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Hay Merchant

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.

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Reserve 101

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.

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The Pastry War

Image: Scott Doyle

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.) 

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Hugo's

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.)

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Killen's Barbecue

Image: Kate LeSueur

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.

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West Alabama Ice House

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.

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Les Ba'Get

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.

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Editor’s Pick

West Alabama Ice House

Beer, Billiards, Dive, Dog-Friendly, Ice House, Outdoor Patio 1919 W Alabama St

Operating since the 1920s, this used to be a place where locals picked up hunks of ice to help them stay cool during Houston’s torturous summers. Along the w...

Editor’s Pick

The Pastry War

Cocktails, Pub Grub 310 Main St

This mecca of mezcalerías boasts an astonishing selection of sustainably-produced tequilas and hard-to-find mezcals. Expand your palate by sipping these comp...

Editor’s Pick

Reserve 101

Spirits 1201 Caroline

The flourishing Discovery Green area made a wise decision in saving room for this serious spirits bar, which offers an enormous whiskey, scotch, rye, and bou...

Les Ba'get Vietnamese Café

$ Vietnamese 1717 Montrose Blvd.

Is there such a thing as a fancy banh mi? There is at Les Ba'get, where the baguette sandwiches are spread with duck pâté and truffle aioli before being stuf...

Thien An

$ Vietnamese 2905 Travis St.

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 s...

Editor’s Pick

Killen’s Barbecue

$$ Barbecue 3613 E. Broadway St.

This newly opened barbecue joint inside a renovated school cafeteria already sees lines rivaling those outside Franklin Barbecue in Austin—though Aaron Frank...

Editor’s Pick

Hugo’s

$$$ Mexican/Tex-Mex 1600 Westheimer Rd.

Hugo’s chef/owner Hugo Ortega has been a finalist for the James Beard Award three times; no surprise, as his Montrose restaurant has been the city’s top choi...

Underbelly

$$$ American/New American, Hamburgers 1100 Westheimer

The top of the menu at Underbelly reads in part: “We hope you will enjoy Chris Shepherd’s refined take on Houston’s New American Creole Cuisine.” The menu at...

Editor’s Pick

The Hay Merchant

$$ American/New American 1100 Westheimer Rd.

The Hay Merchant is arguably the most serious domestic craft beer bar in the country. With cooking that goes well beyond the expected bar food or salty, beer...

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