Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, offers well over 12,000 restaurants to choose from. We have the most diverse food scene in the country, and we’re not just talking barbecue and Tex-Mex. We’re also talking soul food and thali and dim sum; Vietnamese, Cajun, and—yes— Viet-Cajun. Overwhelmed? Wondering where to start? These eateries are your gateway in.

Ninfa’s on Navigation

The matriarch of Tex-Mex in Houston is still going strong in its original home on Navigation, where Mama Ninfa Laurenzo started a 10-table restaurant in the front of her tortilla factory in 1973. The tortillas, naturally, are still made by hand here, although much else has changed. The expansive space offers an attractive patio, updated cocktail menu, and slate of dishes from chef Alex Padilla that impress thanks to the addition of a wood-fired oven, which turns out whole fish and flame-blistered panela cheese.

Image: Kate LeSueur

Frenchy’s

Those with a craving for spice would argue that the sensational cayenne-spiked fried chicken at the original Frenchy’s on Scott St. is the best in town. Percy “Frenchy” Creuzot, a friend of New Orleans legend Austin “The Godfather of Fried Chicken” Leslie, brought the spicy Creole fried-chicken tradition of Louisiana to Houston in 1969. (Incidentally, the drive-thru restaurant also serves a remarkable rendition of red beans and rice.)  

Helen Greek Food & Wine

Helen is fascinated by the shared passions of Greek and Texan cuisine—and there are many, it turns out, including a love for such ingredients as quail and okra and even octopus, imported from the Mediterranean and grilled to perfection. Chef William Wright takes chances in exploring the two cuisines, while still cooking up more traditional dishes such as the horiatiki. Make sure to pair the meal with a bottle from the entirely Greek wine list, a well-curated accomplishment from sommelier Evan Turner.

Pondicheri

Anita Jaisinghani’s fast-casual café has been an unqualified hit since day one, offering Gulf Coast–Indian fusion fare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Have you ever had a saag paneer omelet? Or uppuma, the Indian version of grits? You should. Just want to pick up some of Pondicheri’s famous pastries? Head upstairs to the Bake Lab + Shop, where you can grab chili-chocolate-oatmeal cookies as well as sandwiches, fresh juices, and more to go. 

Giacomo’s Cibo e Vino

Owner/chef Lynette Hawkins has succeeded in keeping her cozy Italian café both casual and high-quality since opening in 2009. Her small plates and accompanying small prices encourage you to order, experiment, and share (don’t miss the eggplant involtini), though the restaurant is perhaps best known for its exemplary spaghetti carbonara with guanciale and a farm-fresh egg. A progressive bottle list features plenty of biodynamic selections and spotlights Italy’s myriad female winemakers.

Nielsen’s Delicatessen

A Houston landmark, this no-frills deli may be most famous for its house-made mayonnaise. The condiment is sold by the pint and used in the delicious egg and potato salads. If the egg salad is sold out, which tends to happen if you’re looking at a late lunch, the thinly sliced pastrami or the corned beef sandwiches are the way to go. Plan on takeout—seating is limited to six counter-side bar stools.

Image: Kate LeSueur

Coltivare

Morgan Weber and chef Ryan Pera’s handsome Heights eatery is perfect for both dates and groups. Outdoor tables sit practically in picking distance from the raised-bed gardens, where the restaurant grows most of its herbs and some of its salad ingredients. Appetizers include seasonal produce like radishes with butter and sea salt, and Italian spicy pickles. Don’t miss the pizzas, seafood pastas, or fish dishes; other standouts include fried sweetbreads with anchovies and grilled chicken with pinenuts and pickled grapes. 

