgraded its kitchen with a wood-burning grill and oven, and even improved its parking.
Those who can pull themselves away from their traditional favorites will find compelling options on the specials menu, where Padilla puts all that equipment to good use with dishes like wood-roasted octopus and lamb barbacoa tacos. The chef also keeps a close on the restaurant’s Uptown location, which has the same menu (and prices) as the Second Ward original.
Brennan’s of Houston
With proprietor Alex Brennan-Martin at the helm and chef Joe Cervantez in the kitchen, this 50-year-old restaurant — a sibling of legendary New Orleans’ classic Commander’s Palace — remains as vital as ever. Sticking to classics like turtle soup, Gulf fish Pontchartrain, and bananas Foster will produce a satisfying meal, or diners can opt for any of the other dishes that utilize locally sourced produce and seafood.
The bar remains a very pleasant dining option for those who prefer not to be quite as dressed up as the dining room typically requires, and "wine guy" Marcus Gausepohl makes sure the cellar stays stocked with the proper French varietals to pair with the food.