Over the next few days, ahead of Orange folk flooding my fine city for the FINAL F*ING FOUR, I am going to post some guides on Houston attractions for the readership of TNIAAM. I'm aiming for relatively leisurely in these guides since the basketball team and surrounding hoopla is the focus, not a city visit necessarily.
Today I bring you my favorite thing about Houston: food. To say the food options in Houston are diverse is an understatement. There is no shortage of just about any kind of food you can imagine. In an effort to narrow it all down, I'm going to do two things. First, I'm going identify some of the types of food you should be trying while you are in Houston with a few examples of places that do each type of food justice. Then I will finish with an assortment of restaurants that I cannot in good conscience not mention, even if they don't fit neatly into the cuisines I list first.
From late February through June these tasty guys are fresh boiled all along the Dirty Coast (Gulf Coast from Texas to Mississippi). In Houston there are two main varieties: traditional Cajun style and Vietnamese style. Both are awesome when done well. If you don't mind getting your hands dirty and putting in some work for your food, pull up a seat at one of these spots, order a couple pounds worth (or five, if you're me) and dig in with an easy drinking beer at your side. And don't forget to suck da head.
BB's Cafe - If you want straight up Cajun-style with a good spice level, BB's is right up your alley. Multiple locations means there is good chance once is near enough to wherever you may be staying. They serve up a full menu of cajun/creole offerings if you have #DisloyalIdiots in your group that don't want crawfish.
The Boot - A newcomer getting rave reviews for their Cajun-style mudbugs in the Heights neighborhood. They serve up po-boys as well.
Cajun Kitchen - This is a bit of a trek to get to, but they do a Thai influenced Cajun boil that is worth the drive.
The Cajun Stop - This is located in EaDo, so it's a stone's throw from all of the FanFest activities at Discovery Green and the Convention Center. They do traditional Cajun-style and have a full menu of other cajun favorites.
Crawfish & Noodles - This Vietnamese restaurant is out in Chinatown, so it's a bit further out, but it's very worth it. Their crawfish are boiled in a Cajun-Vietnamese blend of spices and seasonings before being finished with a toss in a butter-garlic sauce that's way too good. They do tons of other seafood and noodle dishes as well, so no shortage of options for the non-crawfish eaters.
LA Crawfish - They serve up three styles of boiled crawfish: Vietnamese garlic-butter, Cajun, and their own Hot & Sour. They have a few locations and they also serve a really good crawfish pho if you don't want to peel crawfish but still want the meat.
Yes, Vietnamese is a must-try in Houston. For multiple reasons Houston is home to a large Vietnamese population and with them came the best Vietnamese food outside Vietnam. In particular the Pho in Houston is what shines. Something about the Texas beef makes it all just a bit better.
Pho Binh - Current standard bearer for Pho in Houston. Cannot go wrong here. Multiple Locations, though the one in The Heights is most accessible for FF visitors probably.
Cafe TH - East Downtown location makes it pretty convenient to FanFest activities.
Les Givral's Kahve - Mid-Town location makes it a short trip from Downtown. Lots of nearby bars as well. Great Banh Mi sandwiches here in addition to great Pho.
Mai's - Want late nigh Pho (or any other awesome Vietnamese)? This Mid-Town spot has you covered.
Pho Saigon - Another Mid-Town spot for good Pho.
Anywhere in Chinatown that serves Pho - This may be oversimplifying it, but not by much.
In Texas Tex-Mex is not a dirty word; rather, it is a warm and welcoming word. Fajitas are the crown prince of the Tex-Mex world, but good enchiladas, chimichangas,carnitas, tamales, tacos, chile rellenos, and more are just as good in most places. Also, queso [dip]. Always start with queso when eating Tex-Mex.
El Real - Old school style Texas leaning Tex-Mex. There is nothing healthy here (they proudly use lard in just about everything) and it is all delicious. Large open space with old westerns projected onto a big wall in the back of the dining room.
El Tiempo - Huge menu. Lots of Mexican deliciousness. I prefer their carnitas (crispy style) myself, but I'm not sure you can actually go wrong with anything. The Cañonball is particularly great: deep-fried stuffed avocado. The margaritas here don't mess around, either.
Guadalajara - The draw of this location is that it's right downtown and easy to walk to from all the FanFest activities. I prefer the food at the other spots on the list, but in truth it's quite good Tex-Mex in a nice setting.
Ninfa's on Navigation - This is one of the classic Houston Tex-Mex spots and not terribly far from downtown. Word of warning, other Ninfa's are not at the same level and not actually affiliated. Stick to this Ninfa's.
Pappasito's - The Pappas brand has all sorts of restaurants, but Pappasito's is the most ubiquitous. And luckily, it's pretty good! There is bound to be one not too far from wherever you may be (including NRG Stadium).
Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen - This spot is very specific, but if you like enchiladas, it's worth it. More varieties of enchiladas than you ever knew existed and all so tasty.
Houston traditionally has not been known for its barbecue; Central Texas and Austin are the BBQ mecca in Texas. The last few years, however, have seen more and more really good barbecue show up in Houston. In Texas, it's all about the beef. Yes there is pork ribs and chicken and turkey and sausage, but a true mark of Texas barbecue is brisket and (IMO) beef ribs. That's what you want to focus on if you want to know what Texas barbecue is about. If you want barbecue while in Texas, give one of these a try.
The Brisket House - Relative newcomer in the Galleria area that quickly got rock solid reviews.
Gatlin's BBQ - Small, family business that probably does sausage better than anything, but their brisket is on point all the same.
