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The 28 Most Essential Food Experiences in Houston

Thrillist logo Thrillist 7/1/2021 Brooke Viggiano

a bunch of food on a plate on a table © Photo by Julie Soefer Photography

Not sure if you’ve heard, but Houston is bigBIG The Houston-Woodlands-Sugar Land metro area is just shy of the size of Massachusetts, but entirely larger than the state of New Jersey; and our population of 2.3 million covers nearly 100 nations speaking more than 145 languages. With such a massive landscape to cover and so many mouths to feed, the fact that we rock over 10,000 restaurants no longer comes as a surprise. 

What may be surprising, however, is just how special this often overlooked city’s food scene is. Viet-Cajun butter-soaked crawfish, life-changing tacos al pastor, and a damn good, gumbo-infused Bloody Mary are just some of the culinary offerings to be had. Trying to work through it all can quite literally take a lifetime, and while we will wholeheartedly cheer you on if you make that your life’s work, we’re also here to help lighten the load should you need a little guidance. Either way, this bucket list of sorts hits the most important food and drink experiences in Houston today. Come hungry.

a table topped with different types of food on a plate © Photo by Julie Soefer Photography

Sides that (almost) outshine the meat at Feges BBQ

Spring Branch (& Greenway Plaza)

Chef and co-owner Erin Smith’s experience in restaurants from Plonk! to Camerata (where she was a Sommelier) has come to play a major role in this barbecue venture with husband, partner, and pitmaster Patrick Feges. The duo hit a grand slam with their food court barbecue spot, but their new digs in Spring Branch provides ample room for two J&R Manufacturing Oyler Pits, a funky 16-bottle wine list plus local brews, and an expanded menu. Go big with smoked brisket, burnt ends, and whole hog alongside unorthodox sides like Moroccan-spiced carrots, Korean braised greens, and oxtail ragu tagliatelle.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out and nationwide shipping online.

a close up of a plate on a table © Photo by Julie Soefer

The baked Alaska you never knew you needed at Bludorn

Montrose

There are so many things to love about chef Aaron Bludorn’s namesake restaurant, which sufficiently filled the very big void left behind by Pass & Provisions and gave the space at 807 Taft new life last year. Ask anyone who’s dined at Bludorn and we’re guessing almost every one of them will tell you the same thing: End your meal with the baked Alaska. Created by pastry chef Alejandra Salas, the showstopper is set aflame right before your eyes, layered with pistachio and raspberry ice cream and blanketed in fluffy meringue. Even if you think you have no room to finish it, you will—trust.

How to book: Reserve via Resy.

a piece of cake and ice cream on a plate © Underground Creamery

Endless pop-up delights

Houston

Pop-ups are all the rage these days—one tiny, hopeful silver lining to come out of the restaurant industry’s struggles over the past year—allowing a band of uber-skilled young gun chefs and bakers to make waves throughout the city’s food scene. Leading the pack are tortilla maestro and chef Emmanuel Chavez of Tatemó and next level ice cream slinger Josh Deleon of Underground Creamery, a duo that hosts sellout Night Markets featuring some of their talented compadres, including but not limited to baker and pop tart prodigy Christina Au, Angelo Emiliani of Angie’s Pizza, and Sasha Grummane Sasha’s Focaccia and Top Chef fame. Do yourself a favor and find out where they’re popping up next.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a close up of a sandwich on a plate © Squable

A ridiculously good, cheese-smothered burger at Squable

Heights

Everything about the French cheeseburger at Squable is just so good. The neighborhood bistro makes its pain de mie bun in house, then griddles it before stuffing it with a pasture-raised beef patty, thick and plump and dripping with buttery, greasy goodness. Next goes a cascade of funky, gooey raclette cheese and a tangy chopped cornichon finisher. Oh-so crisp frites make an admirable companion, as does a French vintage from the thoughtful wine list. If you’re looking to expand your burger horizons, you can use our Best Burgers in Houston guide as a treasure map for your very own burger quest.

