By: Megha Tejpal
Savor Space City
Houston is the most-diverse city in the country and nothing reflects that more than its flourishing culinary scene, with visionary chefs and a rapidly growing list of restaurants. Tex-Mex and BBQ have always been great in H-Town, but at any given corner, expect fantastic Japanese, Italian, Oaxacan, even, Eastern European eats, along with Houston's own Viet-Cajun creations. Here are a few favorite ways to dine out in the Space City.
Brunch: State Fare
In Houston, brunch is not a meal, it is a way of life. And few places pull it off as well as State Fare, where bloody mary’s and mimosas are offered in flights, and breakfast classics are jazzed up and very over the top. Here, the avocado toast towerswith street corn and tajín, a spin on traditional elote. And for a breakfast of epic proportions, opt for the Big Breakfast Burger, an all-in-one bite of house sausage, spicy brown-sugar bacon, hash browns and runny egg.
Napoletana Pizzeria: Pizaro's
Save the 13-hour flight to Naples and score an authentic Neapolitan pie at this BYOB pizza bar, where orders are in and out of the 900-degree custom-made Italian brick oven in 90 seconds. With imported Italian tomatoes, olive oil and cheese, pies are transporting, including the Patata e Funghi, with its generous drizzle of olive oil and light layer of potato for a crisp, salty bite.
Contemporary Italian: Potente
Worthy of (and frequented by) the champion Houston Astros, this ultra-upscale hideaway by the ballpark is owned by the team’s owner, Jim Crane, and helmed by Executive Chef Danny Trace. The signature Spaghetti al Tartufo is presented with burgundy black truffles shaved tableside, and Trace’s adventurous upbringing hunting, frogging and fishing in Louisiana is reflected in tasty boundary-pushing dishes like the Dirty Duck Risotto, with duck cracklins and a runny quail egg.
Modern Mexican: Hugo's
For decades, Hugo Ortega’s namesake restaurant has been a favored destination on the Westheimer curve for its festive Mexican fare and impressive tequila and mezcal cocktails. Tableside preparation spans from the ultra-cheesy queso flameado with wood-grilled steak rolled in house-made tortillas to the fluffy churros with dulce de leche accompanied with fresh-churned hot chocolate for dipping.
You may notice culinary elements from Austin’s Uchi and Uchiko fused in the innovative menu at Uchi in Montrose, but the menu here also incorporates seasonal additions along with the freshest seafood flown in daily from Japan’s Fukuoka and Tsukiji markets. Taste the tartness from the orange supreme on the hama chile with ponzu and thai chile before trying your hand at a wagyu beef hot rock. Let the sizzling sounds roll.
Deli: Kenny & Ziggy's
Houstonians may know how to get down with breakfast, but only real "Delimen" know how to Lox, Stock and Bagel in true New York fashion. You'll find all of the classic delicatessen eats at Kenny & Ziggy's, from salty sliced fish platters and sky-high pastrami sandwiches on rye to cured corned beef burgs on challah. There is comforting matzah ball soup too, for those few cold Houston winter days.
Traditional Tex-Mex: The Original Ninfa's on Navigation
It's almost impossible to not experience good Tex-Mex at some place or another in Houston, but for great Tex-Mex, trek over to the East End to the Original Ninfa's on Navigation, where the crackling sound of sizzling fajitas is as much a part of the ambience as the always buzzy dining hall and patio. The 100 percent agave silver tequila Ninfaritas are boozy, and the loaded enchilada plates are cheese-pull gold for social media.
Burgers: Bernie’s Burger Bus
Expect nothing short of old-school awesome at this high school-inspired hangout where black angus beef patties drip with the juices of tipsy onions braised in Jack Daniels and housemade condiments. Burgers have school-themed names like the Homeroom and the Principal. Getting Detention isn’t a bad thing here, unless you consider a towering double cheeseburger sandwiched between two crispy bacon-grilled cheese sandwich buns a punishment.
Butcher Shop + Café: Revival Market
With the goal of incorporating the highest-quality local ingredients into its breakfast and lunch menus, this Heights hangout remains a one-stop shop for an iced horchata, a balanced lunch — salmon hummus plate, anyone? — and sustainable cuts of antibiotic-free meats, all butchered in-house.
