Chowing Down in H-Town: Houston’s 14 Essential Eats

Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, has recently exploded into a vibrant and nationally lauded culinary hub of diverse flavors beyond the expected barbecue and Tex-Mex. Expect sophisticated French, modern Southern fare, contemporary Indian, and trendy Italian, in addition to ethnic gems, burgers galore, and sleek bakeries rivaling San Francisco’s finest. Here are 15 classic and newer spots to keep on your radar.—Robin Barr Sussman

Julie Soefer Photography

Coltivare

Fresh seasonal ingredients, many plucked from the restaurant’s own garden, are the mainstays of the Italian menu by chef and co-owner Ryan Pera. Dine cozily indoors or in the charming garden on dishes such as backyard greens sautéed with anchovies or rich crab ravioli with sorrel. Dreamy pizzas arrive charred and puffy from the wood-fired grill and topped with wild mushrooms, artisan cheeses, and seasonal garden surprises. Check out the well-curated and reasonably priced wine list or sip a creative drink crafted by cocktail guru and co-owner Morgan Weber.

3320 White Oak Dr.

Erica Wilkins

Uchi

Expect an adventure for the palate at chef Tyson Cole’s Montrose outpost of his hip Austin original, featuring delicate and unexpected sushi creations plus plenty of innovative cooked Japanese options. Must-try signature dishes include Machi Cure (smoked yellowtail, Asian pear, Marcona almonds, and yucca crisps), and the famous Shag Roll (tempura salmon, avocado, and sun-dried tomato). It’s pricey and hard to score a reservation, but walk-ins are welcome and seats are available at the sushi bar if you show up early.

Insider Tip: Save dough at happy hour when some dishes are half price.

904 Westheimer Rd.

Common Bond

Common Bond

This streamlined glass-wrapped modern Montrose bakery gets rave reviews for its soft scramble of eggs, multi-layered chicken torta, flaky almond croissant, and what might be the best chocolate chip cookie in Houston. Pastries and breads are baked in world-class German ovens that double as smokers for the meats. Lines get long on weekend mornings for the impressive brunch menu that brings on salmon tartine and grilled Croque Madame sandwiches oozing with ham, Gruyère, Swiss, an over-easy egg, and jalapeño béchamel (because it’s Texas, y’all), on thick country sourdough bread. Whatever you do, take fresh-baked bread home—any bread on the incredible list will please.

1706 Westheimer Rd.

Goode Co. BBQ

Goode Co. BBQ

Founded in 1977 by the late Jim Goode as a small family barbecue barn, this iconic ‘cue joint draws crowds with its fragrant mesquite smoke billowing through the neighborhood. At the cafeteria line, order a mixed meat plate to experience the tender brisket, smoky turkey, and spicy sausage links. The barbecue sauce is perfectly balanced and the thick jalapeño cheese bread is to die for. This family business, synonymous with Texas food and Houston hospitality, has grown into a powerhouse with four concepts, seven stores, and an e-commerce business that ships Goode pecan pies around the world. Also check out Goode Co. Taqueria; Goode Co. Seafood; and for live music, local brews, quality cocktails, Texas fare, and fun food events, Armadillo Palace.

5109 Kirby Dr. and 8911 Katy Fwy.

Julie Soefer Photography

Underbelly

Chef–owner Chris Shepherd, a James Beard Award winner, has a hit with this culinary homage to Houston’s myriad cultures. His lofty modern farmhouse with an on-site butcher shop for in-house charcuterie stays packed. The menu, which reads like a cookbook of the city’s diversity—Vietnamese, Cajun, and Southern influences—changes daily depending on the local bounty. But some dishes remain menu fixtures, like the Korean braised goat and dumplings and the dramatic crispy whole fish from the Gulf served in a big skillet. Shareable platters of appetizers, vegetables, noodles, and protein dishes consistently surprise and delight.

1100 Westheimer Rd.

Lou Vest

Pondicheri

Expect a modern take on Indian street food at Anita Jaisinghani’s hot spot serving fresh and vibrant breakfasts, lunch, and dinners with no shortage of intense spices. Ensconced in the Gables West Ave shopping-condo development, it sports an industrial chic setting with a cool glass-wrapped Bake Lab on the second story for lighter fare, coffees, and teas. Can’t-miss dishes include the breakfast Thali sampler (an invigorating Indian smorgasbord), the lamb mint burger, and shortbread pistachio cookies.

Note to Travelers: Jaisinghani’s second and newest outpost of Pondicheri is located in New York City.

2800 Kirby Dr.

Pappas Bros Steakhouse

Pappas Bros Steakhouse

Meticulous in-house dry aging is king at Houston’s finest steakhouse, founded in 1976 and still going strong by the local Pappas family. Indulge in a perfectly cooked prime bone-in, dry-aged New York strip steak for two carved tableside; a Colorado lamb rack; or pan-seared sea bass with Maine lobster while sipping wine from the renowned 1,500-bottle selection. Starters and sides are just as serious: prime beef Carpaccio served on a salt block with Parmesan crisps and the lobster deviled eggs with bacon are both sublime. At the newer downtown location, reserve the private, glass-walled wine room surrounded by rare bottles for upgraded ambiance.

Westheimer Rd. and 1200 McKinney St.

