So, what is this new Houston cuisine all about? We visited restaurants all over town, sampled dishes, and talked to dozens of chefs and diners. Out of this culinary odyssey came a list of restaurants that define the Houston food scene now. It’s a smorgasbord of dining destinations with lots of nationalities, neighborhoods, and price ranges represented.
Here’s the story of Houston’s dining scene in 50 restaurant listings, organized not by rank or alphabetical order, but in the order they came up in the conversation. Click each restaurant’s name for locations, hours, and contact information.
The 30-ounce, Gunderson Farm ribeye served family-style at Provisions, pictured on the cover of Houstonia, is the one of the biggest steaks in town, and it doesn’t take much culinary education to enjoy. After all, it’s just meat and potatoes—if you ignore the arugula salad with bone marrow dressing and the amazing condiments like rye aioli and pickled black garlic that come with it. Chef Seth Siegel-Gardner splits executive chef duties with partner Terrence Gallivan at Pass & Provisions, the intriguing dual-restaurant experiment on the edge of Montrose. Siegel-Gardner doesn’t worry about confusing customers with arcane food terminology on dishes like striped bass with romesco sauce and smoked dashi. “We’re dealing with the most educated diner that has ever existed right now,” he says. “They maybe sometimes know more than you do.”
Over at The Pass, says Gallivan, “It’s about establishing a trust.” Guests are encouraged to sit back, relax, and let the chef’s 12-course tasting menu wash over them in waves of carefully selected wines and intricate, postmodern dishes with names like “Ham & Eggs” (caviar served on a giant chicharrón) and “Bread” (onion soup-soaked French toast with five onion preparations). “They’re two different restaurants with the same idea,” Siegel-Gardner explains. So what’s that idea, exactly? “That’s been the stumper from day one,” Siegel-Gardner admits. “I think the fast answer is contemporary American, modern American, whatever. It’s not Italian, it’s not French, it’s just cherry-picking the things we love and putting our spin on them.”
There was much discussion about what to call the food at Triniti when it first opened on Shepherd just south of Westheimer. But chef Ryan Hildebrand prefers “progressive American.” It’s an intentionally vague way to describe his keenly modern platings of otherwise old-school Texas ingredients—purple hull peas, beets, peppers, tomatoes, steak, and Gulf fish. You never know what clever creation you’ll find next on Triniti’s wild ride of a menu, whether it’s Gulf oysters with a green papaya nuoc mam mignonette, or poutine made with chorizo, corn gravy, and okra. Keeping us guessing is clearly Hildebrand’s favorite game.
On a recent visit to Montrose bistro Roost, the bread service featured two hot pretzel-bread loaves with a scoop of old-fashioned pimento cheese, pungent French truffle butter, spicy kimchi butter, and a cup of sweet Vietnamese-coffee butter with a hint of chicory. No wonder this unpretentious neighborhood eatery has been called a culinary United Nations. Chef Kevin Naderi, who grew up in Houston, says he doesn’t think about combining ethnic ingredients, except to avoid using too many from any one cuisine. The Persian-American chef put Japanese fish flakes (bonito) on top of his signature roasted cauliflower to keep the dish from tasting Middle Eastern. “I don’t want to get put in a box,” he says. “I call my style of cooking ‘the ADD cuisine.’”
Your inner traditionalist will love Danton’s, the old-fashioned oyster bar and upscale Cajun/Creole restaurant between the Museum District and Montrose. The mahogany-paneled dining room has a pleasant, throwback vibe that’s echoed in the old-school service. Classic Louisiana dishes include a rich, dark gumbo, shrimp étouffée, and stuffed flounder. Owner Danton Nix is from Houston, however—and it shows in his Bayou City–inspired dishes, like the Baked Crab Balinese and Oysters Kyle, served in a spicy lemon-butter sauce.
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 the Montrose hotspot defines Creole cuisine as “the merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients.” Which means you might find an Italian-Asian combo like Wagyu carpaccio with sesame brittle and pickled nori, or a vegetarian’s dream dish of roasted squash in tahini vinaigrette with boiled-peanut hummus. But there are also straight southern favorites like East Texas “biscuits and gravy” served in a black cast-iron skillet, and you can always get a family-style whole Gulf bycatch fish cooked crispy and served over local vegetable masala.