How to book: Reserve via Resy or order take-out via Toast.

a plate of food and a glass of orange juice © Chilosos

A mouth full of tacos from a top notch taqueria 

Various locations

One of the best things about living in Houston is the fact that you can easily eat tacos all day long. Start with the city’s absolute best breakfast tacos filled with huevos, chorizo, and papas at spots like Laredo Taqueria and Chilosos Taco House. Later, change your life, or at least your afternoon, for the better with the most important tacos in Houston, from trompo at La Macro to street style tacos al pastor at Taconmadre before getting your late-night fix with birria at La Calle or Cuban tacos from El Rey.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a plate of food on a table © Cajun Kitchen

Viet-Cajun crawfish (heads are mandatory)

Chinatown

Peeling, pinching, and sucking down a bucket of mudbugs is a Houston rite of passage. You won’t feel like a true local until you master your technique, and definitely not until you’ve tried the Vietnamese-Cajun hybrid—hit with a blend of Garlic, butter, and fragrant spices—that truly speaks to Houston’s global culture. Find it at cult favorites like Crawfish & Noodles (look out for its upcoming location at the Houston Farmers Market) and Cajun Kitchen.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a close up of a wine glass © Anvil Bar & Refuge

A drink at Houston’s OG cocktail bar, Anvil Bar and Refuge

Montrose

Anvil Bar and Refuge officially put Houston’s cocktail scene on the map after opening in 2009, and it’s only gotten better as it’s matured. Next to the 100-strong classic cocktail list first conceived as a training guide for Anvil’s rockstar staff (a bucket list in its own right), you’ll find an eight-pack of rotating original cocktails dreamed up by some of Houston’s most talented mixologists. Pick your poison between something bitter and bold (think Sazeracs and Negronis), sour and short (spot-on Bourbon Sour, anyone?), boozy and alluring (from Manhattans to Juleps), and more.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast.

a person holding a plate of food on a table © Julie Soefer

Korean braised goat and dumplings at The Hay Merchant

Montrose

Houston’s probably the only American city where Korean braised goat and dumplings is considered a local staple. Made with chewy rice dumplings and tender goat coated in a spicy gochujang sauce, chef and JBA winner Chris Shepherd’s creation first appeared at the late Underbelly, and it’s now up for grabs alongside a hoppy IPA at Underbelly Hospitality’s cool as hell beer bar, The Hay Merchant. Another “story of Houston” snack you’ll want to add to your bill? Hay Merchant’s sweet and spicy crispy pig ears.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, order take-out via Toast, or get delivery via DoorDash.

a plate of food © Hugo's

Real deal Mexican fare at Hugo’s and others

Various locations

Hugo’s achiote-rubbed braised suckling pig and Xochi’s epic mole tasting. Picos’ enchiladas de mariscos and traditional chiles en nogada. Veracruz-style fish and towering parrilladas at Teotihuacan. Irma’s out-of-this-world tamales and homemade flan. Mexican food in Houston is not to be missed.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a plate of food on a table © Pho Ga Dakao

A life-affirming bowl of pho at Pho Binh and others

Various locations

Houston is home to the third largest Vietnamese population in America, which means there's pretty epic Vietnamese cuisine just about everywhere you look. Pho shops line the city, with superior noodle options including but not limited to the old school take at Pho Saigon, Pho Ga Dakao's chicken version, and the fatty brisket and meatball-loaded option at Pho Binh.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a piece of cake on a plate © Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Bone-in ribeye at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Downtown & Galleria

Preferably one that’s been dry-aged for at least 28 days. That’s standard operating procedure for gorgeously marbled beef inside Houston treasure Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Other badass options include Georgia James, where the long bone ribeye undergoes a 100-day dry aging process; and Israeli-inspired chophouse Doris Metropolitan, which sports a super luxe dry-aging meat locker complete with a chandelier.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a piece of cake sitting on top of a wooden table © The Turkey Leg Hut

A giant stuffed turkey leg at The Turkey Leg Hut

Museum District

After one too many Thanksgiving disasters, you may not even think you like turkey. Before you give up on the bird completely, we implore you to try the gargantuan turkey legs from local staple, The Turkey Leg Hut. Here, they come slow-smoked, stuffed, and smothered with tasty dressings like homemade dirty rice and crawfish mac’ and cheese. Snoop Dogg’s a fan, and we’re guessing you’ll be one, too.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, order take-out via Toast, or get delivery via ChowNow.

a close up of a pile of fries © Mala Sichuan Bistro

Dim sum and more in Chinatown

Chinatown

We’d suggest orchestrating a full restaurant crawl through the buzzy district, but if you can only squeeze one meal in, make it the tongue-scorching Sichuan offerings at Mala Sichuan. Or seven courses of Vietnamese-style beef at Saigon Pagolac. And the soy duck and Spam katsu at Toukei, or crispy snapper and lemongrass prawns at Night Market. Oh, and dumplings at Golden Dumpling House and Fung’s Kitchen’s next-level Hong Kong-style dim sum (a must-visit once they finish renovations). Shoot.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a glass of beer on a table © Saint Arnold Brewing Company

