First-time visitors to Houston for Super Bowl week may be a little surprised to discover just how rich the city is with cultural gems, though the natives will be more than happy to tell you about our city's vibrant and diverse array of experiences in the arts, a multitude of cuisines, and many more forms.
As a longtime resident, and someone who now considers Houston home, I’d like to share some of my own favorite destinations that I urge you to visit while you’re here.
For a beer or two: The Hay Merchant
Since Kevin Floyd’s beer bar opened alongside Underbelly in the old Chances space in 2012, it’s quickly become an institution as Montrose’s go-to location for craft beer lovers, with its large number of taps and carefully selected brews. It’s also a great place to sit on the patio and enjoy the spell of nice weather we’ve had this week or to watch a Rockets game indoors. Don’t forget to order something from the kitchen; while the menu changes periodically, two classic perennials are the big, juicy burger and the crispy pig ears.
For a world whiskey tasting: Reserve 101
Downtown, at Caroline and Dallas, you can find what may be Texas's largest and broadest selection of whiskeys. Since 2008, owners Mike Raymond and Steve Long have personally selected a wide range of bottlings to reflect the diversity of whiskey worldwide while also maintaining a high standard of quality. Whether it’s Scotch, single malts from elsewhere in the world, bourbon, local Texas whiskey, or something else entirely you’re looking for, Reserve 101 is likely to have it. In addition, Reserve 101 periodically stocks rare, limited, and special releases, so ask your bartender what’s good right now.
For an agave education: The Pastry War
Bobby Heugel’s downtown spot has become the premier destination in Houston for tequila and especially mezcal. Unlike tequila, mezcal can be distilled from any species of agave, and the species of plant and local terroir substantially affect the flavor of the finished spirit. Espadin is the most common species, but The Pastry War’s menu right now lists a number of others you won’t find in a liquor store. Get a flight to sample the difference — and if you’re the adventurous type, try the mezcal pechuga, which is exactly what it sounds like — mezcal distilled with raw chicken and spices. (It tastes much better than it sounds.)
For date night in Montrose: The Menil Collection and Hugo’s
Houston has some of the finest art museums in the country, and if you want to spend an evening with some of the best Houston has to offer in culture without going too far, check out The Menil Collection in Montrose, tucked away in a lovely wooded section of the neighborhood. After you view the museum's vast modern art collection, indulge in some upscale Mexican cuisine at Hugo’s, one of Houston’s finest restaurants since it opened more than a decade ago, just a few blocks away. (You may need to make a reservation, just to be on the safe side.)
For barbecue: Killen's Barbecue
If you’re willing to make a drive out to Pearland for lunch, Ronnie Killen’s barbecue joint has been one of the great destinations for food in the greater Houston area since it opened in 2013. A line usually forms outside before the restaurant opens at 11 a.m., so ideally you’ll want to get there as soon as you can so you have your choice of menu options. The brisket is my favorite of the meats, but I’ve been a fan of everything I’ve had there.
For a night with local flavor: West Alabama Ice House and Tacos Tierra Caliente
As far as Houston institutions go, few have stood as long as the West Alabama Ice House, which first opened in 1928. The all-outdoor bar has added a few features over the years, such as a ping-pong table, but it’s never lost its down-to-earth charm. Have a cold beer while you relax and watch a game or just talk to some friends or locals.
And if you aren’t there for one of the periodic cookouts or crawfish boils, you owe it to yourself to visit the taco truck parked right across McDuffie Street. Tacos Tierra Caliente provides some of the best bang-for-your-buck food in the city, with a full range of Mexican (not Tex-Mex) options; I usually get the tacos or the torta. Try the lengua, a city-wide favorite, though for my money the barbacoa also stacks up with the best you’ll find anywhere.
For Vietnamese Food: Thien An and Les Ba’Get
Houston is a town of many diverse cultures coming together as one—a city in which you can find a restaurant that serves almost any global cuisine you can think of. I’d love to recommend something for each country or region, but if I had to pick just one to spotlight in Houston, it has to be Vietnamese food. Houston has the largest Vietnamese population of any city outside of California, so Patriots and Falcons fans may want to take advantage of some authentic cuisine before returning to the East Coast.
One of Midtown’s family-run Vietnamese establishments, Thien An closed in 2012 while preparing to move from their location in the (since demolished) Travis strip to one on San Jacinto. The move took longer than expected, but since reopening in 2014, the new location provides the same great service and authentic cuisine, and the food is as good as ever while remaining very affordable. It’s my favorite spot for pho, and the banh xeo is also a highlight.
For a little more modern spin on some Vietnamese classics, I’d recommend Les Ba’Get on Montrose. While it’s only been open a little more than a year, their commitment to high quality ingredients shows. The 24-hour sous vide pork belly and the oak-smoked brisket are right up there with some of the best meats I’ve had in Houston, and you can get them (or several other sandwich options) on a banh mi or croissant. For the gourmand, there’s the roasted bone marrow or the bone marrow pho, every bit as decadent as it sounds.