Hunger can strike at any time. Even if one has had a proper dinner at a nice, normal time like 7 pm, a night that takes an unexpected turn — likely fueled by alcohol — can have one looking for further sustenance when most restaurants are closed. Thankfully, "most" does not mean "all," and a number of establishments cater to late night cravings.
The problem is that some of these — Mai's and Katz's, I'm looking at you — sacrifice quality in the name of expedience. Diners shouldn't have to compromise just because the hour is getting late. Consider the list below a mix of old favorites that are still getting it done and a couple of newcomers that are working to establish their reputations. All of them are guaranteed to be open until at least midnight but most keep even later hours on the weekends.
And Whataburger. Because this is Texas, and that's the way things should be.
The popular Cajun restaurant recently took the bold step of keeping its Montrose location open 24-hours, which is good news for diners who've been seeking an alternative to ho-hum stalwarts like Theo's and Katz's Deli. New hours means new menu items in the form of egg dishes and breakfast-style riffs on po-boys and shrimp and grits. Except for the recently opened Katy branch, all of the other BB's locations are open until midnight during the week and 2 am on Friday and Saturday. That means diners across the city can get their fill of gumbo, red beans and rice and the signature Tex-Cajun Virgin french fries into the wee hours.
Dot Coffee Shop
The beloved diner on 45 South is one of three entries on this list that are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The daily special, which offers a choice of one of seven proteins and three sides for only $11.45, is available until 11 pm. As with all Pappas family restaurants, portions are huge and choices are abundant. Personally, I prefer to keep it classic with either chicken fried steak or pancakes. Either way, I look forward to scarfing down a biscuit or two and saving room for chocolate cake that I'll poke at and finish off for breakfast in the morning.
Similar to Weights + Measures, Down House is open until midnight every day, which is good news for Heights residents in need of late night sustenance, cocktails, wine or craft beer. Both the regular and kimchi burgers are excellent, as is the fried chicken. Beyond those staples, chef Mark Decker's menu always has both gluten-free and vegan options available, because even people with limited diets deserve something to satisfy booze-induced hunger cravings.
Fu Fu Cafe
As with Mexican/Tex-Mex, the best late night spot in Bellaire is a subject of furious debate, but I'll take Fu Fu over Tan Tan or Sinh Sinh. Admittedly, that's based on the unofficial endorsement of Houston's chef community, whose members seem to show up in Fu Fu's dining room after their shifts. Favorite dishes include green onion pancakes and soup dumplings; groups may consider springing for a hot pot. Regardless, it's hard to go wrong here.
The Hay Merchant
Houston's best craft beer bar (feel free to disagree in the comments) also offers some of the city's best bar food. Even non-beer drinkers can appreciate Hay Merchant's top notch burger and wings. The Cease and Desist burger consists of two thin patties with two slices of cheese and the same farm fresh veggies that neighbor Underbelly uses. Wings are hot, crispy and served in fun flavors like gochujang, pb & j and General Tso's. Large groups will appreciate the shareable entrees like a half pig's head or massive chicken fried steak, and those seeking something a little lighter can snack on hummus or a salad. Full kitchen open until 1 am every day.
House of Pies
Reborn in 2014 after a fire shuttered it for six months, this Houston institution still serves up a full range of diner classics and legitimately good pie. What one orders isn't terribly important — although I do have a soft spot for the French dip — as long as it comes with cottage fries. The Westheimer location is a little more grungy, particularly after the remodel on Kirby, but the food quality is the same. Either way, the cross section of Houstonians who fill the dining room night after night guarantee excellent people watching.
Reasonable people can debate the merits of Houston's host of late night Mexican/Tex-Mex dining options, but I'll take La Tapitia over other contenders like Andy's Cafe, Chapultepec and Spanish Flowers. Part of that is geography: La Tapitia has multiple locations including one that's conveniently located (for me) in Montrose. The other part is, while it doesn't match the quality of staples like Ninfa's or Teotihuacan, Tapitia still stands head and shoulders over its late night rivals in terms of food quality and service. Keep things simple with items like tacos, quesadillas or burritos to soothe hunger cravings and still wake up feeling ready to attack the day. Open until 3 am Sunday through Thursday and 5 am on Friday and Saturday.
The year-old ramen shop and bar on Washington Avenue has established itself as a favorite late night destination for restaurant industry workers. Open until at least 2 am, six days a week, Ninja Ramen has a straightforward menu of one style of broth with a few variations; the dipping style's soy-cream sauce is particularly addictive. Starters are limited to spam musubi, but they're a good version of the classic. A creative cocktail menu and a well-priced, fairly extensive selection of Japanese beers and whisky round out the offerings.
Pho Binh by Night
Traditionally, pho is a breakfast dish, but, just as a late night order of bacon and eggs offers a dose of comfort, so too does a steaming bowl of highly seasoned beef broth. While the glory of Pho Binh's original location in far south Houston remains unmatched by other locations opened by different family members, Pho Binh by Night comes the closest to the original's recipe. Also, unlike some of the spin offs that have wandered into dubious territory by offering subpar spring rolls and rice dishes (Pho Binh Heights, I'm looking at you), By Night keeps its focus on pho and a couple of salads made with pho ingredients. If the soup isn't rich enough in its regular form, ask for a side of bone marrow. Open til midnight during the week and 3 am on weekends.
Just as Bellaire Blvd.'s sprawling Asiatown offers plenty of late night options, so too do the Korean restaurants on Long Point in Spring Branch. Known variously as Soju Korean and Aub Gu Jung Kim Bab, this restaurant stays open until 2 am every day. Pork belly, kimchi ramen and fried chicken are all must-try, as is the restaurant's reasonably priced soju selection. The portions are generous enough that they can be easily shared, so bring a group.
Weights + Measures
This Midtown newcomer has become my Midtown replacement for Mai's since it opened in January. While the full menu isn't available late, diners are guaranteed at least pizza, a sandwich and burgers until midnight seven days a week. Yes, that includes the utterly essential roasted carrot variety. Mix in W+M's tidy selection of craft beer taps, well-executed cocktails and friendly service at the bar for a pleasant way to wrap up an evening. On those nights that end really late, keep in mind that the bakery starts selling donuts at 6 am.
When this venerable Texas fast food empire temporarily suspended late night breakfast service due to a nationwide spike in egg prices, the universal cry about not being able to get taquitos was so deafening that Whataburger quickly relented. While the glories of the namesake Whataburger may elude food snobs, true Texans recognize that some cravings can only be satisifed by a number one with cheese and jalapenos. With locations in seemingly every corner of the state, it is the most universally available late night dining option in Texas.
Honorable Mention: Food trucks
Food trucks operate on a more limited schedule, but many are open late certain days of the week. Find Chinese food favorite The Rice Box on Westheimer across from Poison Girl until 2 am Friday and Saturday nights. Pi Pizza Truck is at Johnny's Gold Brick in the Heights until at least midnight Thursday through Saturday. Look for Koagie Hots next to Anvil until 2 am Wednesday through Sunday, where its joined by The Burger Joint truck on Friday and Saturday.