Foodie Heaven in Houston
From James Beard award-winning chefs to the best margarita this side of the border, Houston’s hidden restaurant gems are worth a trip to Texas.
“Dream big.” From the designer-studded Galleria to the world’s first indoor stadium to the most inventive sushi outside Tokyo, that’s the mantra of a city with no limits to its goals—or successes. This can-do spirit draws world-class chefs to the nation’s fourth-largest city—and draws the fans needed for them to flourish.
BEST BURGER ON WHEELS
WHERE: Bernie’s Burger Bus
WHY: Justin Turner’s slow-roasted tomatoes, grass-fed beef and from-scratch condiments like ketchup and mayo elevate this food-truck graduate to a well-rounded restaurant valedictorian.
Special honors for their milkshakes comprised of house-made ice cream and crumbled cookies from Fluff Bake Bar pastry whiz Rebecca Masson. Add alcohol, such as Dorda Double Chocolate Liqueur, to the homemade-fudge-and-crispy-Devil’s-food-crumble shake and you’re night-school material. (Bernie’s sole disappointment, ironically, might be grilled cheddar sandwiches, best left to first-graders.)
Academia extends to both the décor (a literal school bus-fronted kitchen, school bench seats and car-sticker adorned lockers) and menu (citing the principal, cheerleader, hall pass and fire drill).
WHO: Well-educated, well-to-do Bellaire neighbors who don’t blink at $9 burgers, $7 “adult” shakes and up to $8.50 (truffle) fries because they know they’re worth it.
INSIDER TIP: Head downtown for salutatorian Fusion Taco, another food truck turned brick-and-mortar. Known for $4.50 seared duck or tempura rock shrimp tacos, it made Travel + Leisure’s Best American Tacos honor roll last March (fusiontaco.com).
FINEST FEAST FOR FAMED VEGETARIAN GWYNETH PALTROW
WHY: Houston’s ultimate foodie mecca seats only 31, enabling enthralled diners to watch James Beard semifinalist (and Bon Appétit and Food & Wine best chef honoree) Justin Yu whip up inventive, veggie-centric four- and seven-course tasting menus.
Waiters-cum-tour guides give theatrical yet hushed background on dishes such as preserved heirloom carrots cooked with onion bouillon, with raw and caramelized carrots, carrot top fritters, dill and lettuce. The website (oxhearthouston.com) event tells you who raised the herbs and cows, roasted the coffee beans, and created the knives, plates and aprons.
What neither staff nor website gush about are Yu and baker Karen Man’s stellar resume including stints at The French Laundry in LA and Bouchon Bakery in New York.
WHO: Sitting almost cheek to cheek in the well-worn, formerly industrial space are local billionaires, special occasion daters and visiting chefs—one of whom we overheard confessing he’d delayed his flight to squeeze in a repeat visit. (But fear not: Only collector watches and custom loafers give away jean-wearing tycoons.)
INSIDER TIP: Book the first day of the month before you plan to go.
BEST ROLL FROM THE BAY
WHERE: Kata Robata
WHY: Chef Manabu Horiuchi (AKA Chef “Hori”) earns top chopsticks—and became a James Beard Award finalist—for his famed sushi rolls, including the Longhorn (fried shrimp, fresh water eel and avocado) and the Ocean Picante (asparagus tempura with spicy tuna, peppercorn salmon and garlic chili oil). The former personal chef of the Japanese Consul General also lures fish aficionados to a modest strip mall an hour from Galveston Bay.
WHO: Scooters park next to Ferraris with “Drill Baby Drill” bumper stickers or peace-sign adorned Smart Cars. Inside, at lunch, Hugo Boss-clad corporate bosses in their 30s and 40s belly up to the bamboo-garnished bar for Japanese whisky Boilermakers. They’re joined later by urbanite lawyers, doctors in scrubs, school uniform-clad kids and tattooed Montrose hipsters.
INSIDER TIPS: Take advantage of half-price sushi rolls, wines and sake flights during happy hour.
LINKS WORTH GOING TO GREAT LENGTHS
WHERE: Killen’s Barbecue.
WHY: It may be 21 miles from downtown, but this suburban BBQ mecca is smokin’ hot. Hour waits have been the norm since Killen’s opening last February.
Despite their fine-dining cred—Le Cordon Bleu Cooking Institute and Underbelly—owner Ronnie Killen and pitmaster Patrick Feges serve tender and juicy ribs, brisket and German-style sausages without pretense, all from a former Pearland school cafeteria. There, diners take deli numbers, sit at Formica dinettes and eat off wax-paper topped plastic trays, to the wailing of country greats Waylon and Willie (killensbarbecue.com).
WHO: You’ll spot rapper Bun B, Texans’ defensive end JJ Watt and Rockets players among bosses and locals in T’s, shorts and sneaks.
INSIDER TIP: Bring a collapsible sports chair and (try to) leave room for pecan pie and bread pudding. Enjoy free Lone Star from a keg on weekends. And come early. Killen’s often runs out of 'cue around 3 p.m., despite serving 2,500 pounds, daily.
