So, I was pretty offended earlier today when a couple of women (hopefully clueless out of towners) were complaining to me about not being able to go to New Orleans to eat good food. I commented that Houston has some pretty great food as well, and they both scoffed at me and essentially told me I was dumb. Uh, no. Houston, despite our national profile as a bunch of fat, oil-obsessed hicks riding around on cows (that’s DALLAS, duh), is one of the nation’s best places to eat a diverse array of food. We have every kind of food imaginable, and some insanely talented chefs working in our restaurants. I have a huge list of places I haven’t made it to yet that I want to eat at, but the following 10 (in no particular order) are some of the best that I HAVE visited. I’ll put my “GO TO SOON!” list after that. Note: I am decidedly un-fussy and untrendy when it comes to where I want to eat. These are MY favorite places. They may not all be super-hip or new or anything, but I’ve lived and eaten in Houston for the better part of my nearly 30 years and this is what I’ve experienced.
First up is DA MARCO, the fine-dining Italian stalwart helmed by Chef Marco Wiles. I got the chance to go here a couple of years ago for Valentine’s Day, and it was flipping unreal. We had branzino (sea bass) and the panna cotta, both of which were delicate, flavorful, and just plain elegant. It’s a small space, and you are pretty much sitting in the lap of whoever is next to you, but it’s well worth every penny. Definitely a special occasion place. Their wine list is one of the best I’ve seen. Da Marco is comparable to any fine dining restaurant I’ve been to, anywhere in the world.
On the far more casual side, LUPE TORTILLA’S has been my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant since I was very, very young. When I was little my parents used to take us to the original Highway 6 location every Friday night, which has grown exponentially in size since we started going. I have fond memories of playing in the sandbox there – my brother used to try to get up from the table to go back to the sandbox, and my grandfather had to tell him that there were rats on the floor to keep him from getting up. Hence our nickname for Lupe’s: The Rat Place. A poor nickname for a restaurant if ever there were one. For the record, I have never seen a rat there. ANYWAY! My favorite thing, obviously, to get there is the carne asada or tacos al carbon with beef. They do beef like no one else. It’s peppery, limey, tender, SO GOOD. I dream about it. The free beans they give you with the chips are pretty killer too. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve even tasted much else on the menu. What are your favorite dishes there?
For sushi, it’s a tie for me. First, the fancy: KATA ROBATA. This upscale and trendy sushi grill boasts rare and super fresh cuts of fish and some wildly creative entrees that change daily. Their raw fish is unparalleled in selection – shout out to the 0-toro and scallop carpaccio with goat cheese. The crab stuffed avocado is to die for, but my favorite thing on the menu is the tuna tar-tar. I’m a sucker for tar tar, but theirs is the best I’ve had. It’s served with fried lotus chips and includes fresh tuna, avocado, grape tomatoes slice paper thin, and a “special” sauce according to the menu.
For a less expensive, but no less delicious sushi experience check out OISHII. They are almost always packed, and for good reason. They have my favorite, increasingly hard to find nigiri – Escolar (super white tuna) and a wide variety of delicious rolls. It’s a good place to get take-out from if you don’t want to wait. Try the A.M.Y. roll -avocado, mayo, yellowtail. For the price, this is some of the best sushi in town.
Best steakhouse: PAPPAS BROTHERS. It wouldn’t be a Houston list without some sort of Pappas shout out. This family defines chain restaurants in Texas, with one of pretty much every Western cuisine imaginable. The steakhouse is fancy, expensive, and absolutely worth it. The steaks are perfect, and the family style sides never disappoint. This is classic American steakhouse food and wine done right. I usually go for a filet mignon and broccoli, Mac & Cheese, or mashed potatoes. Kudos to their unparalleled service, as well. I’ve never had a bad experience here.
Back to Marco Wiles for a second – DOLCE VITA is his pizza place situated in an old house down near Montrose on Westheimer. They have superb pizzas, with thin crusts, fabulous fresh toppings, etc etc, but my special shout out on the menu goes to the shaved brussels sprouts with pecorino. Seriously, you’ve never had brussels sprouts like this. It’s light, flavorful, and just salty enough. If you go with more than two people, get two orders of this for the table. Trust.
And now a bar. Andy and I love PROHIBITION. I had my birthday party there last year, and that night I think I had every drink on the menu. I wouldn’t recommend that normally, unless seeing quadruple is high on your to-do list. This place is in the Galleria, over by Saks. It’s got a 1920′s, speakeasy theme that is echoed in everything from the staff’s outfits to the music to the names and source materials for their drinks. They make a mean martini. I believe their drink menu was created by a mixologist from London, and they definitely have a flair for the unexpected. Think Pop Rocks and fire.
Waaaay down in Missouri City, tucked next to a Black Eyed Pea, is a tiny little French restaurant called AURA. They are frequently on best-of lists around town but like, nobody goes there because of the location. I did, and it was really authentic. I remember being all excited because I was studying French food in culinary school at the time and I knew what everything was. Chef Frederic Perrier (how French is that name?) puts out traditional fare like Poulet Roti avec Pommes Frites, Pate, Filet Mignon de Porc, and Steak au Poivre. Ooh la la.
One sort of trendier place I visited recently and really thought got it right was ZELKO BISTRO in the Heights. They don’t take reservations, but we were seated pretty quickly after a brief stint at the bar. I had some delicious buttermilk marinated chicken, and the truffle fries are divine. Super truffle-y! They are a farm-fresh, sustainable, locally sourced theoried restaurant, and it’s cute, homey, and the food is comfort food at its best.
Finally, because I love wine, my favorite wine bar: SONOMA WINE on Richmond. Here I discovered the delights of Luli Pinot Noir. Mmm. Sonoma has an impressive wine list, and a really chill vibe. Their cheese plate, pizzas (try the sausage and leek!) and sliders are really good too if you forgot to eat dinner or get hungry.
Honorable Mentions: Piatto (Italian), Anvil (bar), Red Lion (pub/British), Chama Gaucha (meat fest/churrascaria), Far East (Chinese), Pho Saigon (Vietnamese), Vinoteca Poscol (salumeria), Mockingbird Bistro (Continental), Backstreet Cafe (brunch/French), The Boiling Crab (crawfish etc.),
Now for my list of places I want to go (which will demonstrate how quickly the restaurant scene is evolving and growing in H-town): Uchi, Underbelly/Hay Merchant, Haven, Triniti, Artisans, Jus’ Mac, Plonck, Roost, Torchy’s Tacos, Le Mistral, Liberty Kitchen, Glass Wall, Shepherd Park Draft House, Ava, The Breakfast Klub, Antica Osteria, RDG, District 7…my list goes on and on.
Don’t try to tell me there isn’t good food in Houston. I will SHUT YOU DOWN.