Food is definitely one of my favorite parts of travel, so naturally when I visited Houston, Texas, I was ready to eat. One of my good friends lives in Houston and under her expert guidance, I was able to try a lot of popular foods in Houston. I hope this post makes you very hungry! (This post isn’t necessarily vegan-friendly.)
Houston is a really fascinating place in the United States when it comes to food. Beyond Tex-Mex, you have an amazing mix of cultures from all around the world due to refugees settling in Houston. That unique mix of cultures is the reason that Houston arguably has one of the best food scenes in the United States and why it’s the focus of one of the Ugly Delicious episodes. I’ve included some food highlights of my time in Houston.
It is very important to note that Houston is a huge metropolitan area, so check the location before you go. You will probably need a car in Houston. It is possible to find a few restaurants in strictly in the Downtown area, but it’s much easier navigating this sprawling city with a car. Avoid driving in rush hour as the traffic can be horrendous.
The fajita was actually invented in Texas. Although you’ll find amazing authentic Mexican food in Houston (I loved Sierra Madre Taco Co. Mexican Restaurant!), Tex-Mex is its own genre. This type of cuisine is said to be invented by Mexican ranch workers who learned to cook skirt steaks (one of the toughest cuts).
In the 1940s, a Mexican-American woman named Ninfa opened up a Mexican restaurant that changed the recipe into “tacos a la Ninfa.” Once the other ingredients (sour cream, cheese, chilies, cilantro, onion, tomatoes) were added, it was something to reckon with. You can still go to the original Ninfa’s restaurant, however you’ll find numerous places to try a great fajita in Houston. My local friend recommends the family-run El Tiempo Cantina.
Something that I loved about Houston was the abundance of tamales. Even while out at a bar, we were asked if we wanted tamales that were freshly made by someone going through the bar with a basket of them. (They were delicious!)
In case you’re not familiar with tamales, tamales are a dish of Mesoamerican origin with dough inside (sometimes vegetarian) that is steamed in a corn husk or banana leaf. Alamo Tamales is famous in Houston.
A large group of Vietnamese refugees came to the United States between 1975 and 1988 as part of the Indochinese Assistance and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. Houston was a major hub for Vietnamese refugees due to its warm climate and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico.
Houston today has one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the United States and it’s reflected in the food of Houston. In the Southwest part of Houston, you’ll find numerous Vietnamese businesses as well as in Midtown (the old Chinatown) and now the new Houston Chinatown, which sits closer to Bellaire. Come for the delicious pho and stay for all the other delicious Vietnamese food!
Another unintentional byproduct of the Vietnamese migration to Houston is the new cuisine that it created. The dish to try is Vietnamese Cajun crawfish, a Houston invention. Although crawfish is not a traditional component of Vietnamese food, it was adapted by creative Vietnamese cooks who integrated Vietnamese flavors into this iconic cajun dish.
Expect to have a dish that is spicy with a mountain of garlic. Crawfish season is fairly short, so it is not possible to find this dish year-round, so while you’re in Houston, look for signs advertising crawfish boils. To save yourself some pain (and a dollar), bring your own gloves from home–and buckle up for at least a pound of delicious crawfish. (One and a half pounds is enough for one person.) We ended up at New LA Crawfish Boil, but you’re likely to find plenty of great options near you.
Kolache, a type of Czech pastry, is one of Texas’s most popular breakfast items. Introduced to the area by Czech immigrants who settled in Houston in the 19th century, kolaches have become increasingly popular through the years. Kolaches come with both sweet and savory fillings: sweet ones are filled with fruits and cheese while savory ones have sausages and other meats.
While Houston has many kolache bakeries and shops, the most popular place to eat them is the Kolache Shoppe, a 50-year-old institution specializing in kolaches. I especially recommend their cream cheese and strawberry kolaches. (Contributed by Ketki of Dotted Globe)
Texas is famous for its brisket. Brisket is a specific cut of beef that, however in Texas, smoked barbeque brisket is an art form. A good Texas brisket will be smoked for at least half a day and will be served with a small amount of tomato based sauce that isn’t overly sweet. (Don’t oversauce your meat!)
It’s said that Jewish immigrants first brought smoked brisket to Texas as early as 1916. If you’re in downtown Houston, Conservatory is a great pick for an affordable lunch spot with brisket with options for non-meat eaters.
Shipley’s Do-nuts is a Houstonian institution. My friend Kristy took us to one of the branches of this donut chain that started in Houston in 1936. These donuts were simple, cut by hand, and warm. Still today, Shipley’s is serving up delicious warm donuts. (They also have delicious hot coffee for a great price.)
BBQ pulled pork
While Houston is famous for its barbeque joints, most people associate Texan BBQ with baby back ribs and briskets. However, the barbeque pulled pork is also a must try when in the city. I especially like the South Texas-style pulled pork which is liberally drenched in spicy barbeque sauce.
One of my favorite places to eat the BBQ meat is at Rudy’s, one of Texas’s top barbeque chains. At Rudy’s, you can opt for just the meat by the pound or order a pulled pork sandwich. My standard order though is the jumbo baked potato with lots of cheese, sour cream, and the meat. Here’s a little tipsy: order their side of creamed corn and you will be Rudy’s fan for life. -Ketki
Houston’s restaurant scene is legendary and the city has tons of niche ethnic eateries that provide authentic dining experiences. One such classic is Niko Niko’s, a Greek eatery serving delicious gyros.
The menu at Niko Niko’s is extensive and covers everything Greek from dolmades to baklava but their gyros are said to be the best in town! The gyro meat is perfectly seasoned and cooked and makes a great meal whether you get it as a pita sandwich or on a platter with some rice. -Ketki
You’re so close to the Gulf coast in Houston, so expect to find Po’ Boys. This familiar Cajun sandwich served up with fresh Gulf shrimps that are deep fried, onions, and pickles is likely to leave you extremely full and happy. Check Sleepy Po’ Boys for a cozy experience.
Something that Houston does amazingly well is fusion. Keep your eyes peeled for a large number of restaurants that turn traditional Southern food on its head with innovative takes on familiar southern dishes like hush-puppies and buttermilk biscuits…. One great example of this trend is Punk’s Simple Southern Food.
….a burger from Whataburger
Bear with me here, but Whataburger is Texas’ answer to fast food . You don’t always need to have fine dining late at night and you’re likely to find a steal of a meal at Whataburger. There’s something about the numerous sauces, the chicken, and the fries that make it truly a Houstonian pleasure to be had although I firmly believe that it’s best after midnight.