At Midtown’s crown jewel, Reef, there’s Indian lime pickle in the baked oysters, Sriracha in the remoulade, and extra-virgin Vietnamese fish sauce in the noodle salad. Little-known Gulf fish like Almaco Jack are served with Caribbean-style fried plantains and Chinese long beans. The whole fish is seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, and Thai spices. Chef Bryan Caswell brags that his seafood-and-Andouille-sausage gumbo is the best in the city. “I tried calling our food ‘new American Creole,’ but when you say ‘Creole,’ people around here think you’re talking about Louisiana,” he says. “So I’m just calling it ‘Houston food.’ Maybe someday, if we can get the fishing industry on board, we can call it the ‘new Gulf Coast cuisine.’”
Nothing sums up the Eatsie Boys Cafe like matzoh ball pho—what do you expect from Jewish kids who grew up eating Vietnamese food in Houston? Eatsie Boys is the favorite restaurant of Houston rap superstar Bun B and home to an inimitable Shipley’s Do-Nut ice cream, made with real bits of glazed donut. The inviting Montrose cafe is an intentionally low-key retreat where chef Matt Marcus—a veteran of The Fat Duck, a Michelin three-star restaurant in England—can serve the sort of sandwiches, soups, and salads that form the basis of Houston’s casual, everyday cuisine. Watch for sneaky twists like white miso vinaigrette in the kale salad and “Srirancha” (that’s Eatsie Boys lingo for “Sriracha ranch dressing”) on the fried chicken sandwich.
Ziggy Gruber says that his Galleria deli on Post Oak, Kenny & Ziggy’s, is “the best New York deli in America,” and he isn’t kidding. The once-proud fixtures of Gotham, he says, are little more than tourist traps these days. “All the third-generation deli guys in New York are doctors and lawyers,” jokes the third-generation deli man. Gruber’s grandfather, Max Gruber, opened the Rialto, the first Jewish deli on Broadway in Manhattan, before Ziggy was born. Today, as he carries on his family’s Hungarian traditions in the Galleria area, Ziggy is hands-on in the kitchen, curing his own corned beef and chopping extra roasted chicken skins into his stupendous chopped liver. His new Reuben burger, with house-made corned beef and Pat LaFrieda premium ground meat, is incredible. Don’t miss his grandfather’s goulash either.
The Heights cafe called Down House (named for Charles Darwin’s English estate) epitomizes the welcome Houston trend of the “useful restaurant,” a reasonably-priced hang-out where one can find breakfast, lunch, and dinner fare with barista-made coffee and craft cocktails. Chef Benjy Mason's kimchi burgers, shrimp tacos, and casually elegant dishes like Gulf shrimp and grits with pho broth are available at nearly any hour of the day, and in a comfortable space that welcomes breakfast meetings and afternoon couch-surfing. Owner Chris Cusak is busy looking for more Heights locations.
The crab tostadas and red chile beef nachos at RDG+Bar Annie are holdovers from the restaurant’s predecessor, the late, great Cafe Annie. Of course, those dishes remind us of the 1980s, when the new Southwestern cooking style overthrew European haute-cuisine snobbishness. Some critics dismissed the food then as glorified Tex-Mex, but it shifted the focus from Europe to our own backyard, where we discovered our deep Latino roots. Modern locavores tend to forget that chefs like Robert Del Grande were sourcing their ingredients from local farmers and ranchers 20 years ago.
Indian-born Anita Jaisinghani was once the pastry chef at Cafe Annie. Asked what kind of food she serves at Pondicheri on Upper Kirby and her fine-dining restaurant, Indika on Westheimer, she demurs: “It’s my interpretation of regional Indian food using local and seasonal ingredients.” Asked how foie gras with fig chutney is regional Indian food, she responds, “Well—it’s really my personal journey in Indian cooking.” You can start your day with a breakfast of stoneground grits and cauliflower topped with yogurt and chopped peanuts or a saag paneer omelet at Jaisinghani’s modern “chaat shop” Pondicheri. Or you can have a bowl of masala-spiked borscht and a dish of quail tandoori stuffed with pine nuts and caramelized onion masala at her fine-dining restaurant, Indika. Despite the chef’s modesty, these are two of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the nation.
