Houston: Sunbelt, Southern and Hungry

If Chicago is the city of shoulders big and tall, Houston stands wide and stubbornly hungry.

No place quite frames the modern American, postwar city more impressively than Houston. Pro-growth at all costs, with baby boomer grit at its core, Houston is a quintessential sunbelt boomtown. Beyond the pillars of American energy and capitalism, what truly separates Houston from the pack, however, is its worldly DNA drifting below the surface.

Anvil Houston, cocktail factory.
Anvil Houston, cocktail factory.

Waves of Vietnamese, Mexican and Caribbean migrants, among many others, have quietly skewed the trajectory of H-town in recent decades. A slow but colorful about-face from generic sunbelt sprawl machine to an urban destination of many angles, personalities—and flavors. Mix all of this with Houston’s unique connection to the American south, particularly Bayou Country, and you have a spirit nearly no other major U.S. city can offer.

The end result of this kaleidoscope is that Houston is enjoying a critical moment when it comes to the obvious: food. From some of the best Vietnamese food in the country, to equally superlative examples of barbecue, and high-brow American creativity, there’s arguably nothing that doesn’t taste better—or as good as it should be—in Houston.

 

DOWNTOWN

 

Downtown, once a cold mantle of towering glass and steel, where street life below succumbed to the cancer of car culture in the 1970s and 1980s, now flickers again thanks to smart infill, urban dreaming, and a commitment to historic preservation. The fruits of this energy has been the cadre of stubborn, forward-thinking chefs and restaurateurs sticking their necks out for glory in a landscape once thought to be dining kryptonite post 5:00 p.m. most days.

Oxheart and stone.
Oxheart and stone.

Oxheart, the critically-acclaimed outpost on Downtown’s northern, still-transitional fringe has become a lightning rod not only for the neighborhood but for Houston on the national stage. The quiet sharpness of James Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu continues to silence with his artful tasting menus of worldly influences local and far. Diners succumb to wave after wave, plate after plate, in the charming if not gorgeous Erie City Iron Works Building built in 1909.

Jason Yu gold at Oxheart.
Jason Yu gold at Oxheart.

Coffee and cocktail hunters find dual solace on historic Main Street’s Honeymoon Cafe. Morning house-roasted brews, fresh pastries and woven brasserie tables anchor with Downtown creatives buzzed and buzzing give way to another stripe of buzz as the day fades: neighborhood bar hoppers lingering over the corner spot’s well-honed cocktail and spirits program.

Downtown drinking continues to hum late into the day at transcendent Prohibition, a hidden and tactfully restored space known wide for its whiskey leanings, and the newer pro-agave benchmark The Pastry War where a showpiece devotion to all drinks mezcal and tequila outshine a food menu of the same theme.

 

MONTROSE

 

Consistently considered Houston’s most coveted real estate for seekers of the interesting, the entertaining and the delicious, Montrose continues to inspire and impress for its bucket-list dining, drinking and revelry. Cruising Westheimer Road, between Midtown and River Oaks, a stretch infamous for its potholes, crowded lanes and all else conditionally beloved by locals, one can’t avoid the feeling of change in the air as new developments rise, new restaurants open and long-time classics reinvent.

Share sunrise with the polished and striving at Common Bond Cafe & Bakery for some of the best pastries in Texas, if not the country at large. Morning glory here exists in the form of maple-colored croissants that pull perfectly cracked and buttery; rainbow stacks of sweet, airy and brittle macaroons; as well as sweet jewel-like French tarts that school.

Mornings and afternoon refuels are equally supported at Blacksmith, the impossibly popular—and knowledgeable—coffee shop pouring life for young professionals, hipsters and all between.

Chris Shepherd's signature braised goat kimchi stew, rice dumplings at Underbelly.
Chris Shepherd’s signature braised goat kimchi stew and rice dumplings at Underbelly.

Anyone remotely familiar with Houston’s dining constellation will know of James Beard awarded chef Chris Shepherd and his benchmark restaurant Underbelly. Known for its woven mix of culturally indigenous, seasonal Texas cooking blended with global chords of Asian and Latin origins, Underbelly remains today the revered restaurants it’s always been.

