Houston is a food lover’s paradise
Take it from a Boston expat: The sprawling Texas city is more than just heat, humidity, and Halliburton. It’s a culinary melting pot.
As a lifelong Yankee, I’d always associated Houston with things like big oil, bigger hair, 10-gallon hats, and 10-lane freeways. That is, it never showed up on my short list of vacation spots. But after marrying a Texan, I’ve adopted it as an unlikely second hometown. Weird, I know.
After just a few visits, I started trading tried-and-true New England notions like winter, two-lane highways, and the concept of “walkable distance” for things like tacos on days other than Tuesday, avocados that don’t require financing, and a second person plural that, frankly, I’m not sure where I’d be without, y’all.
I’ve also come to learn that Houston is more than just heat, humidity, and Halliburton.
Houston is, indeed, an absolute beast of a city, covering more than seven times the area of Boston, with more than three times as many people calling it home. And while it takes time to find the beauty in H-Town’s expanse of cracked asphalt and strip malls, it has a way of showing up right in front of you, sometimes three times a day.
For a number of reasons — Houston’s position between Gulf seafood and Texas produce, its long history of overlapping immigrant cultures, and an ever-expanding vastness that has enabled those migrant cultures to settle and thrive — the city has one of the most exciting and undiscovered food cultures in the country. In a state of old traditions, Houston is a city of newcomers. It’s also now the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States. (No, really!)
Over the past few decades, Houston’s population has been defined (and redefined) by waves of immigrants, putting down roots in Texas soil and forming thriving communities. These days, the fastest-growing populations here are Cuban, Venezuelan, and Nigerian.
The result of this (literal) melting pot are dishes that reflect a world made a little smaller by a tangle of freeways — and served a lot bigger. (This is still Texas.) The culinary crossovers evident all over Houston serve a far more practical goal than attracting the attention of food writers obsessed with “fusion” — it’s about feeding your neighbors, all 2.3 million of them.
This also makes it one of the more accessible foodie vacations you can take. Fares between Boston and Houston can be shockingly low (I’ve had more expensive round trips between South Station and Penn Station), and since the food here is defined more by cultures than by concepts, you end up spending less and eating more.
A note on logistics and lodging: Do prepare to rent a car or use ride-share services. As I’ve mentioned, there’s a whole lot of Houston, so consider staying in a central neighborhood “in the loop” (within Interstate 610).
Hotel ZaZa (888-880-3244, hotelzaza.com) is a local mainstay in the world-class Museum District — take advantage of its longhorn limos, which make for a sweet ride anywhere. Theater buffs might opt for the Lancaster Hotel (713-228-9500, thelancaster.com), a Texas historical landmark just across from Jones Hall, the home of the Houston Symphony.
Now all that’s left is to wake up and start eating.
This could be as simple as a perfect kolache. The Czech pastries are a breakfast (and anytime) staple in Texas, especially so in Houston, where Weikel’s (weikels.com) and Hruska’s (979-378-2333, hruskas-bakery.com) stand like compulsory checkpoints on routes into town. But at Christy’s (713-524-4005), a small corner doughnut and kolache shop in the Montrose neighborhood, you can also take your first cross-cultural nibble of Houston in the form of a pillow-soft boudin kolache: a N’awlins-style sausage stuffed with spicy dirty rice, itself stuffed into a pocket of sweet dough — kind of a Texas-sized pig in a blanket. (And technically, a klobásník, but try to get a Texan to say that.)
Elsewhere in Montrose, you can put your name on the list and squeeze into a booth at Baby Barnaby’s (713-522-4229, barnabyscafe.com) for some mind-blowing migas (eggs cooked with crispy tortilla strips) and proof that not everything in Texas is so big. The modest parking lot patio of La Guadalupana Bakery and Cafe (713-522-2301) fills up each morning with neighbors craving breakfast tortas, truly phenomenal chilaquiles, or even a morning slice of tres leches cake (more on that later).
