Last week when catching a flight out of Intercontinental's Terminal A—a terminal I hadn't visited in years—I came to the sudden realization that if I didn't grab dinner now, it would be 2 a.m. before I'd be back on the ground and able to eat something more substantial than peanuts. Poor planning on my part was compounded by unfamiliarity with the newly redesigned terminal. I spotted a Wendy's, grabbed a grilled chicken salad and toted it dutifully to my gate...and right past a Hubcap Grill. "Figures," I grumbled to my husband, "I'd unknowingly settle for a fast-food salad when I could have been eating one of the best burgers in the city."
Houston, like many other cities, has finally begun aligning its airport fare with the actual food in the city itself, recruiting local chefs and restaurant groups to replace bog-standard fast-food fare with homegrown options. In addition to already-open airport iterations of Houston institutions like Ray's Real Pit BBQ and Pink's Pizza, still more locally-inspired spots are planned for the coming years, including a pizzeria from Coltivare chef Ryan Pera and a panini spot from Sparrow chef Monica Pope. There's even another location of Marcus Davis's the breakfast klub coming right next to that dang Wendy's.
Below, our top picks at both Bush Intercontinental Airport and Hobby Airport for all your last-minute on-the-run dinner-grabbing needs—all of them Houston-owned:
Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)
3rd Bar Eating House
If the idea of consuming raw oysters before a flight bothers you, that's because it normally should. Here at the IAH outpost of chef Bryan Caswell's seafood palace Reef, however, you can rest easy knowing that these are the freshest of the fresh-shucked oysters, plucked from the briny waters of Galveston Bay—you won't get terroir like that from barbecue or burgers.
As one of Houston's best burger joints, this place—like the original Prairie St. location downtown—has been packed since its grand opening in late November. Unlike its other locations, however, this Hubcap Grill serves breakfast: Think ribeye steak-and-egg sandwiches and a breakfast burger with a fried egg.
Pappadeaux's Seafood Kitchen
Prefer your seafood cooked? You can't go wrong with Pappadeaux's famous crawfish half-and-half platter: a heaping scoop of fried crawfish tails and a creamy mound of crawfish étouffée. And for those tough travel days (or nights) when you need some serious comfort food, look no further than the baked crab mac 'n' cheese.
Really on the run? Grab a slice of one of Pink's beloved Big Boss (pepperoni, Italian sausage, beef, Canadian bacon and American bacon) or the Lazy Lasagna (it's Garfield-approved).
Ray's Real Pit BBQ Shack
The original Ray's on Old Spanish Trail may offer a Chicago-style ribs tip plate, but at its IAH outpost, it's all Texas barbecue all the time. Grab a plate of brisket with a side of deep-fried corn on the cob for a snooze-inducing dinner that will have you napping all the way to Nashville or a truly Texan breakfast of brisket, eggs and grits.
Tony's Wine Cellar and Bistro
This may be the priciest airport meal you've had in a while, but with good reason: Tony's is operated by none other than legendary local restaurateur Tony Vallone—yes, of that Tony's—making it the perfect spot to schmooze with clients while you wait. Le Grand Comptoir in Terminal C makes a fine sub if you're nowhere near D, but you won't find a better wine list anywhere else—Tony's even lets you enjoy half-glasses of its Italian Verdicchio and French Marsanne.
Hobby Airport (HOU)
Near Gates 20–21
While there's no breakfast pizza here as of yet, Barry's does offer full Italian dinners (with breadsticks and salad) and highly portable stromboli in addition to its line-up of pies by the slice.
Near Gate 44
What's more Texan than a Frito pie? How about a Frito pie burger with a slice of pecan pie to finish? You can get them both at this Pappas Burger, also renowned for the efficient-yet-casual way they can get you through a sit-down meal and to your gate.
Near Gate 1, 4 and 20–21
If you're leaving town for any considerable length of time, you may give some serious thought to making Tex-Mex your final meal, because it is simply not the same outside of Houston. Bowling for Soup was almost right; "the Mexican food sucks north of here anyway," here in our case being Houston, not Denton.
Yia Yia Mary's
Near Gate 1
Finding good vegetarian or vegan options can be hard enough, especially while traveling, but the Greek gods behind Yia Yia Mary's have seen fit to bless the Hobby concourse with menu options both veggie-based and gluten-free. And even if you are a carnivore, good luck passing up Yia Yia's Mary's heavenly falafel platter with herbed rice and a tangy Greek salad.