Shannon O'Hara

Helen Greek Food and Wine

Since sommelier Evan Turner opened this Rice Village tavern, Houston is geeking out on the food and wine Turner grew up on in Greece. In this softly lit, wood-wrapped venue, executive chef William Wright plays with tradition on the menu with shared dishes such as spiky gold zucchini fritters stuffed with cream cheese, and dolmades filled with fluffy white rice, corn, pine nuts, and currants with a lemon sauce. Peppery meaty lamb ribs over a bed of orzo and wild greens will appease carnivores, and the stewed chicken and okra in tomato sauce will make a Southerner proud. Wash it down with one of the wines on the expertly curated, one-of-a-kind Hellenic list, and all is right with the world.

2429 Rice Blvd.

Clark Cooper Concepts

SaltAir Seafood Kitchen

The newest addition to the Houston-based Clark Cooper restaurant empire (Ibiza, Brasserie 19, and more) includes this fresh, sexy seafood restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Pesce in Upper Kirby. Pristine oysters from all over are always popular, but consider the daily chalkboard specials, unique vegetable menu, crudos, or the wide array of seafood with global influences like whole roasted branzini served with chimichurri, nuoc nam, and lemon butter sauces. Meat lovers also have their pick with a 16-ounce ribeye, lamb chops, or surf and turf. Brunch is outstanding with Champagne served in oversized coupe glasses and lip-smacking choices including vodka house-cured gravlax with caviar and the crab cake Benedict.

3029 Kirby Dr.

Brennan's of Houston

Brennan’s of Houston

Under the wing of New Orleans’s famed Brennan family, the founders of Commander’s Palace, this gorgeous Houston Creole landmark keeps the Big Easy’s fine-dining traditions alive. Executive chef Danny Trace, a Commander’s Palace alum, weaves luxurious New Orleans classics with Texas twists, so you’ll find big hickory-smoked beef ribs and Hill Country quail alongside rich Gulf fish Pontchartrain with jumbo lump crab and Brennan’s Creole butter. The pretty courtyard is an iconic special occasion brunch spot. The must-order? It’s a toss-up between the flaming brandy shrimp Chippewa entrée and the classic tableside-prepared bananas Foster coated in butter, brown sugar, and rum. Yum.

3300 Smith St.

Kimberly Park

Bernie’s Burger Bus

Sure, Houston now has Austin burger cult favorite Hopdoddy and nationally lauded Shake Shack, but there’s nothing like an original homegrown burger shop. Between the mile-high Detention burger layered with bacon grilled cheese buns and “tipsy” onions, the Kindergartner sliders, and homemade shakes (try the peanut butter), we always get in trouble at Bernie’s. Towering scratch-made Angus burgers by chef-owner Justin Turner hit the spot in school-themed combos like The Mascot bison burger topped with goat cheese, arugula, pickled onions, and chipotle blackberry barbecue sauce. Or consider The Substitute bleu cheeseburger with crispy jalapeños and Burgundy mushrooms with your choice of nine different hand-cut fries, including green chili cheese. Yes, please!

5407 Bellaire Blvd. and 2643 Commercial Center Blvd.

Vallone Restaurant Group

Tony’s

Tony Vallone’s Houston classic in Greenway Plaza is still at the top of the game thanks to upscale new American and Italian creations starring high-quality local and imported ingredients presented in artistic combinations. Popular dishes Vallone can’t take off the menu include butternut squash pansoti (tender stuffed pasta with Parmesan puff), the truffle soufflé, and Snapper Sheridan crowned with lump crab, roasted red peppers, and bianco sauce. Splurge on the multicourse tasting menu with a luxe caviar supplement for that special occasion. With the finest wines (many rare Italian picks), crystal stemware, top-notch tableware, and seamless service in a space filled with original art, it’s the essence of fine dining in Houston.

3755 Richmond Ave.

Cooper+Ricca

Original Ninfa’s on Navigation

Mama Ninfa introduced sizzling beef fajitas to Texans (and America) with her first outpost of this Tex-Mex landmark in Houston’s East End. The marinated grilled fajitas are juicy and delicious and the tortillas are made fresh on-site. Then there’s the signature green sauce, an addictive potion mimicked by many Mexican restaurants around town, rich with blended tomatillos, jalapeños, and avocado. Its tiny original space has been spruced up with an expanded patio and chef-driven menu of specialties like grilled octopus over spinach and radicchio, and wood-grilled Texas redfish with chipotle slaw and tomatillo salsa. Don’t leave without sampling the frozen Ninfarita, the stout and limey house margarita based on a 30-year-old recipe.
2704 Navigation Blvd.

Cafe Annie

Cafe Annie

At the newly revived Café Annie (formerly RDG + Bar Annie), the menu has returned to form with old favorites like the Southwestern-style luscious black bean terrine with chorizo and goat cheese, crab tostadas, and rabbit enchiladas. Service is as gracious as ever and the posh, dimly lit bar with views of the chic dining room and modern terrace is a hot gathering spot for drinks, bar bites, or a full dinner. Moist skewers of bacon-wrapped quail served with a chili aioli and mini cornbread makes a splendid start. Also excellent are the plump enchiladas stuffed with tender smoked brisket and topped with a blanket of Jack cheese, slivers of ripe avocado, and a mound of cabbage slaw. 1800 Post Oak Blvd.

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