Texas Creole: Brennan's of Houston
While the ragin’ flavors of Cajun cuisine are only a hop, skip and three-hour road trip away from Houston, Brennan’s offers an elevated take on Creole cooking in a cozy corner of Midtown. Not starting off with the traditional turtle soup with sherry would be criminal, but save room for the Gulf Fish Pontchartrain, doused in Brennan’s Creole butter and garnished with crispy Louisiana oysters. A stack of housemade pralines at the door are made to grab by the handful as diners depart, but ask the hostess for a pre-packed one, and score the recipe on the packaging for intrepid home cooks.
Farm-Fresh Italian: Coltivare
The path from farm to table is a short one at this attractive Heights eatery, which accepts walk-ins only and produces bountiful ingredients from its own onsite garden for dishes like smoked pork with smoked gouda and delicate pillows of ricotta gnocchi dusted with Parmesan and garnished with backyard greens. There’s an inevitable wait any night of the week, but the no-reservation policy isn’t so bad when the herb garden doubles as a lush and serene waiting area. Grab a glass of vino or a Fancy G&T crafted with herbs and lemon oil, and stroll the grounds for a look at bounty of the season.
Steak + BBQ: Killen's STQ
Ronnie Killen brings equal parts steak and 'cue to his only concept within Houston city limits — you'll have to schlep down to Pearland to visit the others. At STQ, you can choose your own adventure by starting off with the perfectly sweet and savory pecan-smoked pork belly topped with cherry-habanero barbecue sauce as a starter, then move on to a just-how-you-like-it filet with Killen's famous creamed corn or gouda mac 'n' cheese sides. Regardless of whether you ST or Q, save room for dessert — you'll find a helping of meat in the bacon tres leches bread pudding, and it's worth every last bite.
Seafood: Star Fish
With its pristine white interiors, maritime finishes and bright pops of turquoise, Star Fish swiftly transports diners to a faraway coastal town where spice is nice and cocktails are king. "Angry" garlic shrimp is fired up with hot red chiles and served with spaghettini, and the puffed-up lobster tacos with zesty avocado mousse are meant to be messy. Gin drinker? Go for the salt-water gin and tonic.
Mexico City Flavor: Cuchara
Let the colorful cuisine and culture of Mexico City come to you at this lively Montrose bistro, where the wall art is given as much attention as the extensive menu, the weekend brunch is always a fiesta, and palomas are served spicy or sweet in authentic clay mugs. Bite into crunchy potato taquitos topped with salsa and generously sprinkled with raw onions and then try the green mole with large chunks of pork tenderloin, served alongside rice and beans for a well-rounded meal.
Modern Indian: Kiran's
The well-executed dishes at Executive Chef Kiran Verma’s namesake restaurant are festive and cheery — a direct reflection of the woman who helms the kitchen. Tear into a piece of hot naan after it’s been slapped around the tandoor, then dip it into Verma’s bone-warming seafood curry, fragrant with coconut and tamarind. In lieu of Saturday lunch service, opt for afternoon tea, during which Verma’s own blends are served alongside bubbles, spiced lemonade, lamb samosas with fig chutney, pastries and clotted cream.
Japanese: Kata Robata
Known for its fresh supply of seafood flown in from Japan, this sushi bar hidden in a River Oaks retail strip offers so much more on its innovative menu than colorful jewels of raw fish. Lunch-goers can be seen huddling over giant bowls of creamy, spicy soy ramen with braised ground pork, topped with a thick layer of chile oil. During dinner service, starting with a complex, full-bodied cold sake and vegan soba salad is the perfect pre-cursor to a 72-hour slow-cooked Texas Kobe beef skewer.
Boutique Steakhouse: B&B Butcher's & Restaurant
In a city where steakhouses reign supreme, Benjamin Berg’s B&B Butchers & Restaurant stands above, with character and style in a distinct locale within the historic Dittman Bakery building on Washington Avenue. Steakhouse classics are complemented with additions like Chef Tommy’s Bacon, thick juicy cuts of meat drizzled with truffle-infused honey, and Steak à la Berg, an indulgent concoction of sirloin sliced over hash browns and topped with Madeira sauce and mushrooms. Stop by the adjoining butcher shop for a treasure trove of cured meats, prized cuts and house-made sausages.