A hoppy IPA from Houston’s oldest brewery, Saint Arnold

Warehouse District

Saint Arnold Brewing Company got its start in the ‘90s, making it the oldest craft brewery in the Lone Star State. Go for year-round brews like the extremely hoppy Art Car IPA and super refreshing Lawnmower German-style Kolsch or sample seasonal sensations like the full-bodied Oktoberfest and super popular Pumpkinator Stout. All of them pair nicely with a duo of fat buttery pretzels and Santo-spiked queso.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out via Toast.

a plate of food on a table © Isabel Protomartir

An over-the-top meal at a fancy-pants date night institution

Greenway/Midtown

The late Tony Vallone’s magic lives on at his timeless Italian restaurant, Tony’s, one of the oldest (and classiest) fine dining establishments in Houston. It’s been setting the gold standard for world-class service since 1965, wining and dining the likes of Tony Bennett, Oscar de la Renta, and seven sitting presidents. In Midtown, Brennan’s, est. 1967, is where Houston’s culinary elite go to cut their teeth, as the kitchen has been the stomping grounds for top talent including Chris Shepherd, Mark Holley, Jamie Zelko, and more. Plus, you can’t beat bananas Foster flambéed tableside.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a plate of food on a table © Barbecue Inn

A stick-to-your-bones meal at a local hole-in-the-wall

Various locations

Despite the name, 1946 landmark Barbecue Inn is not famous for its barbecue, but rather its perfect 10 take on classic Southern fried chicken. And Lankford Grocery & Market isn’t a grocery and market at all (at least not anymore), but a place you’ll be going to smash one of the greasiest, most satisfying burgers you’ll ever have. And if it’s alarmingly good soul food you’re after, you’ll find it at the for-once appropriately named Houston’s This Is It Soul Food, which has been ridding us of the Sunday scaries since it got its start in Freedmen’s Town back in 1959.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a person holding a plate of food on a table © Superica

The holy trinity of Tex-Mex

Various locations

That’d be the extraordinarily addicting combination of chips + queso + margarita (on-the-rocks or frozen, as long as the glass is bigger than your dome). Throw a rock any direction and you’ll be able to find this combo, but here’s a start: Tejano spot Superica, taco ice house Eight Row Flint, downtown tequila tavern The Pastry War, or the absolute Tex-Mex titan that is El Tiempo.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

Boundary-pushing BBQ at Blood Brothers

Bellaire

When you think of Texas barbecue, your mind likely goes straight to aggressively crusted, meltingly tender smoked brisket. You can find that at Blood Bros. BBQ, sure, but you’ll also encounter creations like green curry boudin balls, smoked chicken karaage, and thit nuong pork belly burnt ends. The rules are there are no rules. Co-owners Quy Hoang and Robin and Terry Wong (who are real-life brothers) take inspiration from their Chinese and Vietnamese roots to fashion a true Mutt City ‘cue experience. 

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out and catering online.

a piece of meat on a cutting board with a cake © Blood Bros. BBQ

Toothsome smoked brisket from Corkscrew BBQ

Spring

We love all our barbecue spots (especially these ones), but if you’re looking for the purist brisket around, we highly recommend a trip to Corkscrew BBQ in Old Town Spring. A perfect rendering, silky cap, and deeply blackened bark make for a brisket that is absolute bliss, especially when ordered moist (as any good Texan would know).

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out online.

a plate full of food © Caracol

Slurpable Gulf Coast oysters 

Various locations

The ostiones asados—wood-roasted Gulf oysters dripping in chipotle butter and topped with cheese and toasted bread crumbs—at coastal Mexican haunt Caracol are a thing of beauty. Continue your bivalve quest with Gulf gems on-the-half-shell at La Lucha in the Heights, buttery, chargrilled numbers at Gilhooley’s, and seriously fresh oysters at Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House, both of which you’ll find down in San Leon.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a table topped with plates of food on a plate © The Original Ninfa's

The fajita that sparked a national craze at The Original Ninfa’s

East End/Uptown

“Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo first started grilling skirt steak and stuffing it inside tortillas to save her family’s struggling tortilla factory. Those “tacos al carbon” later became widely known as “fajitas,” a dish which her namesake restaurant, The Original Ninfa’s, has been perfecting since 1973. Though many have tried, the legendary sizzling hot mounds of fajitas here just can’t be outdone.

