With roughly 12,000 restaurants from which to choose, Houston has its citizens covered in an enviably wide range of gustatory whims. Craving a Roumanian steak? Go for it. Palestinian fried chicken? Yep. I'm not complaining.
But we can always improve. Other American cities still have some pretty cool things that we don't. Here's hoping some culinary mavericks grant some of my wishes that will help make 2017 Houston's most delicious year yet.
It's a fool's hope, I know. But before the final Horn & Hardart Automat closed in New York City in 1991, I made indestructible memories of the mac 'n' cheese and Salisbury steak that sprang from behind the museum-like glass with the insertion of some coins. If you grew up in Texas, compare my nostalgia with your feelings for Luby's, but with an extra dose of novelty. And my wishes for automated cuisine may not be as silly as you think: San Francisco-based chain Eatsa is serving quinoa bowls sans human contact in six locations coast-to-coast.
Better Late Night Options
When I got my job at Houstonia, I made a one-day visit to check out the city before moving cross-country. When my plane got in around 10 p.m. on a weeknight, my hostess quickly informed me there was pretty much only one place we could dine: Spanish Flowers. There are other places, of course, but they are certainly the exception, not the rule. As Houstonia lifestyle editor Sarah Rufca Nielsen put it, "I wish for a goddamn restaurant that will deliver me a turkey, tomato and Brie sandwich at 2 a.m., which is the same wish I've had since I moved back from New York in 2007." Maybe this year, Sarah.
With the opening of Afandim Restaurant, Houston now boasts two Uyghur restaurants. This makes my life, but a real fan of Central Asian fare cannot live on lagman alone. Hookah bar Sinbad Café & Grill has some Russian, Kyrgyz and Kazakh dishes, but Houston deserves more. I miss the Uzbek plov and manti I used to eat in Queens. The Georgian fare that's delightfully common in the L.A. area would be big here—who would turn down marinated, deep-fried Cornish hen, tabaka? And this girl grew up going to the original Russian Tea Room would be awfully delighted by a place to get a good chicken Kiev or stroganoff served to me by waiters in formal kosovorotka-style tunics.
A José Andres Joint
Don't get me wrong: I'm happy that Nobu is coming. Fig & Olive? Cool. But as long as Houston is being overtaken by an invasive species of restaurant, can we get a little love from one of its most innovative celebrity chefs? The best meal I ate last year was at Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas, and I think it's a concept that would make sense in Houston. Spanish-inspired meaty bits made into quirky fare like foie gras cotton candy? Sounds like Mutt City to me. Andres already has restaurants from D.C. to Puerto Rico to Los Angeles. The Third Coast awaits. Until then, I would also accept an invitation from Mario Batali to build a Houston location of Eataly. (See also: A Real Food Hall.)
Some may opine that White Castle or In-N-Out Burger are the fast food places to pray for. I disagree. I want tiny chili dogs and chicken sandwiches and I want them now. Most fast food grub is sized so that those indulging are just stuck with a burger and fries. Krystal allows diners a tapas-like experience. New to the brand, which is in nearly every southern state but Texas? That's fine. Order one of everything. Just don't fill up on the grits.
More Nose-to-Tail Butchery
I was recently lucky enough to attend a Euro-style butchery class at Revival Market. But as someone who has interned as a butcher myself, my primary thought was, "Why aren't more people in Texas doing this?" Sustainability is a problem in Houston all-around, not too shocking in a big city with little space to grow food and a long, hot summer. But even if we can't produce enough veggies to feed the whole city, it would be nice to cut waste. One of the best ways to do that is for restaurants and markets to purchase whole animals rather than steaks or primal cuts that mostly yield higher-end meat. We too often forget that other, lesser-used pieces of pigs and cattle can yield yummy ground meat, sausages and charcuterie and earn you a place in heaven for not discarding perfectly delicious animal parts.
One of the best things about living in Houston is that I no longer have to fill my mealtimes when traveling with cuisines I can't get at home. That way, I can focus on a place's distinct specialties uninterrupted. But there are a few exceptions. If I'm somewhere with a good tagine, I'm there. I have my suspicions that many a Moroccan restaurateur's annoying habit of forcing belly dancing on diners has killed the flame for some, but North African food, with its aromatic spices and French influences, is well worth exploring. I think it's time for Houston to try again (we've been without a Moroccan place for five years), sans belly dancers.
A Real Food Hall
The intentions are great at Conservatory. But when I say I want a food hall, I don't mean a pretty room with four different vendors. I mean a culinary emporium, a large indoor market with local products (think Heights honey, Texas cheeses and artisan bread) as well as places to buy prepared food or sit down for a meal. I want to pick up pastries, try different teas and eat an interesting lunch all under one roof. It's happened in plenty of other big cities, from Chelsea Market in New York to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace. Why can't we have nice things, too?
The ramen explosion is sure to hit maximum velocity right... about... now. Smaller trends in Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles and the aforementioned Uyghur fare indicate that Houstonians have an appetite for homemade Asian pasta. The natural next step? Hand-cut udon. At eateries like Los Angeles' Marugame Monzo, the thick, chewy noodles are the star, presented in applications ranging from traditional soups to gratins. I'm predicting (or at least hoping), our noodle next wave follows suit.
The first time I visited Central Market, I explained it to my mother as "Stew Leonard's without the whimsy." For those who didn't grow up in the New York City suburbs, let me explain. I was talking about the excellent gourmet market chain that also happens to have a petting zoo and a cavalcade of animatronics that would make Chuck E. Cheese hang his head in shame. I'm not saying we need more robots mixed with our food (though it would make me very happy), but the sense of fun that was clear when I tried, say, the "breakfast" dessert at Ka Sushi early this year. Something like that sizzling pan of coconut soufflé with a bacon smile and sweet potato eyes is just the right dash of humor Houston needs for a happier 2017.