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Top 10 Places to Eat in Houston, Texas!

“What’s the best restaurant in Houston?”

It’s a question people ask me all the time, and there really isn’t a good way to answer it. Does that mean the restaurant I admire the most? Or the one I visit most often? It depends on the occasion — the best restaurant for grandma’s 80th birthday isn’t the same as the best one for a first date or a business dinner.

Yet, the question persists, and I understand what people mean by the question. Which are the Houston restaurants that someone who’s visiting the city and wants to dive into the food scene should try first? What are the “greatest hits” in Houston food? In a world where foodies rave about every opening, which restaurants are truly worth it?

Consider this list one man’s attempt to answer those questions.

In the coming weeks, I’ll offer other lists for CultureMap readers: The city’s best burgers, fried chicken, bowls of pho and more. I’ll dabble in neighborhoods I’m familiar with: Montrose, downtown, The Heights while I learn about those where I don’t know my way around as well. Suggestions are welcome on any of these.

Finally, to anyone who looks at the restaurants below and thinks that Mark’s still makes Houston’s best food and Taste of Texas makes its best steak, let’s just agree to disagree. We’re coming at the dining scene from two totally different perspectives.

You can still call me an idiot in the comments, but you won’t change my mind.

Oxheart

This 31- seat restaurant in downtown’s Warehouse District has earned all the national praise its received. Despite Houston’s reputation as a carnivore’s paradise, the husband and wife team of Justin Yu and Karen Man have created a restaurant where vegetables are the star.

Oxheart brings together lots of trends that are easy to mock: Food plated with tweezers, tasting menus, small portions, etc . . . None of that matters when the flavors of each dish come together in surprising and delicious ways.

Despite Houston’s reputation as a carnivore’s paradise, they have created a restaurant where vegetables are the star.

Reservations can be extremely tough to come by, but the secret is to hop on Oxheart’s website on the first day of a new month. That’s when they open seating for the following month.

Can’t wait? Try to snag a table by getting on the waiting list for either Sunday or Monday night, but it’s tough.

Underbelly

How does Underbelly tell “the story of Houston food?”

Start with chef/owner Chris Shepherd, whose outgoing personality helps sell the restaurant’s mission. Combine that with a talented staff in both the kitchen and the dining room. Give them the absolutely highest quality, locally sourced ingredients possible. Turn them loose to prepare those ingredients in the style of the cuisines that inspire them, whether it’s classic Southern or Vietnamese. Make everything in house: From heirloom tomato ketchup to fish sauce to charcuterie.

While diners who are open to trying new things will likely have a more rewarding experience than meat and potato types, the daily “butcher’s cut” of Texas akaushi beef is among the best steaks in Houston.

One tip: Go to Underbelly with a group of five to eight people. That will allow everyone to try as much of the menu as possible and minimize the impact of the kitchen’s occasional misses. And save room for dessert.

The Pass & Provisions

Two restaurants. One kitchen. It’s utterly absurd that it works, but it isn’t that surprising. Chef/owners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan have been surprising Houston’s diners since they launched the pop-up Just August project.

Provisions is casual and high-energy, with a menu anchored by pizzas and house-made pastas that bring twists to familiar flavors. Dining at The Pass is like attending a theatrical performance. Each dish challenges pre-conceived expectations with both technical artistry and whimsy. Even at lunch, a simple lobster roll comes in a house-baked potato roll with just enough seasoning to make it stand apart from more traditional offerings.

Neither restaurant will appeal to all diners, but anyone who’s tried to get a last-minute reservation at The Pass knows there are plenty of people who want to take the trip.

Himalaya

In this small restaurant in a strip center along the Southwest Freeway, chef Kaiser Lashkari serves Houston’s best Indo-Pak food. Which is not to say it’s Houston most authentic Indian food, because there’s no good reason to prize authenticity over deliciousness.

Thankfully, the kitchen nails British-Indian hybrids like chicken tikka masala with the same skill as house specialties like hunter’s beef, the Indian-style pastrami that’s a must order. Vegetarians will find a lot to like here, including reference-quality examples of saag paneer and potato-filled samosas.

Desserts are always worth the calories, especially the gulab jaman in rose syrup.