CUPCAKE PURVEYORS’ GREATEST THREAT
WHERE: Common Bond Café & Bakery
WHY: Crisp yet buttery croissants are Parisian dead-ringers that could inspire poet Arthur Rimbaud. So could the sticky buns, where saltiness and sweetness meld as chef/owner Roy Shvartzapel bathes buttery brioche in cinnamon schmear, toasted pecans and salty caramel.
Order addictive roasted almond tea or Valrhona hot chocolate. Yes, the average wait of 45 minutes seems long—but not compared to flying to Paris or New York. Shvartzapel honed his pastry skills at Spain’s El Bulli, Paris’ Pierre Hermé and Manhattan’s Bouley, then hired Michelin-starred sous chefs—and it shows (wearecommonbond.com).
WHO: Vuitton-toting socialites, jumpsuit-adorned maintenance workers and shorts-wearing tatted musicians circle the block. Once inside, the city’s most sophisticated singles mingle at Common Bond’s communal table.
INSIDER’S TIP: Skirt crowds around 10 a.m. or 3 p.m. weekdays, but don’t dawdle. Sticky buns sell out fast.
COCKTAILS THAT WOULD HAMMER DEAN MARTIN
WHERE: Anvil Bar and Refuge
WHY: No bar has made a bigger splash than this unassuming 2009 inner-looper inside a converted Firestone: its accolades (Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, GQ, Esquire, Imbibe, Garden & Gun and Travel + Leisure) are almost as long as its cocktail menu (108 different concoctions to choose from). Credit owners Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd’s for pre-Prohibition inspired cocktails with house-made bitters, infusions and liqueurs of local, often unexpected, ingredients (okra seeds, sweet potatoes?). Anvil bestseller, The Brave, took a year to perfect, with Del Maguey Chichicapa mescal, Ocho Cientos Blanco Sotol, Averna Amaro, Royal Combier curaçao and Angostura bitters. Aye, aye, aye (anvilhouston.com)!.
WHO: The brazen–21 year-olds celebrating their first (legal) drink, hipsters, businessmen, tourists and first-daters–belly up to the bar next to Houston’s top toques, including Yu, Reef’s Bryan Caswell, Haven’s Randy Evans, Underbelly’s Chris Shepherd and The Pass and Provisions’ Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner.
INSIDER TIP: Anvil is not for the faint of wallet: fresh ingredients set imbibers back $8-$12 per cocktail. And bring a designated driver if you order The Brave!
A MIRACLE MILE OF MICHELIN-WORTHY CUISINE
WHERE: Mid to Lower Westheimer.
WHY: One of Houston’s main arteries packs a serious culinary punch: You’ll find a high concentration of oft-lauded, world-class cuisine within 15 blocks and less than two miles. Just to name a few: James Beard winner Underbelly (farm-to-table), Uchi (Japanese), El Real Tex-Mex, Damarco Cucina (Italian) and Mark’s American Cuisine. Not bad for a former farm road.
WHO: Everybody, from the young and beautiful to flip-flop wearing guitar players to extended Latino families—a true melting pot of this city.
INSIDER TIP: Grab the first parking spot you see from Taft to Dunlavy because everything’s in walking distance (underbellyhouston.com, damarcohouston.com, elrealtexmex.com, uchirestaurants.com/houston/, marks1658.com).
DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH
WHERE: Los Tios.
WHY: Best ‘rita? Those are fighting words in a nearly half-Latino city where Tex-Mex restaurants outnumber all others. Yet a ’40-year old chain earns the title for owner Gary Adair’s personal fave, the Diamond Margarita. Made of 100 percent agave Maestro Dobel Tequila, Agavero orange liquor, fresh lime juice and home-spun simple syrup, this beverage will knock your socks off.
WHO: The dress code is come as you are, as do neighborhood families, large and small (lostiosrestaurant.com).
INSIDER TIP: The prime spot at Los Tios’ Meyerland mothership is a round table for eight.
MOST PIZZA PIZAZZ
WHERE: Coltivare Pizza and Garden.
WHY: Plant talented chef Ryan Pera (formerly of lauded 17, The Grove and Manhattan’s Le Cirque) in the upper crust-yet-funky Heights ‘hood, add perfectly wood-fired pizza crust, top with ingredients such as clams, pancetta, and rapini and you’ve got a slice of heaven. Since opening in January, Coltivare has captured the local vibe, with reclaimed wood walls, cutlery in ceramic-coated cans and bike racks for 40 (coltivarehouston.com).
WHO: Like the neighborhood, aging hippies mix with craft hops heads and thirtysomethings in Missoni with Maclaren strollers.
INSIDER’S TIP: With no reservations, locals avoid waits by arriving before 5 p.m. or asking for patio seating. Your waiter can steer you to the right beer for your pizza, be it a Karbach Rodeo Clown or Real Ale Sisyphus, both brewed in Texas.