At The Queen Vic, chef/owner Shiva Patel serves Indian pub grub with a Gulf Coast bent—try the masala lamb burger with Texas blue cheese made from goat’s milk, or Goan curry with Gulf seafood and fried okra. If you order the chutney sampler, you’ll find standard tamarind and mint chutneys alongside a ramekin filled with what is more like Indian guacamole, which is perfect with The Queen Vic’s fresh-baked garlic naan. Along with many an American craft beer, there are plenty of British ales and bitters on tap at the Upper Kirby pub.
After he first crossed the border from Mexico, a homeless Hugo Ortega slept under bushes just a few blocks from where his eponymous restaurant, Hugo’s, now stands in the heart of Montrose. When the eatery first opened in 2002, some Mexican ingredients were hard to find, so Ortega hired a Thai gardener named Pat Rapesak to grow squash blossoms, fresh Mexican oregano, epazote, hoja santa, and bay leaves on her Needville farm. Hugo roasts his own cacao beans for the mole poblano and hot chocolate. “I am an ambassador of Mexican cuisine,” says Ortega. “Houstonians and I have a love affair.”
One of the main attractions at Backstreet Cafe on Shepherd near West Gray—also helmed by chef Ortega of Hugo’s, along with his wife, Tracy Vaught—is the patio seating in the big backyard of the restored River Oaks manse that houses the restaurant. The other is Backstreet’s pioneering seasonal American menu—which also includes thoughtful vegetarian and gluten-free dishes—as well as smart beer-and-wine list that, like the food, features a little something for everyone.
Owner Ana Beaven has brought a taste of her native Mexico City to Houston with Cuchara. The food and decor—especially the colorful murals from Beaven’s sister, Cecilia—are both vibrantly modern and deeply rooted in the culinary traditions of interior Mexico. The aguas frescas are complimentary at lunch, and the all-female line cooks whip out updated renditions of mole verdes, chilatole, and salsas that would delight any abuelita.
When he opened Latin Bites in the small, 30-seat restaurant that now houses Oxheart, Peruvian-born Roberto Castre figured his modern Peruvian cooking would be a tough sell in Houston, but he was wrong. “You can find a lot of different cultures here,” he says, “and that helps a lot because people are more open to trying different types of foods.” In fact, the city has been so receptive to Castre’s causas, tiraditos, and Peruvian ceviches that Latin Bites relocated to a swanky new space in Tanglewood. Castre has developed such confidence in Houston’s palate, he has plans to open a standalone cevichería next.
At La Fisheria, chef Aquiles Chavez—best known for his appearances on Latin American cooking shows and reality programs—focuses on coastal Veracruz cuisine with a dazzling variety of ceviches, seafood cocktails, and modern Mexican entrees like achiote-rubbed red snapper with mashed sweet potatoes and xnipec. Try the shrimp cocktail served in a michelada. The crowded Heights-area restaurant has a bubbly, fun atmosphere, a perfect fit with both Chavez’s personality and his food.
At the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, chef Alex Padilla and an ownership group including Anvil’s Bobby Heugel preserve the Tex-Mex restaurant’s fajita and green sauce legacy while upgrading the menu with new specials like rabbit in red chile sauce, a tasty fajita burger, and exciting agave cocktails. But Mama Ninfa Laurenzo’s old place is facing competition from a new next-door neighbor—her son and grandson have built a new El Tiempo alongside her old place in the Second Ward.
Though El Tiempo is run by Ninfa Laurenzo’s family members, they are legally barred from using the Ninfa’s name. (The family sold the chain and the trademark many years ago.) And judging by the scale of the newly built palatial location in the Second Ward, it would seem the family is intent on squashing their grandmother’s landmark. A taste test reveals very little difference in the tacos al carbon, salsa, and frijoles served at the two restaurants, so you don’t have to choose sides in a family feud. Go to whichever establishment has a shorter wait—or visit one of the other El Tiempo locations.
