The First-Timer’s Guide To Eating In Houston guide image

HOUGuide

The First-Timer’s Guide To Eating In Houston

When it comes to Houston restaurants, think of this guide as your crash course.

The H. Hou. H-Town. Space City. We’re not all billboards, concrete, and oil. If it was created here, born here, or, uh, refined here, we’re proud of it. And that’s especially the case when it comes to food. There are bánh mì shops, barbecue joints, and essentially an infinite amount of Tex-Mex restaurants lining the feeder roads from Sugarland to Seabrook. Trust you can find just about anything you’re looking for here, even if you have to drive 30 miles within city limits to get it. Our First Timer’s Guide only scratches the surface of the Houston eating experience, but the following places are top-tier for anyone new in town, and just as good for anyone who has lived here their whole life and is looking for a bucket list.

THE SPOTS

photo credit: Richard Casteel

Cali Sandwiches & Phở imageoverride image
8.3

Cali Sandwiches & Phở

$$$$

2900 Travis St, Houston
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The temple many Houstonians look to for bánh mì is Cali Sandwiches & Pho in Midtown. It’s an institution. The seating may be a little uncomfortable, and the service slightly chaotic, but the bánh mì are really, really good. The bread is crispy, the pork is smoky, and the mayo is some kind of mythical, fatty, rich concoction that does things that normal mayo doesn’t do. Cali is usually pretty busy for lunch, and it’s always crushed with to-go orders. But despite all the frenzy, the food comes out fast, hot, and exploding with flavor, especially the pho (but you should definitely order a sandwich).

By the time you notice the glow of Chopnblok’s neon sign in Houston’s Post Market food hall, you’ll also see the crowd out front. And they’re not just here for the free samples, they’re here for the casual spin on traditional West African dishes. ChòpnBlọk combines flavors from Nigeria, East Africa, and Ghana, with a few Creole ones, and creates something new, like an element on the periodic table that hasn't yet been discovered. You should get the golden bowl, where savory-sweet kelewele, refreshing coconut curry, and smoky jollof jambalaya party together in the same dish. Even though it’s a food stall surrounded by dozens of others, Chopnblok is a destination restaurant.

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Kind of like highway billboards and humidity, Mala Sichuan Bistro is part of what makes Houston, well, Houston. There are five locations across the city, because the classic Sichuan food at Mala Sichuan Bistro is mouth-numbing and habit-forming. The tingling effect of the mala peppercorn packed into every dish always makes for a good time, almost as though you’re sucking on too many Warhead candies all at once. Pull together a big group and order as many red-oil slick dumplings, noodles, and dry-fried vegetables as you can.

Never order two of the same dish at Himalaya. The owner won't let you anyways. He’s larger than life, lumbering around the restaurant chatting up diners, suggesting more food, and passing out to-go orders. At least half of the people in the cluttered dining room are regulars, and the owner seems to know them all. He’s got them hooked, not only on the aromatic food like the pepper-heavy chicken hara masala or the gamey and sweet mutton biryani, but on the entire restaurant’s personality. Because eating at Himalaya, a classic Pakistani and Indian restaurant in the Mahatma Gandhi District, is a Houston rite of passage.

Both the taco-obsessed and Houston’s growing legion of kombucha freaks can easily find a home at Cochinita & Co., the Mexican kitchen inside Kickin’ Kombucha’s East End cafe. Cochinita & Co. is named for the traditional Yucatan dish cochinita pibil, in which the tender roast pork gets marinated in citrus and warm, peppery achiote. Each bite bursts with tangy, meaty goodness. It’s frankly kind of rude that more food doesn’t automatically regenerate on the plate. This place is charming yet certifiably chill, the kind of spot everyone wishes they had in their neighborhood.

Nancy's Hustle is like the friend that you can leave alone at a party and they’ll make five friends by the time you come back to check on them. You come to this charming EaDo joint for creative, bistro-y dishes like lamb tartare on a crisp sesame flatbread or a juicy cheeseburger served on an english muffin. And the service is just as impressive as the food. Even at the coziest table at Nancy’s Hustle, the staff will ensure that you and your nancy cakes have as much elbow room as possible. As cool and lighthearted as Nancy’s Hustle is, a free table for walk-ins is probably somewhere next to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so make a reservation if you don’t want to try your luck at the bar.