If it’s Sunday, it’s Hugo’s (713-524-7744, hugosrestaurant.net). Texas is a land of buffets (Luby’s being the most prevalent, and the Luann Platter being its best-known option), but none is finer than the opulent Mexican brunch spread laid out by James Beard Award-winner Hugo Ortega — the chef behind three more of Houston’s finer restaurants, the neighborhoody Backstreet Cafe, the coastal Mexican hot spot Caracol, and the Oaxacan-focused treasure Xochi. After brunch, take a stroll up and down Westheimer — a 19-mile road that stretches across Houston and blooms into a strip of tattoo and resale shops, bars, and cafes once it hits Montrose.
But breakfast could (and should) mean rising early and staking out a place in line at The Breakfast Klub (713-528-8561, thebreakfastklub.com) — the legendary Midtown soul food destination where deciding on wings and waffles or “katfish & grits” is the day’s first impossible choice.
Allow time between breakfast and lunch to digest at the Menil Collection (menil.org), a Renzo Piano-designed free museum tucked into a quiet Montrose neighborhood, featuring a mix of contemporary work and a stunning collection of modern and Surrealist art. The museum is central to a campus of permanent exhibits of work by artists such as Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, and Dan Flavin. Its shady sculpture park is a favorite spot for picnics — and if one of Houston’s powerful thunderstorms barges in, Bistro Menil (713-904-3537, bistromenil.com) makes a fine alternative in a pinch.
Lunch in Houston can mean one stop or several along a particularly beaten path. A stretch of Long Point Road shooting through the once-German settlement of Spring Branch looks like a beat-up few miles of sad strip malls; pull in and park just about anywhere, however, and you’ll find a luncher’s paradise, with a dizzying mix of storefronts and food trucks offering everything from Thai to tacos, Korean to Honduran, Vietnamese to Salvadoran.
My go-to is Taqueria Las Glorias (832-665-1624). The oddly Shrek-themed truck serves up life-changing tacos al pastor (pork stewed with pineapple) as well as a lengua (tongue) worth trying if you never have. The perfect Salvadoran pupusas at Cocina Latina Pupusa Buffet (713-218-6666) are irresistible, while the tortas at Las Tortas Perronas are beyond generous (713-461-1900) — especially good when paired with a cold bottle of Mexican Squirt soda. And you can’t very well just drive past the smoky Monterrey-style asada plates served from the window of the Pollos y Carnes Asadas El Norteño converted bus (713-825-1257).
Just down the road, Vieng Thai (713-688-9910, viengthai.com) specializes in “curries in a hurry” as well as two styles of som tum — tangy papaya salad with crunchy salted crabs. Korean barbecue lovers can take their pick on Long Point from a row of places — though I’m partial to Korea Garden (713-468-2800, ) for its kimchi pancake and spicy stews (surprisingly refreshing on a Houston-hot day).
It would be reasonable to assume that the unshakable staples of Houston lunch time are tacos and barbecue. And while Goode Company (713-522-2530, goodecompany.com) and The Pit Room (281-888-1929, thepitroombbq.com) qualify as must-hit pit stops within the loop, the dominant lunch sandwich in these parts is undoubtedly the bánh mì.
You can find flawless specimens of these Vietnamese-French mainstays in Midtown at Cali Sandwich & Fast Food (713-520-0710) and Les Givral’s (832-582-7671, lesgivrals.com), both of which tuck perfectly charred BBQ pork (for example) into soft yet crunchy baguettes, with a rich smear of pâté and the punch of pickled carrot, cucumber, cilantro, and jalapeño.
Soup savorers can find Houston’s most beloved bowl of classic pho at Mai’s (713-520-5300, maishouston.com), while at hip Austin import Ramen Tatsu-Ya (346-226-3253, ramen-tatsuya.com) the lines get even longer when it serves up its most anticipated mash-up special: brisket ramen.
While we’re talking about long lines, the breakout star of the soul food scene here (thanks in part to shout-outs from Snoop Dogg and James Harden) is Turkey Leg Hut (832-787-0770, theturkeyleghut.com), whose namesake fall-off-the-bone turkey legs (optionally stuffed with Cajun crawfish mac and cheese) and otherworldly gumbo (served on Thursdays and Fridays) has become the stuff of legend.
