So many choices; so little time
The Ultimate Guide to Houston food for Final Four fans
Houston's not like other cities — we don't believe in zoning (except for fan zones, of course) and our city limits are bigger than a couple states. So for a visitor or other newbie, it's not not always easy to find what's special and great about H-Town. But don't worry, there's more to Houston than meets the eye, and we're giving you the highlights as only a local can, starting with the food. This is what you want most, right? Well you're in luck, because this is what we do best.
First things first: no one comes to Houston without eating some Tex-Mex. Check out the Original Ninfa's on Navigation, where the fajita ("tacos a la Ninfa") were invented 30 years ago. Ninfa's on Nav is a bit out of the way, in a transitional neighborhood east of downtown, but DO NOT make the mistake of thinking any other Ninfa's you see on a busy corner will be the same. It's not.
If Ninfa's is out of range, Cyclone Anaya's has a mix of classic Tex-Mex with some modern flair thrown in, or check out the patio at El Tiempo Cantina or Bryan Caswell's spanking-new El Real Tex-Mex. For a traditional taqueria, hit El Rey (the one on Washington Ave. is open super-late and the drive-thru is always super-packed). For those who think Tex-Mex and Mexican is just a greasy, heavy mess, head to Hugo's where elegant takes on coastal and interior Mexican rule and prepare to have your mind blown. And wherever you go, you're going to want to order the queso.
Burgers & Barbecue
Yes, Houstonians heart our red meat. We're partial to the burgers at Hubcap Grill, a tiny hole in the wall downtown, but Lankford Grocery (bring cash!) and Sparkle's Hamburger Spot are standbys for big, greasy burgers, onion rings, milkshakes (at least at Sparkle's) and picnic table seating. On the west side, The Burger Guys have been earning raves with their gourmet burgers and creative ingredient lists. For a burger in a more upscale environs, we love the versions at Branch Water Tavern and Block 7 Wine Company, not to mention the fajita burger served at the bar at Original Ninfa's.
Goode Co. is practically synonymous with barbecue in Houston (to the dismay of some purists) and you can't get more Texan than ordering up some brisket and a stuffed baked potato and enjoying them on Goode's picnic tables at the Kirby location. Demeris Barbecue is another Houston classic, and the proprietor of Thelma's Barbecue is known for being, shall we say, a character (we'd call her the Barbecue Nazi but we're not risking those ribs). But for the best barbecue in town, we're partial to Luling City Market, a small place hidden in an unassuming strip mall not far from the Galleria.
To eat like the oilmen, head to Vic & Anthony's downtown where the quality of the menu and service is matched by the opulence of the decor. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse is the crown jewel of a local restaurant empire. Frank's Chop House, housed in a former stables, is a great under-the-radar choice (and their chicken fried steak at lunch is simply to die for). Imports like Fleming's and Del Frisco's are also popular. For something a little South American, head to Samba Grille downtown, where you can go for the churrascuria service or order a la carte.
Houston has one of the most diverse dining scenes in the country, and we like showing it off. For starters, check out the banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) at Les Givral's and Cali Sandwich. For Mongolian hot pot, hit Little Sheep, in Houston's Little India at the intersection of Hillcroft and Highway 59. We love the pho at Pho Saigon in Midtown. The enormous Chinatown that stretches along Bellaire between 59 and Beltway 8 can be intimidating, but it's worth the adventure: Try Dumpling King (dumplings), Cafe 101 (trendy and Taiwanese), Tofu Village (tabletop barbecue) and Hong Kong Food Street. and newbies should not miss the chance to try boba (also known as bubble tea) at Teahouse or Star Snow Ice.
For exotic flavors and American-style chic, you can't do better than Indika, with delicious high-end Indian fusion. Pondicheri is the new, more laid back spot from the owner of Indika, and Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen is a classic India-via-Britain gastropub. For sushi you can't beat Kata Robata (which is full of genre-busting riffs) as well as Sage 400, Azuma and Soma Sushi's French-Japanese fusion. And Chinese food doesn't get more high-end than at the lovely Gigi's Asian Bistro.
Best of the Best
So often the best restaurants in town don't fit into any neat category. Rest assured, they are all amazing. Robert Del Grande is a Houston food legend, pioneering the southwest cuisine served at his RDG +Bar Annie. Catalan has nothing to do with Barcelona and everything to do with the modernized Southern classics and pork obsession of chef Chris Shepherd. Feast features dazzling dishes in the British nose-to-tail cooking tradition. For a stunning and sophisticated meal, French-tinged Philippe is the newest hotspot and Da Marco and Mark's are favorites that have stood the test of time.
Brennan's of Houston, Haven and Zelko Bistro do elevated Southern food justice, but for the old school version of the classics spend a morning at The Breakfast Klub (don't let the line scare you, it moves quickly). Houston's television-approved chefs hold court at T'afia (where Monica Pope makes fresh, local new American dishes) and Reef (which features Bryan Caswell's seafood-heavy take on Gulf Coast cuisine). For South American food and and multi-sensory experience, check out Michael Cordúa's Américas.
Late Night Bites
You're not a Texan until you've taken advantage of Taco Cabana's 24-hour drive-thru for tortillas and queso at 4 a.m. And for fourth meal, forget the national chains and hit Whataburger — your cabbie will even take you there. If you feel like ordering in, see if you're in the delivery zone for Pink's Pizza, Star Pizza (deep dish only, we recommend the wheat crust) or Luigi's Pizzeria. For if you're hungry and not ready to go home, you can go for Tex-Mex (Spanish Flowers), American comfort food (BRC Gastropub), Cajun (BB's Cajun Cafe), sliders (Little Bigs) or a classic greasy spoon (House of Pies or the Greek-accented Ones-A-Meal).