A cornerstone of the Third Ward, Reggae Hut has been making staple Caribbean meals for over 25 years. Immune from life’s daily hustle and bustle, the place practically mandates that you stay awhile. While they do a brisk takeout business, we’d rather sit in the lived-in wooden chairs while laid-back reggae tunes play in the background. The food here, including some of the best oxtail in Houston, is rich, decadent and leaves you wishing you ordered extra coco bread to soak up every morsel. And while this isn’t the spiciest Caribbean food you’ll ever have, they have an arsenal of pepper sauce that will have you doubling back to the counter for another order of sorrel tea.

You better know what to order when you walk up to the counter at Laredo Taqueria, because the women making your tacos suffer absolutely zero fools. While this taco spot in Rice Military has a long list of rules they expect you to follow, the food is fast, consistent, and ludicrously satisfying. The roast barbacoa is fatty and delicious, the pollo guisado is spicy, the nopales are tangy, and the handmade flour tortillas are fluffy. There’s almost always a line, so be prepared to wait.

If there was a venn diagram of everything you’d want in a restaurant, Kata Robata would be at the center. This sushi bar and izakaya in an Upper Kirby strip mall perfectly melds together remarkable service, a lively atmosphere, and phenomenal food. The nigiri is always balanced between warm, sweet rice and cool expertly sliced fish. Grilled dishes, like the rich and savory hamachi collar, are as exceptional as the sushi, and worth fighting over. Whatever you’ve come here for—the chef’s omakase, a sake-fueled night out with friends, or a quick bite at the bar—Kata Robata delivers with cool, seasoned confidence.

You go to the Lebanese restaurant Aladdin Mediterranean in Montrose for extremely comforting and delicious food when you don’t want to spend a million bucks. The pitas are perfect for dipping into silky caramelized onion hummus, wrapping up tender shawarma, or sopping up the last few bites of pomegranate eggplant stew. Stop in for a quick, affordable meal or lunch to-go, especially when you’re in a rush. Consistent and reliable, Aladdin’s like a hug from an old friend, but if that hug were made of bread.

From the people sucking back crawfish heads to the goldfish hoovering up pellets in their tank, everyone is chowing down at Crawfish & Noodles, a Viet-Cajun institution in Chinatown. Cajun dishes including boiled crawfish and turkey necks are infused with Vietnamese flavors like lemongrass, ginger, chili, and fish sauce. Dining here is essentially like stumbling into a wayward sports bar, where the TVs blare Astros games, and everyone dons bibs and comically large plastic gloves like cartoon surgeons while frantically snapping crawfish in half. It may be a little unconventional, but we don’t mind because the food is really, really good.

The Montrose donut shop Christy’s makes the best apple fritter donut in town. It’s packed with cinnamon and jammy apples, and surrounded by perfectly fried edges. A true Houston delicacy, the boudin kolaches softly pull apart to reveal surprisingly spicy, smoky, and tender sausage. Service at this family-run spot is quick and friendly, and they always sneak a couple donut holes into every bag. Pop in for some warm donuts to-go, or stay and share some donuts on their vintage yellow tables.

photo credit: Richard Casteel

Turkey Leg Hut imageoverride image
8.5

Turkey Leg Hut

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What started as a couple serving turkey legs to hungry rodeo-goers from a food truck has become Turkey Leg Hut, one of the most prominent restaurants in the heart of the Third Ward. On any given weekend there’ll be a line wrapped around the building with folks from Houston and out of towners drawn by word of mouth. Turkey Leg Hut has earned a reputation for its rodeo-inspired Cajun and Creole food, long ass lines, strong and sweet frozen drinks, buzzy atmosphere, and, yes, the occasional controversy. But people are here, mainly, for the turkey legs.You should be, too.

Pappas Bros. isn’t trying to be anything other than a classic steakhouse. Here, you can make your desire for an expensive dry-aged steak a reality—you can even pick a cut of meat straight from the display case at the front. The dining room is pleasantly dim, the wine list is dubiously long, and the staff is diligent. Stay long enough and the refined style and sleek service will have you agreeing to everything on the decadent dessert cart, just to keep the experience alive a little longer.