Kata Robata

This is, quite simply, the best sushi restaurant in Houston. Sitting at chef Manabu Horiuchi’s counter and ordering the omakase—Japanese for “I’ll leave it to you”—is an experience that every serious food-lover should have at least once. Chef Hori-san will dazzle you with whatever is freshest that day and create a personalized menu that will make buying grocery-store sushi rolls an incredibly tough proposition in the future. Not sitting at the counter? Try Kata’s rightfully famous lobster-miso mac ‘n’ cheese or the richly flavored ramen.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Himalaya

Chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari’s fried chicken platter (affectionately known as “HFC”) is a local treasure. A whole eight-piece bird soaked in spices like garam masala mix before being fried to a flawless crisp, the dish is fusion cuisine at its best. Tack on the goat biryani (think of it as Indian paella) and the hunter’s beef plate, a by-the-pound Pakistani pastrami served either hot with butter and spices or cold with sliced tomato and house mustard.

Tiger Den

This may be the city’s best ramen joint, with freshly made noodles that taste as good as they look and a tonkotsu broth that develops a deep flavor and milky color after simmering for a day and a half. The grilled hearts, gizzards, and tongues on the yakitori menu are authentically gnarly, and even better washed down with a cold beer. Located in Chinatown’s popular Dun Huang Plaza, the restaurant is open only for dinner and late-night dining. You might have to wait a few minutes for a seat—the busy kitchen usually serves around 400 bowls of ramen a day.

Crawfish & Noodles

The mudbugs here are served one way—with plenty of garlic and butter. The seasoning range may be limited, but the restaurant compensates with an impressive, surprising variety of Vietnamese dishes, and the kitchen excels at the most unconventional combinations. The menu runs the gamut from goat hot pot to banana bulb chicken salad to rare beef salad marinated in lemon juice. There’s also a wide variety of rice and egg noodles, as well as savory stewed beef served with your choice of noodles or French bread.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Mala Sichuan

Born in China and educated at the University of Texas at Austin, Cori Xiong, the young co-owner of Mala Sichuan, played it safe when the restaurant first opened, offering such standbys as sweet-and-sour chicken. But it was cutting-edge items like “garlic bacon” rolls, part of the Chinese charcuterie trend, and “funky chicken sticks" (right), shredded chicken and green onions tossed in the spicy orange mala dressing, that she really wanted the restaurant to be known for. The marriage of ma (the numbing tingle of Sichuan peppercorns) and la (the fire of chile peppers) is the signature flavor of Sichuan cooking. As more customers came looking for mala, the sweet-and-sour chicken went south, replaced by some of the most exciting Chinese food in America.

Seaside Poke

The chefs left jobs at Uchi and MF Sushi to start this poke business last year, so these aren’t your everyday bowls. Produce is local and herbs, including cilantro and baby shiso, are clipped to order. You can go with the build-your-own option, but why would you when offered choices like the truffle yellowtail (right), speckled with black puffed rice and crimson chile threads?

Hugo’s

Chef/owner Hugo Ortega is one of only four Houston chefs ever to receive a James Beard Award; no surprise, as his Montrose restaurant has been the city’s top choice for upscale interior Mexican cuisine since it opened in 2002. Sunday brunch is a lively fiesta, and the best way to experience a wide variety of Ortega’s menu items. Showstoppers here include the chapulines, pan-sautéed grasshoppers; pulpo al carbón, or grilled octopus; mole poblano with braised duck; and just about anything with seafood. This is also a great spot for an elegant dinner with a margarita on the rocks or some top-shelf tequila.

Kitchen 713

We need a whole new category to describe the modern soul food/New American Creole cuisine that chefs James Haywood and Ross Coleman—2018 Beard Award semifinalists—are serving at their Washington Corridor restaurant. Look for Thai ceviche sweetened with white grapes; black vinegar–braised oxtails; shrimp and grits; and the boudin of the day on the ever-changing menu. Whatever you get, save room for the irresistible individual servings of peach cobbler in cast-iron skillets.