Not far from the Hut is Houston’s best-known fried chicken spot, Frenchy’s (713-748-2233, frenchyschicken.com) — which also skews heavily Creole, with a mean jambalaya and a selection of pitch-perfect po’ boys. After all of this, don’t be shocked if lunch time turns into nap time.
known fried chicken spot, Frenchy’s (713-748-2233, frenchyschicken.com) — which also skews heavily Creole, with a mean jambalaya and a selection of pitch-perfect po’ boys. After all of this, don’t be shocked if lunch time turns into nap time.
Give yourself an hour before venturing out to dinner to take in the Houston sunset through James Turrell’s stunning Twilight Epiphany Skyspace (skyspace.rice.edu), on the Rice University campus near the Museum District. At night, viewers congregate to watch the sky’s changing hues framed through the structure’s massive overhead aperture, itself colored by a sequence of gently changing lights. Open every day but Tuesday, it’s free and rather magnificent. Early birds can catch the show at sunrise, too.
For dinner, Houston’s iconic cross-cultural offering is good old Tex-Mex. And nobody in town does the fajitas and ’ritas thing better than the original Ninfa’s on Navigation (713-228-1175, ninfas.com), although El Real (713-524-1201), a former movie house turned margarita hub in Montrose, and Chuy’s (713-524-1700, chuys.com), an increasingly ubiquitous Elvis-inspired chain, will more than do in a pinch — especially if you’re tuckered from a day of shopping down Westheimer at the tony Galleria.
But a trip farther afield — i.e., down Bellaire Boulevard — can be revelatory (and worth all the lane changing). It’s a miles-long stretch of strip-mall eateries and freestanding pan-Asian palaces, with every imaginable Asian language calling out from gleaming trees of signage presiding over packed parking lots. The sprawling dining room at Fung’s Kitchen (713-779-2288, eatatfungs.com) fills up for its magnificent dim sum, but I love going there just for a small shell-shaped dish of cold sesame squid, an Asian take on ceviche.
That’s usually because I’m leaving room for a visit to Crawfish & Noodles (281-988-8098, crawfishandnoodles.com), the unofficial heart of Houston’s vibrant Viet-Cajun scene. Spicy crawfish are soaked in unctuous garlic butter, paired with heaps of steaming stir-fried noodles and precarious piles of massive crab legs. Two warnings: One bib is never enough, and your hands will smell like garlic on the flight home.
There’s also the landing strip of dinner destinations on Airline Drive, where you can find two of my favorite Mexican seafood joints, both run by Chinese families. The menu at the understated Connie’s Seafood (713-868-2144, conniesseafood.com) features classic seafood gumbo next to tangy ceviches atop crispy tostadas. Same at Golden Seafood (713-802-9989, goldenseafood.com), where big plates of jumbo shrimp a la parrilla (i.e., char-grilled) are a match made in Houston with a heap of Chinese fried rice. But my favorite on the strip (and in town) comes from Tampico (713-862-8425, tampicoseafood.com) — which knew a great idea when it saw one and serves fried rice, too.
Should your trip require a date night, Nancy’s Hustle (346-571-7931, nancyshustle.com) in the fast- developing EaDo neighborhood is a showcase of chef Jason Vaughan’s refined indecision — Turkish lamb dumplings with tart labneh feel right at home here next to hand-cut spaghetti (with crabs and fermented chili butter), and that ubiquitous pan-roasted snapper. But don’t go without sampling the Nancy Cakes (house-ground cornmeal griddle cakes with whipped butter and smoked trout roe).
Another cozy couple’s option is tucked into the Warehouse District just north of downtown. Theodore Rex (832-830-8592, trexhouston.com) is esteemed chef Justin Yu’s follow-up to his adventurous, award-winning Oxheart. Treat yourself to a divinely prepared Wagyu loin or the requisite red snapper — but don’t miss the rice and beans, among the best you’ll find in Houston.