Huynh is a beloved neighborhood Vietnamese restaurant in EaDo close to the convention center and downtown where every diner is treated like a regular. It’s a reliable place for lunch and dinner, even when it’s busy. Service is attentive, and the food is solid, ranging from a charred, smoky shaken beef and a spicy, aromatic bún bò huế. The owners are always there, waiting tables and greeting guests—you’ll know who they are from all of the family photos hanging in the waiting area. Huynh is also BYOB, so you can bring a few bottles for a date or large get-together. And make sure to grab a Dum-Dum on your way out.

Deeply loved by longtime regulars, many of whom have their pictures lining the walls, Spanish Village has been around for over 70 years. Even after all that time, this place still feels lighthearted—with a cheery, string-lit interior interior and brightly tiled tables filling the restaurant. Spanish Village is the sort of place that could bring a smile out of anyone. If sentiment alone isn’t enough to get you here, there are also juicy beef fajitas, cheese and onion enchiladas smothered in rich gravy, and decadent chile con queso (add molina to make it spicy). The service is in no rush, so come here when you have time to burn—you’re probably going to need some extra time to babysit one of their very strong margaritas, anyway.

There’s only one place in town where you get a saag wild mushroom dwaffle (dosa plus waffle), and it’s at Pondi Bake Lab. This bakery and cafe above Pondicheri serves a mix of Indian street food and pastries, and everything is so vibrantly beautiful you’ll wonder if you’re in a restaurant or a gallery where the art is edible. Despite being crammed into a multi-use apartment megaplex in Upper Kirby, it’s basically a chic industrial treehouse that’s perfumed with saffron and hibiscus. Whether you’re taking a long lunch or picking up cookies to go, anything you order here makes you a more interesting version of yourself.

Gatlin’s BBQ is a charming barbecue spot that feels too good for an unassuming strip mall in Garden Oaks. At any point, you’ll see Mama Gatlin tending to the front counter, bringing food to folks’ tables, cracking jokes with regulars, and even finding time to help people bring their leftovers to their cars. You come to Gatlin’s BBQ for consistent, juicy barbecue, Southern-style sides, and an atmosphere that makes you feel like you stumbled into a kind neighbor's cookout. On the weekends, the line can be a little long, but it’ll give you time to make difficult decisions strategizing your three-meat plate, while you hope that their bread pudding doesn’t sell out before you reach the front counter.

The Montrose restaurant Hugo’s is timeless and classic, as are the fine-tuned traditional Mexican dishes. At Hugo’s, parking is valet-only, margaritas are shaken tableside, suckling pig gets wrapped in banana leaves, and chapulines are served alongside housemade blue corn tortillas that you’ll smell on your hands long after you’ve left the restaurant. It’s where you can go to celebrate your birthday, or where you can people-watch Houston’s elite as they celebrate a Thursday. If you’re in need of brunch plans, reserve a table at Hugo’s on Sunday for a massive brunch buffet for chicken tamales and huevos motulenos while a live quartet plays from the balcony.

Thíên Ân Sandwiches in Midtown is a dependable spot for a quick lunch, basically Houston’s version of a Vietnamese diner. It’s the kind of no-nonsense, family-run place you immediately understand and feel comfortable in. All the food, from the banh mi to the pho, is solid, and everything arrives fresh and fast. One dish you’ll likely see on every table is the massive, golden bánh xèo, a wok-sized crepe stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts that comes with fish sauce for dunking. While it’s big enough to share, you can also tackle one alone if you have some feelings to work out. You should also order the gỏi vịt—a giant salad of tender roast duck, shredded cabbage, and gingery fish sauce.

Frenchy’s Chicken has multiple locations around the city, but you’ll know you’re at the right one (in the Third Ward) when you see a parade of cars waiting to turn into the drive-thru. Since opening in the ‘60s, their golden-brown fried chicken, savory boudin links, and gris gris sauce has kept this place busy day and night. The chicken here is consistently crispy that comes with an ACG (Audible Crunch Guarantee) every time. When you order here, you’ll wait anywhere from 20-30 minutes to get your food (yes, even if you’re in the drive-thru), but it’s so good that even Beyoncé mentioned it in one of her songs—so it’s clearly worth the wait.

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