There are pretty much as many restaurants and bars in Houston as there are potholes (i.e., a whole hell of a lot), so eating and drinking your way through the city’s most excellent culinary landscape could take you a lifetime. We’re here to shorten that effort, giving you a bucket list of dining experiences that you could start knocking off now and finish in, say the lifetime of an Astros World Series contention instead. These aren’t the hottest restaurants and coolest bars in Houston at this very moment (if you’re looking for those, we just linked ‘em), but rather a glimpse into what makes Houston’s food and drink scene so damn special.
A brontosaurus-sized beef rib at Killen’s Barbecue
Pearland Gnawing down the beef rib from Killen’s Barbecue is a religious experience. The superbly thick crust and ready-to-shed-right-off-the-bone meat is hit with salt, pepper, smoke, and absolutely nothing else as to let the high-quality Texas beef shine. And man, does it. Get it with a side of creamed corn and collard greens, and don’t sleep on the banana pudding, either. How to order: Dine in or order takeout online.
A mouth full of tacos at Laredo Taqueria (and more)
Houston Tacos in the morning. Tacos in the evening. Tacos at suppertime. You can legit eat tacos all day long in Houston. Start with the absolute best breakfast tacos filled with huevos, chorizo, y papas at spots like Laredo Taqueria and Chilosos Taco House; have your life, or at least your afternoon, changed with the most important tacos in Houston, from trompo at La Macro to street style tacos al pastor at Taconmadre; and get your late-night taco fix with birria at La Calle or Cuban tacos at El Rey. How to order: Dine-in, and lookout for top taco spots on DoorDash, UberEats, and more.
Viet-Cajun crawfish (including the heads)
Chinatown Peeling, pinching, and sucking down a bucket of mudbugs is a Houston rite of passage. You won’t feel like a true local until you master your technique, and until you’ve tried the Vietnamese-Cajun hybrid-hit with a blend of Garlic, butter, and fragrant spices-that truly speaks to Houston’s mutt culture. Find it at cult favorite Crawfish & Noodles, and try out hotspots Cajun Kitchen and Saigon House, too. How to order: Dine-in and bring your mask.
A drink at Houston’s OG cocktail bar, Anvil Bar and Refuge
Montrose Anvil Bar and Refuge officially put Houston’s cocktail scene on the map after opening in 2009, and it’s only gotten better as it’s matured. Next to a list of 100 classic cocktails that is a bucket list all its own (first conceived as a training guide for Anvil’s rockstar staff), you’ll find an eight-pack of rotating original cocktails dreamed up by some of Houston’s most talented mixologists. Pick your poison between something bitter & bold (think Sazeracs and Negronis), sour & short (spot-on Bourbon Sour, anyone?), boozy & alluring (from Manhattans to Juleps), and more. How to order: Place an online order for to-go cocktails Thursday-Sunday.
Korean braised goat & dumplings at The Hay Merchant
Montrose That’d be JBA winner and Chef Chris Shepherd’s iconic Korean braised goat & dumplings, chewy rice dumplings and tender goat coated in a spicy gochujang sauce. The dish was first seen at the late Underbelly, and is now up for grabs alongside a hoppy IPA at Underbelly Hospitality’s cool as hell beer bar, The Hay Merchant (somehow, downing the fiery, comforting dish in the bar’s low-key atmosphere feels more Houston, anyway). Another “story of Houston” snack you’ll want to tack on? Hay Merchant’s sweet and spicy crispy pig ears. How to order: Dine-in or place a to-go order online.
Real deal Mexican fare at Hugo’s (and more)
Houston Hugo’s achiote-rubbed braised suckling pig and Xochi’s epic mole tasting. Picos‘ enchiladas de mariscos and traditional chiles en nogada. Veracruz-style fish and towering parrilladas at Teotihuacan. Irma’s out-of-this-world tamales and homemade flan. Mexican food in Houston is not to be missed. How to order: Hugo’s offers dine-in and curbside/delivery, as does Xochi; Picos has free delivery and curbside pickup with online ordering as well as dine-in options; and Irma’s and Teo offer dine-in or takeout (call for pickup).
