Houston’s Food Scene: Deep, Diverse and Dynamic

Houston’s culinary reputation has long rested on Texas-sized barbecue, kitschy Tex-Mex platters and imported regional cuisines, such as Louisiana Creole. But things are changing quickly in Houston, and the city is undergoing a food renaissance.

Even Anthony Bourdain — a food skeptic of the highest order — agrees. Houston, he says, is “really going to surprise people.” And what surprised him about the fourth largest city in the country? “How diverse a city Houston is, how interesting the food is, and how welcoming to immigrants and refugees from all over the world the city of Houston is.”

Houston still has the mainstays that helped establish its earlier foodie reputation. Like Ninfa’s on Navigation, whose claim to fame is having developed the fajita. And Christie’s Seafood & Steaks, a family-run fixture that dishes up huge bowls of a local favorite, gumbo. And the Original Antone’s Po’ Boy, which has been delighting hungry Houstonians with its po’ boy sandwiches for more than half a century.

These days, though, the city thrives on a diverse and bustling culinary scene that is noted for its spirit, invention and creativity.

Mexican food is still nicely represented, from the seafood-savvy Caracol to the Oaxacan-rich Xochi, which focuses on earthy moles. For something truly festive, try taco hot spot Cuchara, where you might be serenaded by mariachis, or El Real — in the former Tower Theater cinema building — which screens classic spaghetti Westerns to entertain you while you sip your margarita and feast on garlic butter-braised beef fajitas.

The city has always enjoyed an abundance of Asian restaurants, and with its newly thriving Vietnamese population the city is now home to myriad Southeast Asian treasures. Take the time to venture into the city’s rambling Chinatown to try the exotic creations at restaurants such as Crawfish and Noodles, Pagolac, Hai Cang or HK Dim Sum. And top it all off with an iced Vietnamese-style coffee from Phi Coffee and Tea, a terminally cute coffeehouse located inside Hong Kong City Market.

Of course, no tour of Houston would be complete without barbecue, so a trip or two to Killen’s Barbecue or Roegels Barbecue Co. will surely satisfy your craving for something sweet and smoky. The perpetually long lines might deter some at Killen’s, but those who endure the sometimes long waits will bask in their famous brisket, rib plates, sausage, and mac and cheese. Roegels, too, is well worth the journey, featuring a different delicious oak-smoked meat each weekday, which you’ll want to top off with some of their famous bourbon banana pudding.

Those of you who crave something a little more stimulating might want to seek out the exhilarating and aromatic biryanis, curries and kebabs at Himalaya, the city’s great Pakistani restaurant. And for those of us who just can’t get enough of a great bakery, you’ll see us in line over at Common Bond Bakery.

And let’s not forget fine dining. For fine French cuisine, try the new Brasserie du Parc (and its clever walk-up window for crepes called Creperie du Parc), which, in addition to stunning takes on classic Parisian dishes, boasts a great view of Discovery Green. Or BCN Taste & Tradition, a relatively young Spanish restaurant named for the Barcelona airport’s call letters, which is decorated with artwork by Miró and Picasso and evokes the gastronomic paradise that is Spain.

There’s so much else to experience in Houston’s vibrant, new food scene. Like Phoenicia Fine Foods, a two-story international grocery store-restaurant-bar-bakery hybrid. Or Coltivare, a charming “pizza garden” that plucks its produce from its own side garden for salads, pasta and wood-fired pies. Or the dazzling display of culinary science that is Pass & Provisions.

You see what we mean? Houston’s food scene is so deep, diverse and dynamic that it’s impossible to squeeze it all into one short article. But the real pleasure is heading out on your own — armed only with your curiosity, your hunger and your favorite internet restaurant app — to discover for yourself the delightful tastes that wait around any corner of this big city with Southern charm and an enormous Texas appetite.