With its hot and heavy air, Houston is redolent of Gulf spirit that at moments recalls New Orleans, albeit without all that romance, music and beauty. But that Gulf influence peeks out in some of the scenic neighborhoods where I appreciated homes lined with front porches and palm trees.
Houston is the most international of the Texas cities and it shows in the range of food and peoples. As with Dallas, I’ve historically not been a Houston fan but this visit was my best yet. Houston’s food and drink scene is not only going full steam but that Gulf nearness imparts a soulfulness I do not feel in Dallas and Austin.
On the kolache trail (a pastry with Czech and Slovakian roots and a long-time staple in Texas, often with the pastry wrapped around jalapeno cheddar sausage), I explored a number of hole-in-the-walls known for their kolaches. One of my favorites was at GrindHouse, a little shop that also sells banana, apple, blueberry and bacon fritters, blessedly available in doughnut hole sizes to pop in your mouth, warm from the fryer.
In addition to my top 10 Houston bars, here are my top Houston eats and why.
Oh, Killen’s BBQ. Where to even begin? A good 35-45 minutes drive outside of Houston in the small town of Pearland, rarely has a drive been so worth it. This topped all BBQ I had across the state of Texas, whether historically or during my recent two week road trip across the state. In fact, it’s arguably the best I’ve ever had, though I’ve also done a two week road trip across the deep South (Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia) and tend to be more of a deep South girl when it comes to BBQ preferences (i.e. pork vs. brisket, though I love it all). But Killen’s nearly induced tears, it is so good.
Yes, the brisket — especially the gloriously fatty burnt ends — is superlative. But the pork, the sausage, pork and beef ribs, even the turkey, is all revelatory. Then there is that creamy croissant bread pudding. Sigh. Chef and pitmaster Ronnie Killen — and equally delightful pitmaster Manny Torres — are masters in their field, Killen being inspired by now legendary Franklin Barbecue in Austin (they are the two TX BBQ spots to source their meat from the same prime sources). But Killen also has a fine dining background, which shows in the impeccable skill and balance with which he executes flavor in his straightforward rubs and sauces (coffee sauce!) I dream of this place and it exemplifies Texas for me in all the best possible ways.
Caracol was a Houston standout. The massive, dramatic white space is marked by gallery-like artwork and a Mexican seafood focus — a fresh alternative to Tex Mex menus. Not all dishes are strong but the general style and quality delight, especially paired with local Houston beers and tequila cocktails.
The piece de resistance was a side, seemingly simple but with sous vide technique behind it. Tamal Azteca ($7) is a layered tortilla casserole, served in a little, silver bowl, decadent with chile sauce and Oaxacan cheese, all melting into each other with each bite. Sounds basic but it’s sigh-inducingly good. A real “wow” moment.
Fried oyster tacos/tacos de ositones encamisados ($16) also please, laced with pico de gallo, guacamole and chipotle mayo.
WEIGHTS + MEASURES
Weights + Measures was the most fun space of all the places I visited in Houston. Roomy, playful and a bit retro, a strong wine list (appealing to the wine geek in me with Austrian and other international regions I love plus a focus on biodynamic, natural and organically farmed wines), over 70 bottles of thoughtful beers and lovely cocktails at the wrap-around bar (more on the drinks here).
But the food is likewise a draw: potted swordfish ($13) with shaved fennel salad is a nice twist on seafood appetizers like salmon rillettes. Ribeye meatballs ($11) in Calabrian pepper ragu are tender comfort. Pizza features their house dough aged 24 hours before rising, then hand-stretched and baked in a wood-fired oven. They excel in unusual toppings, particularly roasted carrot and Redneck cheddar pizza ($15) graced with Fresno chiles, dukka (an Egyptian herbs, nuts, and spice blend) and sauce soubise (onion sauce). It may sound disparate but it works.
The list of accolades — from James Beard award on — is long for Underbelly, a roomy restaurant heavy on family-style platters and international flavors. Chef Chris Shepherd is known for spreading the word on Houston cuisine, calling Houston, “The new American Creole city of the South.” The playful wine list with tasting notes from Shepherd and beloved local rapper Bun B, is a good time, having fun with wine.
Standouts included cha ca-style snapper ($36), a Vietnamese-style of fish preparation marked by dill, peanuts, rice noodles and dried shrimps. I also am a fan of chewy Korean dumplings, a dish I’ve long enjoyed here at home in SF, comforting at Underbelly with fall-apart Korean braised goat over the chewy dumplings ($14). House charcuterie (especially the 26-month aged prosciutto) and apple cider vinegar pie are other house standouts.
