The Houston Guide
Houston is a proper Texan city. In other words, it’s massive, folksy, and utterly charming. The nineteen museums within the Museum District are all world-class, Chinatown here is a mini-metropolis within the city, shopping requires its own itinerary, and extra days tacked onto your trip are never a bad call. As for the food, we’ll put it this way: Houston managed to bring home twelve James Beard nominations. And that was just last year.
Torchy’s Tacos350 W 19th St., The Heights | 713.595.8229
If you're eating your way through Houston, you'll stumble on a fair amount of tacos. From cornmeal-crusted catfish to Austin-style breakfast tacos, Torchy's has earned the trust of Texans statewide. In this city alone, there are five branches, but unlike with most chains, the food and staff are unequivocally beloved at every outpost. Still, this one in the Heights is our personal preference. (It's easier to get a seat, and there's a bar, meaning margaritas.) If we had to narrow it down to three, go for fried avocado, the Trailer Park (fried chicken), and green chili pork.
Caracol2200 Post Oak Blvd #160, Utpown | 713.622.9996
The word "caracol" means "snail" in Spanish, an ode to chef Hugo Ortega's memories of ceviche de caracol served fresh in his brother's kitchen in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The seafood dishes on the menu follow a familiar route—fresh, sentimental seafood, served with obvious care and love. A custom wood-burning oven allows the house specials to shine: whole roasted fish and wood-grilled oysters topped with chipotle butter. For dessert, the El Coco, a series of chocolates, handmade by chef Ortega's brother Ruben Ortega and served in the shell of a cocoa pod to be cracked open with a little wooden hammer. Finish with guava mimosas—sublime and refreshing enough to suggest a hint of sea breeze on the brow.
Peli Peli5085 Westheimer Rd, Ste B2515, Uptown | 281.257.9500
Chef Paul Friedman represents South Africa well, merging Dutch, Portuguese, and Asian influences into perfectly seared meats and seafood, served with a side of lush chutneys and spices. The name, Peli Peli, refers to a little red pepper relied upon to transform marinades in traditional cuisine. To experience its full effect, opt for the Cape Town skillet, a dish piled high with prawns so massive they have to squeeze onto the plate, scallops, sautéed calamari, and more. With a thirty-foot acacia tree as a centerpiece and a ceiling of networked neon lights, the restaurant's interior is as much an attraction as the food.
The Pit Room1201 Richmond Ave., Museum District | 281.888.1929
Ranking BBQ in Texas is ill-advised. The topic invites strong opinions and heated debates, and it can get personal. Nevertheless, it's easy to make a case for the Pit Room. The brisket here is simply outstanding. Pitmaster Bram Tripp claims the secret is a strict adherence to high-quality meat—everything served is USDA beef or heritage pork from California—but we think there's something in the sauce. The sides are as carefully crafted as the meat: butter beans with bits of bacon, homemade jalapeño and vinegar potato chips, tortillas fried with lard from the brisket. The only things not made in-house are the bread and ice cream, and judging by everything else, if Tripp had a go at it, he'd nail that, too.
State of Grace3258 Westheimer Rd., River Oaks | 832.942.5080
An ode to contemporary Houston, State of Grace has been appropriately established inside a refurbished shopping mall. The menu feels like an elevated version of the Houston food court. Crawfish hushpuppies—doughy balls of cornmeal, flour, and fish, fried then dusted in powdered sugar—share the menu with K-town fried chicken, cheese enchiladas, and squid ink pasta. It's Texas, in all its multicultural, contradictory glory. The eclectic fare makes it a bit of a hipster haven, but trust that the standards here are pretty classic.
Mala Sichuan Bistro9348 Bellaire Blvd., Chinatown | 713.995.1889
Mala Sichuan Bistro is the crown jewel of Houston's Chinatown, a neighborhood glittering with really good food. The people elected it a winner long before the James Beard nomination was announced—check the consistently packed hall of happy diners as proof. Mala reserves bragging rights as some of the best Sichuan in the country: dan dan noodles, mapo tofu, and spicy, crispy chicken. The water-boiled fish in particular is a winner—the bright-red pot of simmering fish stew is perfect over a bowl of rice. Whatever you order, a side of eggplant cooked to sweet, gooey perfection is just…let's just say you'll be happy.