Any touring foodie would be well served at UB Preserv (346-406-5923, ubpreserv.com), the latest offering from chef Chris Shepherd, who continues his ongoing homage to the diverse Houston food scene that inspired him to open his first haunt, the heralded Underbelly. A single dinner here could include everything from Vietnamese short-rib fajitas to wok-fried collard greens to a guava mousse cake with mint and pickled strawberry.
Of course you’ve left room for dessert, which itself isn’t immune to cross-cultural tweaks. Himalaya Restaurant (713-532-2837, himalayarestauranthouston.com) is an Indian-Pakistani favorite on the diverse strip of Hillcroft Avenue that puts a deliciously desi twist on its tres leches by coating it in luscious mango sauce. The River Oaks pan-Latin kitchen Américas (832-200-1492, americasrestaurant.com) tops its version with cloudy Italian meringue. At Griselda Barrios and Jodi Wray’s downtown dessert cafe Treacherous Leches (treacherousleches.com), a breathtaking riff on the classic competes with red velvet, key lime, and fried doughnut variations. But the ultimate tres leches comes from any of several locations of El Bolillo Bakery (713-921-3500, elbolillo.com), which offer the classic vanilla version as well as strawberry, peach, mocha pecan, caramel, and Oreo interpretations.
From the looks of Houston — its vast, featureless expanse pockmarked by potholes and parking lots — it’d be easy to mistake it for a whole lot of nothing. But Space City turns out to be a universe unto itself, and the families who have settled here are serving daily lessons in how a city of the future might look — and taste.
Reckon y’all might experience a similar change of heart, should you ever mosey down this way. And don’t worry, no one actually talks like that here. (Well, except for the y’all part. That’s a keeper.)
> MOVABLE FEASTS
Of course, if you brought a Texas-sized appetite to town with you, don’t hold back on my account: The 7th Annual Houston Barbecue Festival (houbbq.com) is April 14, and the Houston Crawfish, Crab & Grill Festival (hccgfest.com) is May 11. And if you can stick around for dessert, the Pasadena Strawberry Festival (strawberryfest.org) is the weekend of May 17. It includes strawberry celebrations topped with a rousing game of mud volleyball and a beauty pageant — which I’m assuming don’t overlap.
> WHAT TO DO BETWEEN MEALS
Houston isn’t just about eating — it’s also a perfect getaway for art lovers, music buffs, sports fans, and anyone who just needs a little “me” time.
For instance, though Houston’s octagonal oasis of quiet contemplation, the Rothko Chapel, is closed for renovations for most of 2019, you can still find a welcome stretch of exquisite silence at its parent museum, the Menil Collection (menil.org), which will celebrate its spring exhibition Collection Close-Up: John Cage (through May 12) with an open public meditation March 20.
On the opposite end of the tranquillity spectrum is the spectacle on wheels that is the Houston Art Car Parade, which rolls through downtown for its 32d installment April 11 through 14. Presented by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, this annual procession of more than 250 festively festooned rides gives Austin’s much- ballyhooed weirdness a run for its money (thehoustonartcarparade.com). If that’s not fast enough for you, on May 4 you can catch the Houston Dragon Boat Festival (texasdragonboat.com). This kickoff to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month brings pro paddlers to the Buffalo Bayou for a day of races, live music, and celebrations of Houston’s rich pan-Asian community.
Opera buffs could settle in for a weekend with the world-renowned Houston Grand Opera (houstongrandopera.org), which closes its spring season with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (through May 5), as well as the world premiere of The Phoenix, composer Tarik O’Regan and John Caird’s tale of the redemption of Lorenzo da Ponte, the scandal-plagued librettist of Don Giovanni (through May 10).
Or follow the Red Sox into town when they put the squeeze on the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park (May 24-26), but you’ll find that folks around here get just as worked up over the local soccer club, the Houston Dynamo (houstondynamo.com), which has a half-dozen home matches this spring.