Ah, Houston: the somewhat mysterious and unknown metropolis that shines from the southeast corner of the great state of Texas. Far from the oil rigs and farmlands as well as the quirkiness of Austin or the beaches of Galveston, Houston is a region all its own.
1. Pralines at Brennan’s
Brennan’s offers an upscale reminder that as metropolitan as Houston is, it began with the Allen brothers buying land on the Buffalo Bayou, which runs through the city. The restaurant offers cajun classics like turtle gumbo and bananas foster with a high-class twist, and every offering is delicious. A signature of the restaurant, however, is the huge tray of fresh pralines right by the door. They’re free, and my family (especially my mom) is known for grabbing handfuls at a time on our way out and saving them for later.
2. Sausage and Cheese Kolache at Shipley’s
The first thing I learned when I ventured out of Houston for college was that while Tex Mex could be found almost anywhere, kolaches could not. A twist on a Czech pastry, these are the perfect breakfast food and a major step up from your run-of-the-mill pigs in a blanket. You can even get them stuffed with brisket if you’re feeling frisky.
3. Queso Blanco, Escalante’s
Truth be told, any queso in Houston will probably knock your socks off, but for the purposes of this list I’ll go with a personal favorite. Escalante’s is a Houston chain known for its immaculate queso blanco, smooth and perfectly complemented by sautéed onions and peppers nestled at the bottom of the bowl. They will also give you a small plate of tomatoes, peppers and taco meat to mix into the queso if you want a little more flavor.
4. Steak at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
Steak is something that Houston does exceptionally well, and it would be a crime not to put a Pappas family restaurant on the list. Pappas Steakhouse ages their steaks and prepares them so carefully that eating one becomes a nearly religious experience. It isn’t necessary to specify which cut of meat because every cut will be unlike anything you’ve ever had before. I’ve been known to shed a few tears upon eating one when I come home on breaks just because I miss them so much while I’m away.
5. Chicken Bryan Texas at Rosie Carrabba’s
I think every Houstonian is still a little salty that Carrabbas was turned into a chain that is only a shadow of its former glory, but we can rest easy knowing that the original on Voss is still in the hands of its original owners. The Chicken Bryan Texas is a must on their menu, along with the herbs and olive oil they serve with their bread as an appetizer.
6. Churrascos Steak at Churrascos
The signature Brazilian steakhouse in Houston, this dish is for those who want a fantastic case of the meat sweats and to enjoy every moment of it. Churrascos will keep serving you meat and bread until you don’t even know who you are any more. You will leave Churrascos a different person than when you started.
7. Pot Roasted Tilapia at Mala Sichuan Bistro
Mala Sichuan Bistro is touted as generally one of the best Chinese restaurants in all of Houston, and their pot roasted tilapia is their signature dish. The chefs cook fresh tilapia – which they keep live in a tank in the restaurant – with peppercorns and red chiles. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely worth it.
8. Morning Thali at Pondicheri
You get a little bit of everything in this delicious breakfast, from the carrot paratha (a little bit like a tortilla) and fried egg to the keema (ground beef) and uppma (porridge). It’s the perfect cure for Monday mornings and filling enough to keep you focused until lunch. Stop by their Bakeshop upstairs if you want more goodies to take to-go.
9. Emapanadas at Marini’s
Perfectly crispy on the outside with a fluffy savory or sweet filling, Marini’s empanadas are the product of a family-run restaurant that went down in flames in 1985 (literally – the original building on Westheimer burned down) and rose again stronger than ever. Regarded as some of the best empanadas in Houston, Marini’s is an absolute must – and come with an empty stomach, because this is a place where you can eat empanadas for dinner and dessert.
10. Tollhouse Crunch Cake at Empire Cafe
The Empire Cafe does European food in grand style, and its Tollhouse Crunch cake is a standout among its dessert offerings. From the beautiful chocolate buttercream frosting (the only acceptable frosting, in my opinion) coupled with perfectly flavored yellow cake to the texture brought by chocolate chips throughout the cake, this transcends your typical cafe cake.
11. Curryous Frank at Good Dog
Hot dogs have gotten a major upgrade in the last few years, and Good Dog has proved that the frankfurter is not only here to stay but a dish to be improved upon. Good Dog’s franks are made in Texas and its buns are local. The Curryous Frank is one of its most popular offerings that puts an exotic twist on an American classic with roasted garlic aoli, sweet potato crisps, curried scooter onion relish, cilantro chutney and sriracha ketchup.
12. Kabob Kubideh at Kasra
With the perfect blend of spice and flavor, Kasra’s Kubideh kabobs nail every taste profile needed for a great meal. Kasra is a Persian restaurant on Houston’s main drag that is run by Chef Morty Parsa, a third generation restauranteur with family roots in Tehran. When you taste the food at Kasra, it’s easy to see why this family has kept at culinary excellence.
13. Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19
A mix of the bougie and the classic, Brasserie 19’s Lazy Lane Frites combine perfectly seasoned french fries with foie gras to create a dish that exceeds culinary expectations. Brasserie 19 is a “see and been seen” kind of establishment for Houston socialites, and as you eat this scrumptious dish you’ll feel just like an A-lister yourself.
14. Tuna Tartare Bites at Bistro Menil
The Menil family is an old Houston family who was known for its support of the fine arts and its enormous private collection of art. The Menils decided to create a museum to house this private collection, and the Menil Collection (aptly named) opened its doors in 1987. Just across the way stands the Bistro Menil, a European-inspired restaurant that can stand on its own in culinary excellence. The tuna tartare bites are like the classiest fish tacos you’ll ever find, and every bite is a flavorful masterpiece.
15. Wild Mushroom and Walnut Tortellini at D’amico’s
One of my friends called this place the best casual Italian restaurant in Houston, and after seeing the amount of care D’amico’s puts into their pasta and dishes, it’s not hard to see why. A family run establishment, D’amico’s also serves as an Italian market and deli. The wild mushroom and walnut tortellini is homemade and not to be missed.
16. Chocolate Chip Cookies at Tiny Boxwoods
Affectionately referred to as Tiny’s, this is the second home of many preppy high school kids in Houston and the best chocolate chip cookies I’ve ever had. These cookies literally changed my life. Perfectly warm and crispy on the outside with a fluffy texture on the inside, these are a must every time you go. They pair perfectly with the house lemonade, the provincial ambience and any of Tiny’s main offerings (I highly recommend the lamb burger).
17. Roasted Carrot Pizza at Weights and Measures
If every veggie pizza could taste this good, the world would be a very different place. Weights and Measures nails pizza to grand effect, and much of their success comes from house made dough and carefully picked ingredients. Their bright orange building is hard to miss, and it’s the perfect welcome to a restaurant with foodie goodness waiting inside.
18. Brisket at Killen’s Barbecue
There is always one restaurant that courts hour-long lines, and for Houston, that restaurant is Killen’s. Its devoted following is second-to-none and it is widely heralded as the best barbecue in Houston. Their brisket is unparalleled and juicy, and they take beef to the next level.
19. Homeroom Burger at Bernie’s Burger Bus
The Homeroom Burger at Bernie’s Burger Bus is a welcome heart attack on a bun with bacon, cheese, a fried egg, caramelized onions and chipotle aoli. As a food truck started in 2010 that became a brick-and-mortar establishment in 2014, Bernie’s Burger Bus has quickly made its mark with fresh ground beef patties and made-from-scratch condiments to top its delicious burgers.
20. Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao
Fat Bao began as the dream of two high school friends just trying to see how far they could take steamed buns, and look at them now. The Crab Daddy Bao features fried soft-shell crab, Asian slaw and spicy mayo carefully nestled in a steamed bun, creating the perfect contrast of texture you want in a sandwich. The soft-shell crab is beckoning to you. Don’t resist.
21. Katfish and Grits at the Breakfast Klub
The Breakfast Klub is the home of the most southern breakfast I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying: fried catfish and grits. A family owned company that values “faith, family, kommunity, and empowerment,” The Breakfast Klub counts the “katfish” and grits as one of its signatures alongside chicken wings and waffles. The restaurant has received national acclaim as a breakfast joint, and it is absolutely worth a stop.
22. Chili Cheese Mac from Jus’ Mac
If there is one thing for which I can be proud of Houston, it is having an entire restaurant dedicated to mac ‘n’ cheese. Jus’ Mac’s chili cheese mac is the perfect embodiment of Houston itself: full of gooey cheesy goodness with a little crunch and a little kick. Also worth trying? Their crab mac and their chicken and waffles mac. It’s like God’s gift to the world.
23. Fried Oyster Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar
Does it get more southern than deviled eggs, bacon and fried foods? No. Put ’em together and it’s a match made in heaven. Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar combines these three with fried oysters smothered in bacon jam perched carefully on top of deviled eggs. It’ll fit nicely into your high-protein diet.
24. Pecan Pie at Goode Company Barbecue
This pecan pie is more beautiful than I am, and I accept that. This pie is life changing. This is the kind of pie that will ruin you for other pecan pies, and you will accept it, because you will be thankful that you were able to eat something this amazing at least once in your life. Then, you will be even more grateful that Goode Company ships these pies on the reg. They come in their own special wooden box emblazoned with the words “You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you’re in Texas.” I know I certainly will be thanking mine tonight.
25. Ice Cream in a Waffle Cone at Fat Cat Creamery
Every ice cream at Fat Cat Creamery is delicious, but what sets Fat Cat apart from the rest is its waffle cone: made with brown butter and brown sugar, the cone is not an afterthought but rather a critical part of the ice cream experience at this establishment. They’re made in house and perfectly complement every flavor from Milk Chocolate Stout to Chai Tea Coconut.