Goode Co. BBQ - Regional chain barbecue that manages to stay on top of their game. If you go here, get the pecan pie. I don't even make my own anymore; I just buy one of theirs for holidays.
Jackson Street BBQ - No frills spot right near Minute Maid Park downtown. Everything here is really good and I'd be happy with just the brisket, but they sometimes do a burnt end (the fatty, crispy edges of the brisket that get chopped off during slicing) sandwich on jalapeno bread that is stupid good.
Killen's Barbecue - And finally, the top dog in Houston. This place is only a few years old and is putting out Central Texas quality 'cue. They open at 11 AM Thurs - Sunday and close when they run out of food. My advice: get there about 10 or 10:15 in the morning, grab a ticket, then go around back and sip on some free Lone Star beer while you wait for the doors to open. They line people up 100 at a time (that's what the ticket's for), you order at a counter as they cut the meat in front of you, sit down and die happy. It is located in Pearland, which is about 15-20 minutes south of town, so keep that in mind. But yea, do it.
Houston does not necessarily have better burgers than anywhere else, but we do have good burgers and when you're in town for sports, sometimes burgers just make sense. These are burger-centric spots worth your time.
Bernie's Burger Bus Stop - They started as a food truck (short bus specifically) and could not be stopped. Everything is school themed right down to the old re-purposed elementary school desks-as-tables. They have familiar burgers and eccentric burgers, delicious fries and perfect milk-shakes.
Bubba's Texas Burger Shack - The burgers are good and the beers are cold. They are also known for their turkey burgers and bison burgers if you are looking for a slightly healthier burger. But the real draw is the ambiance, or more specifically, lack-thereof. Located underneath an overpass and next to another fast moving road, it is very Houston. My bachelor hangover cure was here.
The Burger Joint - Brand new spot that is already proving they belong. Typical burger styles done with just enough foodie-culture touches as to be interesting but not pretentious. Lots of patio seating and good milk-shakes too.
Christian's Tailgate - Greasy sports bar burgers that are just plain good. Several locations around town.
Hubcap Grill - Consistently rated among the best burgers in town and with a downtown location. Plenty of specialty burgers if you want to get crazy.
Whataburger - Plenty Texans will tell you that Whataburger is soooo good and you have to try it. Here's the deal: it's a fast food burger and I'd go there over McD's, BK, Jack, Wendy's every time. But the near fast food places like In-and-Out, Five Guys, and Shake Shack all beat Whataburger easily. However, they do get points for being open 24 hours and they do have some fun burger options beyond the standard. Just temper expectations is all.
Yes, there are tacos. Everywhere. These are a sampling of some varieties.
100% Taquito - Classic Mexican street food at this spot. Tacos are good, but so is everything else.
Fusion Taco - Asian-Mexican fusion tacos. Overdone at this point? Maybe, but they taste good and that's what I'm worried about.
Tacos a Go-Go - Mexican style tacos done with some style. Two locations.
Torchy's Tacos - This Austin transplant has a couple locations in town and they do some fusion style, some Mexican, and some that don't quite fit into any category. Very good breakfast tacos.
Velvet Taco - Similar to Torchy's but a bit more refined and more side items available. They also serve red velvet cake.
Taco Trucks - I can't really tell you any one or two to go to, but if you want to try some tacos right out of the truck they are everywhere. And they are good. No guarantees on which truck proprietors speak good English.
You're in Texas and you want MEAT! But you want it with some class. Try these on for size.
B&B Butchers - Fine dining level steak in an easygoing, fairly casual atmosphere. All the meat is aged and delicious.
Churrascos - South American restaurant with specialization in steak. Really, really good flavors and lots of other options for the non-steak eaters.
Killen's Steakhouse - Yes, this is the same guy that has the barbecue place. He started by doing steak. And he does it really damn well.
Mr. Peeples - Artsy atmosphere steakhouse in Mid-Town
Pappa's Bros. Steakhouse - The same parent company that runs Pappasito's runs Pappa's Bros. Of all their restaurant types, this is the one that hits it out of the park consistently. Multiple locations around town.
Cuchara - Mexico City cuisine, so definitely not Tex-Mex. Very good and authentic.
Dak & Bop - Korean Fried Chicken place. KFC is crispy, spicy, sweet, and juicy all at once.
Kitchen 713 - Dynamite soul food with a global influence in a really unassuming spot. Their Sunday brunch is phenomenal, especially the fried chicken dinner for 2 (but really for 4).
Ramen: Jin-Ya, Samurai Noodle, Tiger Den - If you've had good ramen you know the deal. These all do it well.
Seafood: Reef, Holley's, Peska, Saltaire - Top notch Southern and New American seafood spots.
Sushi: Ka-Sushi, Uchi, MF Sushi, Kata Robata - Fine dining sushi establishments that will all knock your socks off while lightening your wallet.
Underbelly - Really hard to describe because they blend so many flavors. Googling the menu is your best bet. It's undeniably Houston, undeniably good, and they do shareable dishes almost as a rule.
So the only other thing I did not list here was brunch/breakfast. There are so many options for so many tastes that I wouldn't know how to edit it. If that's on your mind, I'm happy to weigh in in the comments. I would also recommend the Eater Houston website; they will have a brunch list that will serve you well. When all else fails: breakfast tacos and/or Mexican bakeries.
So there you have it. Ask me any questions. I know I wasn't terribly location specific, so if you have neghborhood/area related questions about food, I can do my best to steer you.