Chef Michael Cordúa launched the Latin American steakhouse trend in Houston with Churrascos in 1988, popularizing grilled, thin-cut tenderloin and the luscious South American steak sauce called chimichurri. Instead of tortilla chips, the restaurant puts a basket of plantain chips on the table. The steakhouse was modeled on the popular El Churrasco steakhouse in Cordúa’s hometown of Managua, Nicaragua. The chef and his family went on to build several more Houston restaurants including the temple of Latin fusion called Américas, with locations in River Oaks and The Woodlands.
One of the city’s preeminent steakhouses isn’t actually in the city; it’s in Pearland, at Killen’s Steakhouse. “I’m not just a steakhouse chef,” brags Ronnie Killen, who’s worked with everyone from barbecue pitmasters to cutting-edge New York chef Wylie Dufresne. On Killen’s menu are steaks to satisfy a Texan’s beef-loving soul, but there’s also Kurobuta pork belly with a tamarind-cherry glaze and a Southern black-eyed pea gumbo. “My cooking style is: I like steaks, but whatever we do, we try to do it the best we can—and you’re only as good as you were yesterday.”
Owner Suzani Grant thoughtfully includes tacos and burgers on her menu at Lucy, which otherwise specializes in traditional Ethiopian fare served in a chic, upscale setting. Those who have come to Lucy in search of doro wat and injera can enjoy them on the low wicker tables called mesobs or in the main dining room, which turns into an informal dance club on the weekends. Either way, they’ll enjoy the thoroughly modern vibe and well-stocked bar.
When Justin Yu came back to Houston from Copenhagen and opened Oxheart early last year, detractors claimed that a multicultural, vegetable-focused, tasting menu–only restaurant in the rundown Warehouse District just wasn’t going to cut it. But those who’d tasted Justin Yu’s startlingly modern, clear-headed cooking at pop-up dinners—or followed him on his blog as he “staged” his way through Europe—knew the naysayers would be proved wrong. Yu’s intensely focused cooking style coaxes out the best and brightest flavors from Gulf Coast bycatch fish, as well as fruits and vegetables from local farms. With a nearly three-month waiting list for a table, it’s safe to say Oxheart is going to make it.
At chef Philippe Schmit’stwo-story flagship restaurant Philippe, he blends his two favorite cuisines: French and Texan. His former restaurant, Bistro Moderne in the Hotel Derek, was once the best French restaurant in the city, but sadly, its sophisticated French-cuisine “inside jokes” (like the avocado and crabmeat bombe) failed to win the city over. Regardless, by the time the bistro closed, the chef known as the “French Cowboy” had fallen in love with his new hometown, so now he’s back in the saddle in the Galleria area, serving amazing creations like duck confit tamales and foie gras po’ boys.
The relaxed elegance of Houston’s best French restaurant, Étoile, reflects the cool confidence of chef/owner Philippe Verpiand, a native of Provence. After visiting the Bayou City in 2009, he closed his restaurant in San Diego and opened Étoile in Uptown Park. “There was so much more energy in Houston than in San Diego,” he says. Verpiand combines the farm-to-market trend with classical cooking, serving updated French-American fare like lemon sole meunière with purple fingerling potatoes. What does he do differently since coming to Houston? “I make a really great burger patty with fatty choice brisket, top round, and ribeye trimmings, and I serve it on a fresh-baked brioche bun.”
Cold seafood dishes are a specialty of French brasseries, and the elegant Brasserie 19 is no exception.There’s a great oyster-bar selection and a wonderful seafood salad with shrimp and lobster, complemented by an excellent wine list that’s long on French whites. But this is Texas, so there’s also a zesty ceviche, and the plateau de fromages features French—and Texan—cheeses. The country club–chic dining room and pricey plateaux de fruits de mer have made the River Oaks restaurant a preferred destination for the city’s rich and pretty.