26. Chocolate Soufflé at Tony’s
Tony’s is one of the nicest restaurants I’ve ever visited, and that’s because they build their ambience appropriately. It is exquisitely high brow, from the huge jar of truffles on the center table to the pure artistry of the food itself, and nowhere is this more clear than the beautiful soufflés created by the restaurant’s pastry chefs. Airy and sweet, they’re almost too beautiful to eat. Key word: almost.
27. Gulf Shrimp and Crab Sandwich at Local Foods
Local Foods has every sandwich you could ever dream of, and this shellfish combo is the perfect hit for Houston’s low-key seafood obsession. You’ll be feeling the coastline from forty-five minutes away with every bite of this marine-inspired wonder amidst the trendy atmosphere of Local Foods itself.
28. Gyro at Niko Niko’s
Niko Niko’s nails every iteration of Greek food, but I have it on good word that their gyro is the best in Houston. It’s hard to contend with their fluffy pita and perfectly seasoned meat coupled with a tangy yogurt sauce and their classic oven potatoes. The restaurant’s driving figure, founder Eleni Fetokakis, has kept the gears working behind the scenes to make sure Niko Niko’s only offers the best, and it’s clear she knows what she’s doing.
29. Chocolate Croissant at Common Bond
Not only is Common Bond the cutest bakery to ever grace Westheimer, their chocolate croissant is as delicious and flakey as it is big. Common Bond has collected accolades in numerous categories, from Best Dessert (always a good sign) to Best Bakery. Houston has figured out how great Common Bond is, so the line is often long; however, once you see the display cases housing dozens of macaroons, cookies, and – of course – croissants, you will know it’s worth the wait.
30. Shortbread Cookie at Paulie’s
I grew up on these cookies, and no shortbread will ever compare. They have the perfect ratio of crunchy sweet icing and light, airy cookie, and I will forever be sad that I didn’t take advantage of Paulie’s proximity to my internship the summer after my freshman year. Paulie’s rolls out different cookie designs throughout the year in keeping with the seasons, but the recipe stays equally delicious year-round. Collect every cookie and live your dreams.
31. Bagel at The Hot Bagel Shop
As one might imagine, it’s hard to get people excited about bagels as far south as Houston. That’s why The Hot Bagel Shop – “on Shepherd,” everyone always adds – is such a surprise in the Houston food scene. People are crazy for The Hot Bagel Shop as one of very few New York style bagel shops in Houston, and many count it as the one that hits closest to the real thing. With homemade bagels and cream cheese, it is absolutely a cut above every other bagel shop in town.
32. Portuguese Octopus at Pax Americana
Pax Americana takes American food to another level with fresh local ingredients and American-made, small producer wines. While I never thought of octopus as a local ingredient, I’m very glad that the chefs at Pax Americana are more culinarily creative than I will ever be. Served over braised greens, onions and cauliflower, it is the most exotic offering on Pax-Am’s menu, and it is absolutely worth a taste.
33. Fried Chicken at Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts
If there’s anything about the name of this dish that doesn’t appeal to you, you should stop reading now and go re-evaluate your life. Lee’s Fried Chicken and Donuts decided that it wasn’t good enough to simply become experts in only one idea comfort food: they had to go for both, taking part in a food trend I’m very happy to see sweeping the nation. The fried chicken pairs perfectly with the chocolate glazed, bacon-crusted doughnut, just like an even better version of chicken and waffles.
34. Fried Egg Sandwich at Max’s Wine Dive
Max’s motto is “Champagne and Fried Chicken? Why the Hell Not!” and with that kind of brand, it’s easy to see why Max’s has become a Houston staple. While their fried chicken is heavenly, their fried egg sandwich offers a flavorful alternative.
#SpoonTip: don’t come looking for drinks other than wine here – they take pride in their cellar, and it’ll be tough to order anything else.
35. Shaved Brussels Sprouts with Pecorino at Dolce Vita
While the pizza gets all the love at Dolce Vita – and rightfully so, for all the acclaim it has received from Houston food critics – it would be a tragedy to miss out on their thoughtful rendition of brussels sprouts with fresh pecorino romano. It is a simple dish with exquisite flavors, and it will be the surprise highlight of your meal.
36. Grilled Cauliflower with Fried Egg at North Italia
This dish is like every #basic instagram you’ve ever wanted to make, from the grilled vegetable to the sunny egg on top. Its flavors match its instaworthiness, from the fantastic char on the cauliflower to the salty gooeyness of the egg itself.
37. Felix style Cheese Enchiladas at State of Grace
State of Grace’s chef draws influences from all of the different ethnic communities that have moved through Houston in its history. This culinary mix of a menu would not be complete without a version of enchiladas, a Mexican dish that has seen many iterations throughout Texas restaurants but few as wonderful as chef Ford Fry’s creation. Ford created the dish following inspiration from the enchiladas as the beloved Felix Mexican restaurant, which closed in 2008 and was a staple of the River Oaks neighborhood for decades prior. The love is apparent in this dish, and it will leave you wanting a second order.