BB’s Café

Though this Crescent City–inspired eatery has multiple locations, it’s the neon-lit Montrose one that has become an after-hours mecca. The fan favorite is open 24/7, cranking out a craveable mess of po-boys and Cajun-style plates that somehow taste even better after midnight. Locals follow one cardinal rule: an order of Tex-Cajun Virgin Fries smothered with roast beef, gravy, and chile con queso is mandatory.

Pho Binh

Pho is an essential Houston dish, and this cult classic makes one of the most sought-after versions around. Get the aromatic noodle soup loaded with rare steak, fatty brisket, tendon, and tripe. Then throw in unctuous, rich bone marrow. Or just go for a grilled pork banh mi or vermicelli noodle bowl at lunch—they’re equally as impressive as the pho.

Gatlin’s BBQ

Greg Gatlin was raised in Houston, graduating from St. Thomas High School and Rice University. The self-taught pitmaster left his office job after deciding he wanted to make barbecue for a living. He and his family began catering in 2008, opened a Heights location for Gatlin’s BBQ in 2010, and then moved into slick new Garden Oaks digs in 2016. The brisket is consistently great, the St. Louis–cut ribs are some of the best in the city, and the pulled pork with vinegar barbecue sauce is bringing a taste of the deep South to Houston.

Tacos A Go-Go

The GOOF (Garden Oaks/Oak Forest) spot is entirely family-friendly, but the Midtown location of this taco temple is the perfect destination for an after-hours snack. Breakfast tacos are available all day and night—that’s until 2 a.m. on the weekends—and the kitchen’s slow-cooked lamb barbacoa and tangy pork pastor tacos rival those of the best taco trucks in town. There’s even a taco stuffed with “Mexican” tater tots, which might not be authentic but is fantastic, nonetheless.

Weights + Measures

This dual restaurant and bake shop draws rave reviews for its breakfast, lunch and dinner options, including oven-fired pizza and scratch-baked pastries such as donuts. But the gloriously retro, ’70s-inspired cocktail bar inside the restaurant is worth a visit on its own. Take advantage of its proximity to the kitchen by ordering Wagyu beef tartare or the famous roasted carrot pizza (right).

Nobie’s

Chef Martin Stayer’s grandmother was the inspiration for this comfortable restaurant inside a Montrose home, but the food is anything but old-fashioned. Try the beer-battered sweet tots served in harissa-dusted goat cheese, but don’t forget to share the day’s extra-large protein—often Fred Flintstone’s Ribeye—with your friends.

Killen’s STQ

Make reservations well in advance for chef Ronnie Killen’s first restaurant within Houston city limits. The cuisine fuses the successes of his Pearland barbecue and steak restaurants into one temple of meat. We recommend ordering anything flavored with smoke, from his filet mignon to his chocolate cake.

Rainbow Lodge

A short drive into Shady Acres can feel like a million miles away when you arrive at this 100-year-old log cabin featuring three fireplaces, a beautiful view onto owner Donnette Hansen’s gardens, and exceptional modern Texan fare. Ease into your meal with the smoked duck gumbo or dive right into something even more unique, such as Texas antelope tenderloin. This is also one of the few restaurants in town cooking truly old-school classics like lobster thermidor.

Fung’s Kitchen

At this Hong Kong–style seafood restaurant, the fish, including such rare and delicate species as turbot and ling cod, swim around in tanks. It’s brought to your table alive for viewing, rushed to the kitchen, and then returned to the table—steamed, relieved of bones, and in a light ginger and scallion sauce. Once you’ve eaten fish this fresh, you’ll never forget it. The dim sum, served on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., is particularly well-regarded.

Kolache Shoppe

Head to this Houston classic for kolaches filled with the Bayou City’s finest locally sourced ingredients, including brisket from Pinkerton’s Barbecue in the Heights, boudin from Hebert’s (the Cajun specialty butcher just down the street), and sausages from Houston’s Luling City Market in Houston and San Antonio’s Kiolbassa Smoked Meats. There’s even bourbon cajeta made with goat’s milk from Blue Heron Farm, just northwest of Houston.

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