The Nine Reservations You Need in Houston
A lot of things have changed since Houston hosted its first Super Bowl in 1974—not least, the dining scene. In the 1970s, the city was dominated by steakhouses, seafood buffets, and Italian "rat pack"-style dining rooms. Following the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the city was hitting a boom time big-time.
Texans still cook a great steak—and Houston is certainly a beef town—but now the metropolis, the fourth largest in the U.S. has emerged as one of the country’s top restaurant cities. Exemplary cooking runs the gamut from comfort food to fine dining, authentic Mexican fare, and almost every kind of Asian cuisine you can think of. That’s due, in part, to the city's diverse population, which means that Korean influences, say, find their way onto an ambitious American menu more easily than might happen in other cities. What’s harder to figure out is why their bar scene is so terrific. But it is.
Whether or not you’re one of the 140,000 people descending on Houston for Super Bowl LI next weekend, here are nine essential reservations, plus a handful of other places that will take you from a big, bad breakfast through late night cocktails.
Getting to the flagship Killen’s Steakhouse is a trek. Located about a half-hour outside Houston in Pearland, near local hero chef Ronnie Killen's beloved barbecue shack and burger outpost. This brand-new spot in Houston proper combines plenty of meat with a BBQ sensibility. There are such dishes as a dinosaur-sized smoked beef short rib studded with pepper and chicken-fried rib-eye doused in gravy. Wood-fired steaks include 27-ounce bone-in rib-eye, for $67. STQ also offers burnt-ends-style pork belly, as decadent as you’d imagine.
Underbelly and One Fifth Steak
In a vast space that reminds you that Texas likes to do things big, chef Chris Shepherd has become famous for cooking that merges the city's amazing ethnic influences. His signature dish is chewy rice cakes with tender goat braised in a Korean chile sauce; he also makes a mean Vietnamese-styled snapper marinated in yogurt and served with rice noodles. The wine list is styled like a comic book, with notations from local rapper Bun B. ('Asking for trouble with this one,' he says of the 2015 Cuilleron 'Sybel' Rose from the Rhône Valley.)
Shepherd’s One Fifth Steak will soon open inside a former church, featuring extravagant seafood platters and such options as a cast-iron seared, 60-day, wet-aged porterhouse. Get there while you can. Later in the year, Shepherd will shut the steakhouse and then reopen it as One Fifth Romance Languages, featuring European cuisines, again for a limited time. It's Houston's version of Chicago's famed Next.
The menu at this buzzy new restaurant mixes specialties from Eastern Europe, Asia, and chef Ryan Lachaine’s native Canada. You can start with crispy tempura of cauliflower florets with kimchi hot sauce and then move on to a seared hanger steak with a side of plump, potato-and-cheddar-filled pierogis. Whatever you do, save room for the Tourtiere, a Quebec-style meat pie, here filled with tender pork stew and topped with a pastry crust emblazoned with a Canadian maple leaf.
Hugo’s and Xochi
An institution in Texas, Hugo’s has wooden tables the size of cars and well-crafted Mexican dishes from Hugo Ortega. The place is authentic enough to serve chaupilines (grasshoppers sautéed with garlic), accompanied by chipotle salsa and guacamole that can mask their identity if you're intimidated. There’s also terrific lechon, with crispy bits of the pig skin and habanero salsa, and an outrageous roasted duck in a rich, earthy, complex mole, with a pile of tortillas.
Ortega will offer an even more extensive selection of moles at his new Oaxacan restaurant, Xochi, opening later this month, where he'll also craft spiced Mexican chocolate from cocoa bean and offer a vast array of mezcal.
In Houston Heights, Ritual pays tribute to ranchers around Texas and to the food of the South. The butcher-oriented, comfort food menu has starters along the lines of salt & vinegar pork rinds and Gulf Coast oysters broiled "Rockabilly"-style, with tasso ham. The mains jump around from a market-priced pork tomahawk chop with jalapeño cornbread stuffing to the deliberately named Turf & Surf: porchetta with Gulf shrimp and rice grits. There are cocktails and wine, but the beer list runs deep with craft brews from Texas and around the world.