Bright red furniture and gold-painted dragons decorate the dining room of Fung’s Kitchen on the Southwest Freeway near Bellaire, and the walls are lined with aquariums containing live lobster, crab, prawns, scallops, turbot, and ling cod. “We serve Hong Kong-style Chinese food,” says chef/owner Hoi Fung, who comes from a family of chefs in the region. What’s the difference between Hong Kong and Houston ingredients? “Live seafood is our specialty,” chef Fung says. “In Hong Kong they get farm-raised fish—here we get wild. Wild seafood tastes better.” Fung’s Kitchen is a favorite for dim sumon weekends, weddings receptions, and other celebrations, including a wonderful Chinese New Year’s feast. And guess where the emperor of Japan’s daughter and her entourage ate when she visited Houston a few years ago?
Born in China and educated at the University of Texas at Austin, Cori Xiong, the young co-owner of Mala Sichuan on Bellaire in Chinatown, played it safe when the restaurant first opened, offering such standbys as sweet-and-sour chicken on the menu. But it was cutting-edge items like “garlic bacon” rolls, part of the Chinese charcuterie trend, and “funky chicken sticks,” 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.
Chef Gabe Medina brings his Filipino traditions to the Asian food fest at the five-year-old Soma Sushi, which was first opened by celebrity chef Robert Gadsby. Medina has pulled the restaurant out of its Washington Ave. torpor by kicking the sushi bar into high gear and creating the city’s most exciting ramen menu. There are several traditional ramen presentations and some unusual variations like seafood ramen with shellfish and black bean ramen garnished with the scrambled egg sushi called tamago; all the ramens are outstanding. A recent well-received weekly special was Texas ramen, featuring juicy slices of brisket and smoked pork belly with kimchi.
At Korea Garden, located on the western stretch of Long Point known as Koreatown, a generation of Houstonians learned about bibimbap, seafood pancakes, and Korean barbecue delicacies like grilled short ribs and grilled squid. Kimchi cabbage, kimchi cucumbers, and spiced potato chunks were close enough to coleslaw, pickles, and potato salad to pass. And if barbecuing the marinated rib-eye steak called bulgogi on a grill in the middle of the table wasn’t already Texan, well, it is now.
At Coppa on Washington Avenue, chef Brandi Key has created a menu that represents the evolution of Italian dining in Houston. You’ll find everything from old-school meatballs al forno to gleefully modern octopus carpaccio with mizuna and pickled Fresno chiles. The “Italian mixed grill” includes saba-marinated quail, Gulf shrimp, and a Parmesan polenta pudding. The restaurant is well known for its carefully curated list of interesting Italian wines.
The Italian food in Texas and Louisiana has long taken its cues from old-fashioned Sicilian. Chef Marco Wiles bucked tradition when he opened Da Marco, a cozy Montrose trattoria that serves food that might remind you of the modern Italian cooking style of Mario Batali in New York. Da Marco and its two sister restaurants, upscale pizzeria Dolce Vita and salumeria Poscol, are havens for Houstonians who love risottos, salumi, thin-crust pizza, and all the other delicacies of Northern Italian cuisines. Da Marco’s seasonal celebrations are highly recommended; this year for the holidays, he’s teaming up with Italian chefs to recreate the menu of a Venetian restaurant.
Second-generation restaurant owner Paul Petronella has lately taken Paulie’s on Westheimer near Shepherd from a pleasant Italian cafe to a highly recommended dining destination by keeping it fresh and local. His sensational house-made pastas are found in restaurants all over town. The house-baked cookies are great too, especially with Greenway Coffee and Eatsie Boys gelato, and there’s also a smart wine list (not to mention a new adjoining wine bar, Camerata).
The over-the-top decor and seating by social status at the old Tony’s on Post Oak might remind you of Patric Kuh’s The Last Days of Haute Cuisine. At the new Tony’s in Greenway Plaza, the dining room is impeccably done in earth tones with lovely woodwork and flower arrangements. The seating is more democratic, and the servers much better informed, even as the prices still aren’t cheap (except for the $21 three-course “Greenway Express Lunch”). Talented young chef Grant Gordon performs a brilliant balancing act, offering a new American tasting menu with sous vide wild game and foie gras dishes on one side of the menu, and an inspired collection of classic Italian dishes and house-made pastas on the other. Gordon describes his cooking style as “always evolving.”