Hugo’s

For 10 years, Hugo Ortega’s restaurant has helped Houstonians appreciate the wide variety of regional Mexican cuisine. From roasted goat to ceviche, Ortega’s vibrant flavors and creative preparations have combined with Sean Beck’s top flight beverage program to create a restaurant that’s unlike any other in the city.

The effort the restaurant puts into its Houston Restaurant Week menus shows the regard they have for diners. In addition to a vegetarian menu, there are dishes that can be paired with tequila, red wine or white wine. All for $35. Hugo’s also serves the best Sunday brunch buffet anywhere.

Hubcap Grill

Hubcap Grill sets itself apart from other Houston burger joints thanks to owner Ricky Craig’s obsessive attention to getting all of the details right. For example, while other burger spots have embraced thick, half pound and larger patties, Hubcap’s thinner burgers cook more quickly and develop crispy edges during cooking that provide some needed texture. Each of the specialty burgers, from the patty melt to the Philly cheesesteak to the Texas BBQ, have individual components that have all been rigorously evaluated to ensure they work well with the hamburger patty.

Hubcap’s custom, slightly thick bun ensures that each burger holds together from first bite to last without disintegrating from drippings. As to the policies against providing toppings on the side or cutting burgers, that’s just part of the experience. Both locations have small kitchens that are trying to turn out as much good food as quickly as possible.

If you can’t be bothered to cut your own burger, it isn’t for you.

Kata Robata

Under the direction of chef Manabu Horiuchi, usually known as Hori-san to friends and diners, Kata Robata has become Houston’s premier destination for sushi. That it has retained that status even in the face of very worthy competition from both Uchi and MF Sushi is an indication of both Hori-san’s talent and the restaurant’s willingness to bring in talented sous chefs for the non-sushi dishes that give Kata’s menu an appeal for almost everyone.

All of those things mean that when Houston’s chefs get a rare night off, they can typically be found in Kata’s dining room.

Sitting at the sushi bar during the week for an omakase tasting allows the chef to demonstrate the high quality of his rigorously sourced ingredients, but it also works as a reasonably priced lunch spot. There’s even a well-curated wine, sake and cocktail list.

All of those things mean that when Houston’s chefs get a rare night off, they can typically be found in Kata’s dining room.

Gatlin’s BBQ

Over the past five years, Houston has undergone something of a barbecue awakening. Instead of spots that serve too-lean brisket and mushy ribs, new contenders have emerged that more closely follow the central Texas style of fatty brisket and strong smoke flavor. While picking Gatlin’s over, say, Corkscrew or Brooks’ Place is like choosing a favorite child, there are a couple ways in which it stands out.

First, the sides, particularly the dirty rice and bacon-spiked green beans, are fantastic. Also, the seasoning and texture of the ribs is just that much better than some of the other places in town. I’ve never had a bad one. Even though it uses canned peaches, the peach cobbler is pretty much mandatory.

The biggest downside is the sometimes lengthy wait for food. Going for an early lunch during the work week usually mitigates the problem.

Mala Sichuan Bistro

Chinatown can be confusing and intimidating for diners who aren’t familiar with the cuisine or language. Mala Sichuan features clear, English-language descriptions of all its dishes and servers who take the time to answer questions. None of that would matter if the food weren’t delicious, but the restaurant’s dedication to importing its own Sichuan peppercorns ensures that the signature mala tingle comes through in every dish.

Any of the dishes that use those peppercorns are a reliable place to start, particularly the red chili oil dumplings. Dishes that utilize whole tilapia are also consistently excellent. Mala’s wine list, prepared by former Oxheart sommelier Justin Vann as part of his PSA Wines consulting business, means that the drinks are finally a fitting companion to the food.

Dolce Vita

Of the three restaurants in Marco Wiles’ Montrose mini-empire, Dolce Vita is both the most accessible and the most rewarding. The reasonably priced menu of wood-fired pizzas, pastas and vegetable sides is consistently delicious. Pizzas arrive with a slightly chewy crust that displays just the right amount of char.

Pastas have both excellent texture and restrained sauces. Naturally, the wine list offers a number of inexpensive by the glass options to pair with a meal. In good weather, the patio is a relaxing spot to spend an evening, ordering dishes a couple at a time and lingering over a bottle.


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