The Pass and Provisions
A dual restaurant in a singular space, chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan oversee both. Provisions is the more casual establishment, with an Italian-style menu that encompasses pizza (Brussel sprouts with creamy scamorza cheese and guanciale), fish (Hamachi crudo with smoked miso), and meat (ham of the day; boudin blanc with fermented cabbage). At the Pass, a white-walled, cave-like space off to the side, the extravagant $105 tasting menu includes such dishes as ham and eggs, a clever take on caviar service with a foot-long chicharrón. The beverage pairings are quirky enough to include tequila and spiked milk shakes, along with wines.
The Best of the Rest
If the crowds at the establishments above prove too much, or you’re more in the mood for a serious Sichuan hit or classic steak, add these eight places to your list, which will then include serious coffee to start your day and the best bar for the perfect nightcap.
Blacksmith. This little coffee house has monumental brews, from the daily black to sugar cane lattes, cortados, and that style of the moment: a flat white. Their food selection is also strong. Breakfast means scratch biscuit sandwiches with smoked ham and red eye gravy and steaming skillets of Vietnamese steak and eggs, which comes with a hunk of baguette and liver pâté.
Anvil. One of the country’s great bars, with a menu of seasonally changing drinks. For colder weather (in southeast Texas, that’s relative) there’s Doctor’s Orders, made with gin, pineapple, and sherry. Anvil has also introduced a program it calls the "break even bottle": rare labels, poured at cost, such as Ragnaud-Sabourin Paradis Cognac, which goes for $60.70 per ounce.
Oxheart. If you find yourself in Houston in the next month or two, get yourself into this minuscule dining room for Justin Yu’s outstanding $79 six-course menu.(My favorite dish: corn, allium and potato-skin-stuffed mung bean crêpes.) Come March, Yu will close the place, reimagining and reopening it in late spring as an à la carte spot. Meanwhile, Yu is overseeing the small food selection in the well-appointed Public Services Wine & Whisky Bar, where he occasionally offers extra-crispy double-fried chicken, served cold.
Pondicheri. Among Houston's more inspired places to eat breakfast is Pondicheri. The Indian street food spot offers a remarkable, vibrantly colored Morning Thali (small dish tasting) that’s anchored by a fried-egg-topped carrot paratha, plus potato curry and spicy ground beef keema and yogurt.
Pappas Bros. Houston takes steak so seriously. A top old-school establishment is Pappas Bros. on Westheimer, with staples such as shrimp cocktail, lumb crabcake, and Caesar salad to start, and filets, bone-in rib-eyes, New York strips, and porterhouses, all aged in-house, as the main event. The wine selection is notable in itself, with almost 3,000 selections.
Mala Sichuan Bistro. Houston is renowned for its Asiatown. Hidden in a mall there, Mala has a vast menu of Sichuan dishes to fill up your table's Lazy Susan, from standards such as dan dan noodles and dumplings in red oil to savory tea-smoked chunks of duck nestled in chiles. Added bonus: a wine selection that’s much better than expected, from rising star sommelier Justin Vann.
Revival Market. First and foremost a market, with a butcher shop and superior charcuterie program, Revival also has a café offering house-cured BLT sandwiches and a nice quinoa burger. The owners also oversee Eight Row Flint in an old gas station; here, there’s plenty of beer, over 100 kinds of bourbon, and a taco truck parked outside.
Crawfish & Noodles. Though this distinctly no frills place is billed as Cajun and Vietnamese (a very Houstonian concept), it specializes in heaping metal bowls of steamed crawfish doused in a Cajun spiced butter. There's also very good salt and pepper stir-fried crabs and a less-interesting assortment of Asian noodles. Handily, a roll of paper towels will greet you at every plastic-covered table.