Other Montrose area gold can be found at Uchi, cousin to an Austin original, where patrons suffer long waits for the trendy restaurant’s always-evolving laundry list of modern, Japanese-inspired small plates and premium sushi, creative and traditional. The Hay Merchant, where sud savants and casual beer fans close ranks, and rarified cocktail classic Anvil, Houston’s pioneering den for bookish booze. Before house-aged booze, obscure global spirits and, well, derby glasses were a thing, Anvil was already blazing local—and national—trails with its carefully curated, award-winning cocktail program.

 

BEYOND

 

Moving beyond the city’s core neighborhoods you immediately understand how vast Houston has become—and is becoming. Ring neighborhoods are quickly emulsifying into urban characters of their own. Here are some of my à la carte favorites:

Leading Houston’s wave of high-minded dining is Midtown’s fraternal restaurant twins The Pass and Provisions, providing a sort of polished Jekyll and Hyde of local restaurant experiences. Two in one, Pass being the stark laboratory of all things molecular and fine-tuned, and Provisions being the casually stylish and warmer sibling, perfect for nights when quality and formality shouldn’t compete. Star chefs Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner have orchestrated one of Houston’s can’t-miss dining experiences.

Few cities do pho—or Vietnamese food in general—like Houston, the edible benefit of heavy southeast Asian migration in the 1970s following the Vietnam War. In a sea of fantastic spots, Pho Binh—the trailer location, not its younger satellites—rise above all others. Considered some of the best pho in the country, let alone Houston, this humble cash-only outpost of Pho Binh is beloved for their near-boiling, perfumed bowls of Vietnam’s quintessential all-day noodle soup.

Creative, locally-inspired Italian comes in the form of Coltvaire. Bright-eyed Houston chef Ryan Pera and his team bring the glories of wood-fired pizza and handmade pasta to the Heights neighborhood, including an expansive onsite working garden, providing the kitchen an ever-changing menu of seasonal rewards to share.

Washington Avenue’s Julep is one of those charming spots where lines between concept and comfort dissolve. Think southern sentimental, this is the type of respectable hang out we’d prefer to imagine a classic 19th century bayou watering hole to be like. Soft lighting, gold and brass contrast pale feminine tones, chilled oysters at the ready, Julep is best known for revisionist southern cocktails, easy eats and ambiance.

Ramen is in everywhere, and one of Houston’s most gabbed about hideaways is Ninja. Located in the Rice Military neighborhood northwest of Downtown, the small, no-fuss favorite for late-night Japanese noodles (open ’til 3 a.m. on weekends) draws discriminating nightcrawlers craving their fill of Ninja’s fatty, shimmering and tongue-scorching bowls of tonkotsu.

Lei Low color.
Lei Low color.

Boisterous, fun and rum-soaked, Lei Low in the Heights is the type of neighborhood bar, let alone tiki bar, everyone dreams about having around the corner. Banana dolphins, flaming limes and all the mid-century Polynesian kitsch you want, the purposefully hidden Lei Low has become a go-to for some of the best tiki drinks in the city.

The most famous Texas brisket outside of Austin, Killen’s Barbecue is unquestionably worth the trek down to Pearland, the grassy Houston exurb 20-miles south of the city. Owner and pitmaster Ronnie Killen has become quite the local celebrity personality himself, basking in the glow of national praise and hour-long lines of pilgrims hungry for Killen’s smoked meats, Flinstone-sized beef ribs and dangerous, body-shaming sides.

Plate politics at Killen's BBQ in Pearland.
Plate politics at Killen’s BBQ in Pearland.

Houston is a city of many faces, big personalities—and self-starting dreams. Most impressively in recent years, however, has been the determined city’s transformation into one of the country’s foremost eating destinations. And, this round-up only begins to scratch the surface.

If the city isn’t already on your radar, it should be now.

 

RECOMMENDED HOTELS

JW Marriott Downtown Houston.
JW Marriott Downtown Houston.

JW Marriott – Downtown Houston
Hotel ICON, an Autograph Collection – Downtown Houston
Hotel ZaZa – Museum District/Medical Center

 

For more details, beyond food, begin here: VisitHouston.com.

 

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