A generation ago, hungry Houstonians out on the town might have tucked in to a belt-loosening pile of barbecue or Tex-Mex would have sufficed.
Those standard dishes are still available in abundance in the U.S.’s fourth most-populous city. But waves of immigrants and a growing cosmopolitanism have transformed this port city.
Today, you’re just as likely to find sea urchin and guanciale pizza (at The Pass and Provisions, one of the newest hot spots) and fragrant, fiery Thai specialties.
For a taste of India there’s Pondicheri or Indika. For prize-worthy Italian, there’s DaMarco Cucina e Vino. Huynh serves a solid lineup of Vietnamese home-style dishes.
To satisfy Houston’s changing palate, Michelin star-seeking chefs groomed in kitchens from Napa Valley to New York have set up shop here.
Here are some more places worth checking out:
Triniti Restaurant and Bar chef Ryan Hildebrand, a Culinary Institute of America grad, serves progressive American dishes that pop with flavor, like Texas quail and deviled lobster.
Try the $19 foie gras breakfast with fluffy donut holes, Hildebrand’s signature dish. The buttery duck liver, accompanied by a tiny pancake, egg and a fragrant sausage patty, will change your notion of what breakfast after dark should taste like.
At 2815 S. Shepherd. Information: +1-713-527-9090; http://www.trinitirestaurant.com.
Chef Justin Yu’s Oxheart, which opened in March, brings the tasting menu-only trend to Houston’s fine-dining landscape.
Book a seat at the chef’s counter and you can watch Yu, a Napa veteran, chief baker Karen Man (Yu’s wife and French Laundry alum) and his cooks plate your dishes in the tiny kitchen seconds before they bring them to you.
The $75 tasting menu’s highlights include a sweet squash dumpling and a tartare of smoked beef leg in kombu gel.
Sommelier Justin Vann will match wines to your dishes.
At 1302 Nance St. Information: +1-832-830-8592; http://oxhearthouston.com.
Chef Chris Shepherd calls his menu at Underbelly “The Story of Houston Food.” Its current cast of characters includes a $50 slow-roasted pork collar, a $44 whole roasted chicken and $14 Korean braised goat with dumplings. The catch of the day, whole or filleted, is a strong option most nights.
At 1100 Westheimer Road. Information: +1-713-528-9800; http://underbellyhouston.com.
At the sleek, popular Japanese grill Kata Robata, tucked in a mini mall, give sushi a break and try the fresh hamachi with jalapeno slices, a decadent lobster with macaroni and cheese or the 72-hour slow-cooked Kobe beef skewers.
At 3600 Kirby Dr. Information: +1-713-526-8858; http://katarobata.com.
Hugo’s octopus-and-lobster tacos take the now-familiar fish taco one sublime step further. Its all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch with more than 20 choices is a good way to sample Hugo’s approach to Mexican standards in one visit.
At 1600 Westheimer Rd. Information: +1-713-524-7744 or http://www.hugosrestaurant.net.
Don’t judge the year-old Roost by its rustic exterior, befitting of a roadside cafe in Wyoming. Chef Kevin Naderi’s farm-to-table menu elevates mundane dishes such as braised beef cheeks, pan-seared scallops and its daily catch from the sea. The roasted cauliflower with bonito flakes is one of the city’s best vegetable dishes.
At 1972 Fairview St. Information: +1-713-523-7667; http://www.iloveroost.com.
France native Philippe Schmit, who paid his dues at New York’s Le Bernardin, puts a Texas brand on French classics. Duck confit is served with mushrooms and bacon; hanger steak is first slow-cooked sous vide and then slapped on the grill.
For casual dining and people watching, try the first-floor lounge, open until 1 a.m. on weekends.
At 1800 Post Oak Blvd. Information: +1-713-439-1000; http://www.philippehouston.com
At Uchi, James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole shakes up the sushi-restaurant concept with adventurous and playful creations. Notables include the Jar Jar duck (with kumquat, endive and rosemary smoke) and tuna sashimi with goat cheese.
At 904 Westheimer Rd. Information: +1-713-522-4808; http://uchirestaurants.com/Houston.
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Sam Knight on books and Katya Kazakina on art.