Local Foods2555 Kirby Dr., River Oaks | 713.255.4440
Local Foods has been packed with lines out the door since it first opened in Rice Village in 2011. Perhaps the new downtown locations can disperse the crowds, but it's doubtful considering the love for this sandwich shop runs deep. The secret at Local Foods is to keep it all fresh: You can hear the crisp snap of cauliflower when you bite into the Garden Sammie, a phenomenal veggie sandwich with a rich avocado spread. And make it a point to sample the vegan chili—vegan options abound, but this side is a standout. Otherwise, the undisputed classic is the Crunchy Chicken sandwich, fried chicken topped with crushed kettle chips and nuts, pickled cucumbers, and tomato slices on a salted pretzel bun.
Xochi1777 Walker St., Downtown | 713.400.3330
Hugo Ortega solidifies his status as a city treasure with Xochi (his 2017 follow-up to Caracol), built with his wife to represent the diversity of Oaxacan cuisine. Expect zero compromises on tradition—masas, tortillas, chocolates, cheeses, and moles are all house-made. What's imported are the authentic Oaxacan coffee beans, impossible to find anywhere else. The menu may be intimidating, but a short-course tasting of four moles of your choice and a platter of tortillas is a great place to start. The chichilo mole is an easy favorite, but consider the chaicatana, mixed with dried flying ants. Then delve into the antojitos for a taste of goat tacos or tlayudas, an Oaxacan street food of thin, fried tortilla, covered in beans, lettuce, meat, cheese, and salsa.
Uchi904 Westheimer Rd., Montrose | 713.522.4808
James Beard Award–winning chef Tyson Cole serves small and inventive Japanese dishes using a mix of local ingredients and nonlocal seafood. Order the Hot Rock (they bring Wagyu beef and a hot rock to your table and cook the meat in front of you), and the madai from the sushi menu. If you're a peanut butter person, you have to get the peanut butter semifreddo with apple-miso sorbet for dessert. The combination of flavors may sound strange, but it tastes amazing. If you don't have time for a full dinner, come between 5 and 6:30 for sake social, during which a limited, but noteworthy, selection of the menu is on offer (and for a fraction of the cost).
La Calle Tacos909 Franklin St., Downtown | 832.735.8226
Despite the wealth of taco options available in Houston, Ramon Soriano Tomka was still craving the tacos he knew from the streets of Mexico City. One man's food craving can become a city's culinary treasure, as is the case with La Calle Tacos. Here, Tomka converted the best-of-the-best taco recipes from all his favorite spots—sampling the translucent tortillas he knew from one or the salsa from another—into one perfect taco. Guacamole, for once, does not cost extra, and the aguas frescas are made with fresh, whole fruit.
Pondicheri2800 Kirby Dr., Upper Kirby | 713.522.2022
Anita Jaisinghani's reverence for the healing power of Indian spices mixed with her creativity makes Pondicheri's menu both new and familiar. Palak paneer is tucked into simmering green omelets, and morning thali (a traditional breakfast platter) is reimagined to include oats, saffron yogurt, and a fried egg atop dosas. The fried chicken is coated in chickpea batter and tossed in garam masala and dried mango powder, and the specialty burger involves a lamb and goat meat patty. A second location has recently opened in New York.
True Food Kitchen1700 Post Oak Blvd., Uptown | 281.605.2505
Dr. Andrew Weil's bastion of healthy, balanced eating is a welcome change to the famously rich local cuisine. Open for brunch, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant serves vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free food with a focus on ingredients that are sustainable and organic. Carnivores will love the grass-fed bison burger, followed by a Double Brown Stout from Dallas brewery Deep Ellum.