How to book: Reserve via OpenTable (East End, Uptown), order take-out online, or get delivery via DoorDash (East End, Uptown).

a pizza sitting on top of a paper plate © Himalaya Restaurant & Catering

Himalaya’s Indo-Pak, CFS-style riff on KFC

Sharpstown

Right off Southwest Freeway in a strip center lies Himalaya, an Indo-Pak restaurant that’s garnered many fans thanks to its global riff on Southern fried chicken. Known as HFC (Himalaya Fried Chicken), the masala-spiced chicken is marinated and deep-fried before getting a CFS-inspired white gravy coating made with almonds, cashews, and coconut. Those—plus creations from Indian style shepherd’s pie to a mutton biryani in celebration of the late Anthony Bourdain, who visited for his CNN series Parts Unknown—have also earned chef and owner Kaiser Lashkari a JBA Best Chef Southwest semifinalist nom. Go see why.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating or order take-out and delivery via ChowNow, Favor, and Postmates.

a sandwich cut in half © BB's Tex-Orleans

A first-rate po’ boy at BB’s Tex-Orleans

Multiple locations

Not to be outdone by the banh mi, Houston’s po’boy sandwich is also here to play. Head to one of the many locations of BB’s Tex-Orleans for proof in the form of a Midnight Masterpiece, a fully dressed roast beef debris po’ boy; or the Half & Half, in which fried Gulf shrimp and oysters unite. For an optimal dining experience, upgrade your side of fries to the Tex-Cajun variety and you’ll be treated to a queso and roast beef gravy smothered taste of euphoria.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating and order take-out online.

A banh mi to rival all banh mis

Various locations

Houston is home to the following: the Subway of banh mi shops (Roostar), more than one Vietnamese gastropub where you can pair a local beer with a killer a banh mi (Hughie's Tavern, Nobi Public House), hole-in-the-wall sandwich joints (Thien An, Cafe TH), a fantastic newbie with a “Pho-rench” dip (YELO), and one spot stuffing its banh mi with off-kilter delights like oak-smoked brisket, hoisin butter chicken, and coconut basil prawns (Les Ba’get). Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a close up of food © Koala Kolache

Kolache (or klobasniky) for breakfast 

Various locations

Only in Texas would a sausage-stuffed sweet bun be considered the perfect morning meal. Those klobasniky and their cousin, the kolache (buns with dollops of sweet cheese, poppyseed, and fruit filling at the center) are prevalent around this part of town thanks to the Lone Star’s Czech belt. Go for classic versions at The Original Kolache Shoppe, or more imaginative takes at Koala Kolache.

How to book: Dine-in, take-out, and delivery options vary by location.

a bowl of fruit on a plate © Leah Wilson Photography

A Bloody Mary spiked with gumbo at Eugene’s Gulf Coast Cuisine

Montrose

Danton’s may be gone, but the team behind it picked up and moved to Montrose to open up Eugene’s. That means you’ll still find the Bloody Danton, an epic twist on the classic morning-after tipple made with the kitchen’s homemade gumbo roux, Tito's, sriracha, fresh lemon, and a "secret" spice rim. And yes, it does, in fact, pair well with oysters.

How to book: Reserve via OpenTable or order take-out online.

Wings and waffles worth the wait at The Breakfast Klub

Midtown

The crunchy, utterly addictive Wings & Waffle combo at The Breakfast Klub is a weekend staple here in Houston. Grab yourself a damn good breakfast or wow your out-of-town friends with this epic dish. Not feeling waffle-y? You can get those same wings with French toast, pancakes, and grits, too.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating, order take-out via Toast, or get delivery via GrubHub.

a close up of a grill © West Alabama Ice House

A beer and a taco at West Alabama Ice House

Montrose

Spend a lazy afternoon at West Alabama Ice House, Houston’s favorite (and longest running) outdoor dive. You’ll find all walks of life here—the biker and the baller, mustached dudes and social media stars, first timers and longtime regulars. Everyone is here for the same reason: to enjoy no-frills, ice cold drinks on the patio alongside what many consider to be the best tacos in town, AKA the tiny, fiery numbers from neighboring taco truck Tacos Tierra Caliente.

How to book: Stop by for first come, first served seating.

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Brooke Viggiano is a Houston writer who hopes they serve BB’s fries and Kata’s ramen at her funeral. Follow her less morbid thoughts on Twitter @BrookeViggiano.

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