At this vibrant space within Downtown's Marriott Marquis Hotel, celebrated chef Hugo Ortega shines the spotlight on the dynamic flavors of regional Oaxacan cuisine. While dishes may seem adventurous and unfamiliar, Ortega presents them in a multi-faceted, yet understandable way on a menu that's fun to explore. Start with the house-made queso de cincho, but look closely — it's topped with crisp insects for a salty bite!
New American & Oyster Bar: State of Grace
This buzzy neighborhood restaurant and oyster bar by Ford Fry, situated across from his alma mater in the Lamar-River Oaks Shopping Center, boasts a diverse menu with bold Southern influences. Forego a seat in the dining room and opt for the brightly lit oyster bar, where you can smell the saltiness in the air. Indulge in a seafood tower, complete with smoked redfish and oysters on the half shell. If you're still hungry, add on a cheese enchilada "a la Felix" for a classic Houston moment.
Traditional Sichuanese: Mala Sichuan
As one of the most-diverse cities in the country, Houston has no shortage of Chinese restaurants, but Mala brings the spice in a whole new way with dishes that incorporate Sichuan peppercorn. Dive into the Crispy Mala Beef, aromatic with whole peppercorns, serranos and dry red chiles, and you’ll be breathing fire.
A leader among Houston's culinary scene for five decades, Tony Vallone's eponymous restaurant is timeless and as exquisite as to be expected, but with the recent addition of 26-year-old Chef de Cuisine Austin Waiter, the menu is consistently ablaze with interesting new interpretations. Take, for example, the flambé foie gras dessert, served tableside for extra head turns.
Steakhouse: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
The Pappas name is synonymous with great food in Houston. At the steakhouse you'll find elegant food and a marvelous wine list. An unforgettable meal may begin with creamy jumbo lump crab cakes and a glass of bubbles followed by a robust, vigorous cabernet and a tender 40-ounce porterhouse, carved tableside and large enough for two to share.
Mexican Coastal Kitchen: Caracol
With Houston’s close proximity to Mexico and its abundant waters, the fresh flavors of the Gulf appear often. There are few better ways to experience the bounty than through Chef Hugo Ortega’s Mexican coastal kitchen Caracol, in Uptown. If you start with ceviche, you’ll find pure ingredients like cucumber, red onion and serrano gently mixed with lime-cured red snapper or Baja-yellowtail hamachi, a decadent precursor to chorizo-stuffed squid with a fiery tomato-habanero sauce. Add creamy lobster rice and melt away into a seafood-fueled stupor.
Modern Indian: Pondicheri
Don’t let the swanky Upper Kirby address of this fast-casual West Avenue café fool you: Pondicheri excels at Indian food. The warm, fragrant smell of garam masala permeates the space setting diners up for out-of-the-box Indian items like the Slumdog, a meatless dog made of chickpeas on a pumpkin bun slathered with pickled mayo. There are also dosas stuffed with greens, and spicy Madras chicken wings. Visit the Bake Lab + Shop upstairs to pick up spices or simply kick back with a cup of masala chai.
Bakery: Common Bond
You’ll have to take a whirl past neatly lined rows of pastries and macarons before getting the opportunity to order at this café and bakery where Texas-sized almond croissants are flaky and subtly sweet and chocolate and dulce de leche spill out of almost-too-pretty-to-eat eclairs.
French: La Table
This stylish Uptown restaurant, situated on swanky Post Oak Boulevard, is a dual-concept restaurant and patisserie. Find freshly baked baguettes and cakes at the coffee counter, or dine alfresco at Marché, the concept's ground-floor space, which offers a casual menu of tuna niçoise salads and a raw bar with seafood platters. Upstairs, Château provides a more romantic escape with a view overlooking the boulevard and a menu of dishes like the Texas long-bone Akaushi ribeye, served tableside for two.
Globally-Inspired with a Canadian Twist: Riel
The hottest new restaurant that Montrose never knew it needed, Riel operates under Executive Chef Ryan Lachaine who incorporates his Ukrainian heritage and hometown influences from Winnipeg, Manitoba, into an inspired menu, which is valiant but approachable. Lachaine adds a pierogi alongside the hanger steak, but you can also order them a la carte — and you should. The artfully plated duck breast is splashed with bright yellow corn purée and gently laid atop crispy green shreds of snow peas and turnip, allowing for the perfect mouthful in each bite.