In the laid back Heights neighborhood since 2010, Down House‘s (from the Treadsack group) brick-walled setting feels both historic and hip, especially set to rounds of quality cocktails and craft beers served in coupes.
Dishes are gratifying and straightforward, like fresh tomatoes and burrata ($14) in sherry vinegar, olive oil and Thai basil. Chef Mark Decker gets creative in dishes like a tikka masala-esque curry fish & chips ($23): pan-roasted Gulf fish is contrasted by pickled onions, herbs, kale salad, fries and a spicy curry sauce.
Also from the Treadsack group (behind the aforementioned Down House, D&T Drive Inn, Johnny’s Gold Brick, Sugar & Rice magazine), I took a “hard hat” tour of the Hunky Dory space and a sampled of some of its dishes from head chef Richard Knight before it opened this October. Alongside chef de cuisine Daniel Blue and pastry chef Julia Doran, Knight pulls from his British background in authentic, hearty rabbit and meat pies, excellent British cheeses and house baked breads. In opening weeks, they are serving hearth fire steaks, pork chops, rabbit and so on, as well as British joys like fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and black pudding.
While in Houston this July, I went to a preview night of Izakaya days before it opened, taking in the top-notch cocktails from SF-based Tin Roof Drink Community, which is Claire Sprouse (originally from Houston) and Chad Arnholt (more on the drinks here). But in the spacious, two room restaurant, there are a range of izakaya-style dishes worth ordering.
In some cases, a side of grilled street corn on the cob ($6) pulls from Mexican street food but with Japanese inflections: bonito flakes, QP (Japanese kewpie mayo), togarashi. I appreciated the Houston slant on seafood dishes like Vuelve a la Vida ($16), mixing scallop, shrimp, octopus, red onions, garlic and avocado in a lively yuzu hot sauce and crushed sea salt.
Triniti’s dining room — and cocktail destination Sanctuari bar (more on the drinks here) — is unexpectedly chic, spacious and dramatic. Especially surrounded by strip malls, one wouldn’t suspect the more fine dining approach within.
At lunch, they turn out offerings like a Hot Brown club ($11) sandwich, based off the Louisville classic dish, alongside some of the more refined dishes and tasting menu you’ll find at dinner.
Foie Gras “Breakfast” ($26) is a prime example: delicate but rich portions of foie and cinnamon orange monkey bread are marked by bacon marmalade, a dried apple slice and a quail egg. While not all flavors come together exceptionally in every dish, there is vision here and a refined experience with a casual approach.
Hidden inside Provisions, The Pass is the higher end side of the popular restaurant duo where your options are 5 courses for $75 ($120 with drink pairings) or 8 courses for $95 ($160 with drink pairings).
Drink pairings ranged from Texas sour beers to shots of corn whiskey infused with apricot and serrano chilies — the most creative pairings I experienced in Houston.
Compared to national and international restaurant greats, the food was uneven and though always interesting, not one course seemed to enter stellar levels in taste. Still, it’s the most progressive menu I had in Houston and I appreciate the restaurant’s ambition, though the other tough mark was service: everyone was gracious and working hard but seemed stressed, rushed and unable to take much time to interact or explain courses and pairings as is typical in this kind of restaurant.
Besides having William Shatner himself at the table next to me, highlights included supple, tender beef, beef broth and marrow washed in Maker’s Mark cask strength whiskey on the regular menu, and on the vegetarian menu (I tried both), squash, bread, ricotta cheese and bell pepper paired with the mineral notes of local Bay Area, small producer favorite, 2014 Donkey & Goat Improbable Chardonnay.
DAK & BOP
I must admit, I was disappointed in the food at Dak & Bop, much as I loved the vibe, friendly staff and concept. Korean fried chicken, kimchi fries, “fusion empanadas” and bao are all “right up my alley” and common for years in California.
Add their collection of Japanese whisky and I am “sold”. But I’ve had too much of this type of food done with excellence over the years in SF and in LA so unfortunately, every one of the dishes I tried (even k-philly cheeseteak bao) were a bit uninspired whether in muted flavor or ingredients. I couldn’t help but wish any one of these bites would be as mouthwatering as they sounded. But not one was.