Houston is an outstanding food city. Drop in for a weekend and you'll find high-end fancy restaurants, the perfect date night, the perfect celebration spot, neighborhood establishments that'll beat other cities' neighborhood establishments in a fight, and so many jewels tucked into every crevice of this wild, lawless maze of concrete. I've been here for three years, and I swear I haven't even scratched the surface.
It's a food city. We have to keep that up. Please keep that up. Visit your favorite restaurants, please, and try new ones too. Get takeout. Go to your local farmers market. Go to a farm once in a while. Get to know a bartender somewhere in Houston because, I swear, your eating and drinking knowledge will improve substantially.
Eat, and eat well. Here's a good start—these are my favorite restaurants in Houston. I've split them into two lists of 10—the first capturing the spots I'll visit again and again for one reason or another (think of these as my essential restaurants), and the second capturing my absolute, locked-down top 10, at least as of July 1, 2021.
After July 1, 2021? I guess you'll just have to find me and ask me.
Good eating, Houston. This has been a freaking blast.
Timothy Malcolm's 10 Essentials
I'll cheat for a second: The Cold-Fashioned, a drink, is the main reason I go to Better Luck, but ultimately I'm a big fan of the Justin Yu and Bobby Heugel partnership, and this nails the casual side of that connection. If the slightly more formal Penny Quarter had survived the worst of the pandemic, then I would've probably put it on this list too. But, man, give me the Party Melt for lunch, or maybe some sprouts for snack time. I did the fried chicken once, and you should do it some time too.
More bar/food: Anvil Bar & Refuge, The Hay Merchant, Eight Row Flint, Space Cowboy, Monkey's Tail
Let's be real: It's impossible to pick barbecue places. I like Truth BBQ for brisket, Burns Original BBQ for pork ribs, the Pit Room for sausage, and Feges BBQ for sides. I like Pinkerton's for all of it plus the drinks. I like Tejas Chocolate & BBQ for all of it ... if I want to travel a little. I like Brett's BBQ Shop whenever he does just about anything. Roegels is the pig boss who also makes a damn good brisket. Blood Bros.? They do it all pretty darn well, especially that macaroni and cheese, and especially those ribs, and especially whatever crazy special they cook up. Also, they're relatively local to me, and sometimes that alone is worth the endorsement.
More BBQ: Everything above
This is a great neighborhood restaurant. Bring some friends to share entrées like shrimp and grits (arguably my favorite in the city), duck breast, and a top-shelf fried chicken. The turkey club here slaps, and the Thai chili ribs are a lot of fun. Elliot Roddy brings excitement and care into this small space; I'd love to see what he could do with a big platform.
More neighborhood: Tiny Champions, Candente, Savoir, Mein, Tiny Boxwoods, Backstreet Cafe
If I want pasta, this is where I'm going. That's it. Just about everything is made in house, like that pappardelle ai funghi e gorgonzola, which is among my last-meal choices. Or maybe I want the imported orecchiette giorgione last ... or possibly the spaghetti alla carbonara. Choosing a dish at Giacomo's is like choosing a favorite kid. Can't do it ... but you've been asked ...
More best of their craft: Afrikiko, Golden Dumpling House, The ToreOre, Blue Nile
Part of me wants to see what Kaiser Lashkari's food looks like in a spacious, airy dining room with a patio. Most of me doesn't, though, because then you lose a lot of what makes Himalaya special. Himalaya reminds me of my favorite ever meal, when the owner of Alekos, a locals-mostly restaurant in Crete, Greece, just kept sending out incredible dishes without a menu. Like at Alekos, I don't mind putting full trust in Lashkari to deliver me the most flavorful representations of what he does best, South Asian food. And it has to happen in that tiny place with full tables and lots of chatter. Also, have you had that fried chicken?
More foodie jewels: Siu Lap City, Sofrito (when it opens again), Street to Kitchen
I've had enough standout dishes at Hu's Cooking to write a book about. Some musts: beef in garlic sauce with buns, sweet-skinned duck, popcorn chicken with veggies, three cups tofu, spicy shabu-shabu lamb with spearmint, shrimp fried rice, sliced beef in Szechuan hot chili oil. I love the casual, but buzzy dining room set against the restaurant's precision service. It's fun. I love fun.
More fun restaurants: Kokoro, Shun Japanese Kitchen
Once every few months I just want to get a table outside, order the migas (in my opinion, the greatest breakfast dish ever), and have my cup of coffee refilled about seven times. That's bliss, baby.
More breakfast: Yale Street Diner, EggHaus, New York Deli & Coffee Shop
For my birthday I went to La Lucha, sat on the patio, drank a beer, and ate a dozen oysters and fries with that insanely good smoked oyster mayo. That's all I need. Of course, La Lucha also has awesome fried chicken, a great burger, deviled eggs, that stupidly delicious crawfish bread, and many more treats. Paradise.
More seafood: Margaux's Oyster Bar, Crawfish & Noodles, 1751 Sea & Bar
If on a Saturday morning we're all awake and feeling good and hungry, and we can make the drive over, we'll get to Lankford. Why? Lankford has the best two-egg breakfast in the city, plus Saturday is when you get biscuits and gravy. What a gem. Great breakfasts and a fun-lunch vibe with those big burgers and lots of space for the whole family. This is where I'll take the kids every time.
More family-friendly: Saint Arnold Brewing Co. Beer Garden & Restaurant, Watershed, Cottonwood
Did I move to Westbury to get closer to Tamales Don Pepe? Hard to say. But seriously, Tamales Don Pepe has great breakfast options (the tacos are first rate) and makes killer tamales. Anything with corn is a must. It's small, it's friendly, and it epitomizes what makes Houston food awesome in that you can drive just a few minutes and find another spot you'll want to be near forever.
