Where should we eat to get a real taste of Houston? Thousands of Super Bowl visitors will be asking that question over the next couple of weeks.
A fellow media member asked for some recommendations for his food-obsessed colleagues who will be spending an entire week in the city. To shape my suggestions, we agreed on a few rules:
First, he asked that I prefer established restaurants that are prepared for the crowds over new hotspots with an uncertain track record. Additionally, I chose to avoid restaurants that serve an outstanding version of a cuisine that’s popular in most American cities: No steakhouses, no sushi, no ramen, and only one burger joint.
Finally, I skipped most of the big names like Underbelly, Oxheart, and The Pass & Provisions, since an online search shows they’re mostly already booked solid for the weekend. I’m also excluding smaller restaurants that don’t take reservations (Coltivare, Roost) or will likely have a long line (Killen’s Barbecue), since an uncertain wait time might be hard for a visitor to accept.
Ultimately, the list consists of personal favorites that showcase the city’s diversity. I focused on options near downtown and The Galleria, but also tried to mix in a few of Chinatown’s best options. After all, people who are serious about food are usually willing to drive a bit to find a great experience.
While I opted to avoid big names in general, I made Hugo Ortega an exception for a couple of reasons. First, the three Mexican restaurants he owns and operates with his wife Tracy Vaught are all located in the heart of the neighborhoods that will be catering to visitors (The Galleria, Montrose, and downtown) and they offer consistently excellent dining experiences. As a five times James Beard finalist, he’s one of the city’s most acclaimed chefs, and his devotion to sharing authentic Mexican cuisine with diners makes his restaurants must visit for anyone who’s passionate about food.
Xochi, the Oaxacan restaurant expected to open any day now in the Marriott Marquis, will certainly be a hot spot for celebrity sighting, but Hugo's, Ortega and Vaught's first restaurant devoted to interior Mexican cuisine, may be flying higher than ever. Of course, Caracol's wood-grilled oysters are on my personal list of dishes every Houstonian should try.
Hugo's, 1600 Westheimer; Caracol, 2200 Post Oak; Xochi, 1777 Walker St
Ninfa's on Navigation
The restaurant that made fajitas a global phenomenon 40 years ago is still going strong, and its location in the Second Ward makes it easy to visit for anyone who’s staying downtown. Last year, chef Alex Padilla started cooking the meat on a wood-burning grill, which makes the signature fajitas taste even better. 2704 Navigation Blvd
This restaurant that serves a diverse menu of Indo-Pak favorites is one of only two Houston restaurants Anthony Bourdain featured in his Parts Unknown episode about Houston. Chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari nails classic Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala and biryani, but the chef’s restless creativity makes dishes like grilled fish masala and Hunter’s Beef (a Pakistani riff on pastrami) must order. Recently, Lashkari has earned raves for his masala-spiced spin on Southern classics like fried chicken, chicken fried steak, and crawfish etoufee. (Update: Lashkari announced on January 30 that Himalaya will be closed from January 31 until February 7 for kitchen renovations.) 6652 Southwest Freeway
Pho Binh by Night and Crawfish & Noodles
These restaurants convinced celebrity chef David Chang that Houston has the best Vietnamese food in America. Pho Binh earns its props for its well-spiced broth that can be enhanced with a side of luscious, fatty bone marrow. 12148 Bellaire Blvd
Sucking down pounds and pounds of steaming crawfish is an annual obsessions for Houstonians, and no restaurant better demonstrates the Viet-Cajun style than Crawfish and Noodles. A diverse menu — everything from expertly fried chicken wings to Vietnamese classics like Bo Luc Lac — make it accessible for non-crawfish eaters, too. 11360 Bellaire Blvd
This Indian-inspired neighborhood restaurant welcomes patrons for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which makes it highly practical. Typically, Houston restaurants don’t grow beyond the city limits, but the recently opened NYC location earned a strong two star review from the New York Times. After sitting down for a thali sampler plate, a dosa, or one of the Frankie sandwiches, a visitor will quickly understand what the fuss is all about. 2800 Kirby Dr
Pappa Charlies Barbeque
A trip to Texas wouldn’t be complete without a little barbecue. Located within walking distance of Discovery Green, Pappa Charlies’ pepper-heavy beef brisket and sweet and spicy pork ribs are strong examples of what the city has to offer. Sides are generally solid, especially the mac and cheese. 2012 Rusk St
Opened by former Underbelly and Reef chef Ryan Lachaine, the city’s hottest new restaurant blends Southern and Asian influences with Lachaine’s French-Canadian and Ukranian heritage. That means a meal can hop from Japanese-style pork tonkotsu to a delicate Gulf fish crudo to steak with pierogis. It all sounds a little nutty, but then you find yourself contemplating licking the last few drops of borscht out of the bottom of the bowl. 1927 Fairview St
Al Aseel Grill & Cafe
Remember the old Curb Your Enthusiasm episode about a Palestinian chicken joint that Larry David likes both for its excellent food and that he won’t see anyone he knows there? This is the real life version. Both the roasted and fried chicken are excellent, and the somewhat out-of-the-way location won’t be flooded with tourists (unless this article really takes off). 8619 Richmond Ave
Brennan's of Houston
With a respect for ingredients and technique that traces its heritage back to legendary New Orleans restaurant Commander’s Palace, Brennan’s remains one of the very few old school Houston restaurants that’s still relevant from a culinary perspective. Maybe that’s why it has served as a training ground for many of Houston’s best chefs: everyone from established veterans like Chris Shepherd and Mark Holley to rising stars like Bobby Matos (State of Grace) and Joe Cervantes (Killen’s Steakhouse).
Prime dinner reservations will likely be difficult to obtain, but the restaurant serves lunch (along with its famous 25-cent martinis). During Super Bowl week, Brennan’s will be featuring a special menu of $7 plates in its bar until 7 pm. 3300 Smith St
A banh mi is the closest thing Houston comes to having a favorite sandwich. This spot in Midtown on Milam (not the one on Washington Ave) is my go-to. People will disagree with me violently for that opinion, but the ability to add double meat for $1.50 puts it over the top. 2704 Milam St
A visitor could spend a week or more eating nothing but burgers, but Hubcap’s downtown location and creative menu make it my pick. The Philly cheesesteak burger is a classic, but I’ve always prefered the Texas BBQ burger with its smoked sausage, cheddar cheese, and crispy onions. If the cash-only policy and lunch-only hours make the downtown location problematic, a location on 19th Street near The Heights serves dinner, takes debit cards, and features one of my favorite jukeboxes in Houston. 1111 Prairie St; 1133 W 19 St
Oporto Fooding House & Wine
Since I started this list with Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s restaurants, I'll end it with the places I’ve spotted them on a date night: an eclectic, Portuguese-inspired tapas restaurant with a great wine list. Reservations are only available for parties of six or more, but the expansive patio and flexible seating options should keep waits under an hour at all but the most peak times. Try it for lunch during the week or brunch on the weekends to avoid the biggest crowds. 125 W Gray St