More cool finds: Tres, Gangnam Style Restaurant, Asia Market Thai Lao Food, Safari Restaurant
Timothy Malcolm's 10 Best Restaurants in Houston
Honorable mentions: Theodore Rex, Mastrantos, Xochi, UB Preserv, Tris, Tony's, Indigo (which would probably be on the list if it wasn't closing and had seats left to nab)
It's a great date night, a great random weeknight visit, a great friend spot—it hits all the marks. Go for the butter burgers and mushroom empanadas, the crawfish rolls and the caviar tots. Keep it casual or go bigger than big—the choice is yours.
Sit in the center of Chris Shepherd's ultimate dining room, and you'll get it. Or sit at the bar—you'll get it there too. It isn't just the long bone ribeye and the Baller Board, either. You can get a drink (whiskey base, preferably) and charcuterie and have a ball. You'll be singing along quietly to the music, maybe chatting with someone at the table next to you, and pondering whether you really want to splurge on some wet-aged steak (you should, and I love the zabuton).
My favorite meal growing up was fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and buttermilk biscuits. I was raised on meaty pasta dishes, TV dinners, and Friday night pizza, so I'm not sure why I gravitated toward Southern home cooking, but nevertheless, here I am in Houston. Lucille's is the best of my favorite childhood meal. I love the fried green tomatoes, I love the catfish and grits, and man, do I love that yardbird. The dining room straddles the line of super casual and "I probably should put on a nice shirt," and that's the kind of dining room I'll visit all the time.
7. Kata Robata
Here's why Kata rules: You can build your own experience. If I want a maki roll for lunch, I can get the Toro & Ikura (tuna, shiso, ikura). If I want ramen, there's the irresistible lobster and crab ramen. I can go with 24-hour sous vide pork belly or a melt-in-your-mouth wagyu katsu sando, or maybe I want whimsy and the miso lobster mac and cheese. Big dinner? Yes. Omakase? Sure. The dining room is cool and always abuzz, and chef Manabu Horiuchi has more ideas than I've had dinners in my life. Go every few months—I demand of you.
I will always root for the little guy—the husband and wife who are parents and have a dream to make seriously delicious food and awesome drinks for all of their new friends. Martin Stayer makes some of the happiest food in town, like the dilly bread, the crispy chickpeas, and the brie plate (always the brie plate). I trust Stayer's ever-changing menu, I trust the fantastic wine list, and I trust Sarah Troxell and team to make me a damn good cocktail. Oh, yes, the pies kick butt.
March represents something Houston needed badly: A restaurant that's going to cost a pretty penny because it is pretty as can be, with execution to match. If you have the means, make a reservation so you can sip house vermouth in the lounge and study Felipe Riccio's fantastically composed plates like tuna ventresca and beef rib with supple beet pave. The service is second to none. The wine list is something to behold (just ask them for recommendations). It's a night you won't soon forget.
I've written a lot about Bludorn. Look, the service is wonderful, the lobster pot pie is absolutely something you should get, I'd trust anything Aaron Bludorn does but especially quail and chicken, and you can get full just eating all of the oysters. Just go and enjoy the evening.
Every time I've had Nancy's I've been transported to some random night in New York City. There was the night with my wife at the pass, the first time I ate those Nancy cakes but fell even harder for the lamb dumplings. That night I was back at our first date, Wilfie & Nell in Manhattan, with fried pickles, grilled cheese, and a pitcher of beer. The anticipation, the butterflies, the comfort. I came back and sat at the bar with Nancy's delicious cheeseburger, and that took me to Upstate, a Manhattan restaurant that does beer and oysters and you're cramped and it's amazing. My wife came home one night with takeout—maybe linguine? Suddenly I was sitting on the couch in her shoebox of an apartment in Astoria, Queens, listening to WYNC and watching squirrels trying to get in through the window. These are happy memories for me. Nancy's makes me happy.
One bite of the marinated mussels and beans on grilled bread sent me to another dimension. Every time I went to Squable (sans an early-pandemic limited-menu pickup visit), I ordered those mussels. Insanely good. That and the martini, the best martini in Houston. Squable is comfortable and just a tad formal; it's a good time with surprises (wait for the silverware to appear), and it's small plates and drinks, big plates and good times all wrapped into one. Get the French cheeseburger. Get the Dutch baby pancake. Get pasta, all of the pasta.
I adore the way my wife picked away at the focaccia di recco, that warm bread unfairly laced with cheese—unfair because you will eat the whole thing immediately and waste some appetite. It's going to happen. Anyway, my wife: She inhaled that stuff. She was in from the jump and had no reservations about what other people thought. I fell in love again that night.
It happened again, later, with the mint gelato. "Holy shit," I said, maybe to everyone around me, because I'd never had dessert that mind melting. Love.
In between we had outstanding pasta and fun veggie dishes. On other visits I've had some of the best Neapolitan pizza I've enjoyed in Houston, including my absolute favorite, the rustic fennel sausage. If I were to pick an entrée, I'll go with the (also rustic) chicken Basquaise—so simple and yet bursting with fruity heat and acidity.
Goodnight Hospitality puts a lot of thought into service, and here it's sharp, conversational, and thoughtful, never stuffy or formal. You'll get an apértif before diving into an exciting but tidy wine list. Wait for the sommelier to steer you in the right direction. Let the night go a little. Don't feel tethered to other plans.
One last thing. The last time I went to Rosie Cannonball I snuck in at 7 p.m. on a Friday and scored a two-top for a cocktail. I had—what else—a negroni ... it was dynamite. Rosie Cannonball made me fall in love with the freaking negroni.
Or to put it another way, I've fallen in love a couple times at Rosie Cannonball. It's my No. 1.