A life-affirming bowl of pho at Pho Binh (and more)
Houston Houston is home to the third largest Vietnamese population in America, which means there’s a pretty epic Vietnamese food scene. Pho shops line the city, with superior noodle options including but not limited to the old school take at Pho Saigon, Pho Ga Dakao’s chicken pho, and the fatty brisket and meatball-loaded soup at Pho Binh. How to order: Call for takeout, dine-in, and check for local delivery via DoorDash and more.
Bone-in ribeye at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
Downtown (& Galleria) Preferably one that’s been dry-aged for at least 28 days: That’s what they do to the gorgeously marbled beef at the Houston tradition that is Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Other badass options include Georgia James, where the long bone ribeye undergoes a 100-day dry aging process; and Israeli-inspired steakhouse Doris Metropolitan, which sports a super luxe dry-aging meat locker complete with a chandelier. How to order: Make reservations to dine-in or snag to-go with online ordering at Pappas Bros. and Georgia James and by calling Doris.
A giant stuffed turkey leg at The Turkey Leg Hut
Museum District After one too many Thanksgiving disasters, you may not even think you like turkey. Before you give up on the bird completely, we implore you to try the gargantuan turkey legs from local staple, The Turkey Leg Hut. Here, they come slow-smoked and stuffed and smothered with things like homemade dirty rice and crawfish mac’ and cheese. Snoop Dogg’s a fan, and we’re guessing you’ll be one, too. How to order: Score a table, place a takeout order online, or snag delivery on ChowNow.
At least one meal out in Chinatown
Chinatown We’d suggest more, but if you can only squeeze one meal in, make it the tongue-scorching Sichuan offerings at Mala Sichuan. Or seven courses of Vietnamese-style beef at Saigon Pagolac. And the soy duck and Spam katsu at Toukei, or crispy snapper and lemongrass prawns at Night Market. Oh, and dumplings at Golden Dumpling House and Fung’s Kitchen’s next-level Hong Kong-style dim sum. Shoot. How to order: Dine-in or call for pickup; some spots (like Mala) can be found on DoorDash, UberEats, and the ChowBus delivery app.
A hoppy IPA from Houston’s oldest brewery, Saint Arnold
Warehouse District Saint Arnold Brewing Company got its start in the ‘90s, making it the oldest craft brewery in the Lone Star. Go for year-round brews like the extremely hoppy Art Car IPA and super refreshing Lawnmower German-style Kolsch; and taste in-season sensations like the full-bodied Oktoberfest and super popular Pumpkinator Stout. All of them will pair nicely with a duo of fat buttery pretzels and Santo-spiked queso. How to order: Stop-in and wait for a table or order food and drinks online.
An over-the-top meal at a fancy-pants local institution
Greenway/Midtown The late Tony Vallone’s magic lives on at his timeless Italian restaurant, Tony’s, one of the oldest (and classiest) fine dining establishments in Houston. It’s been setting the gold standard for world-class service since 1965, wining and dining the likes of Tony Bennett, Oscar de la Renta, and seven sitting presidents. In Midtown, Brennan’s, impressing since 1967, is where Houston’s culinary elite go to cut their teeth, as the kitchen has been the stomping grounds for top talent including Chris Shepherd, Mark Holley, Jamie Zelko, and more. Plus, you can’t beat bananas Foster flambéed tableside. How to order: Make dine-in reservations or order online at both Tony’s and Brennan’s.
A stick-to-your-bones meal at a hole-in-the-wall local institution
Houston Despite what its name tells you, 1946 landmark Barbecue Inn is not famous for its barbecue, but rather its perfect 10 take on classic Southern fried chicken. And Lankford Grocery & Market isn’t a grocery and market at all (at least not anymore), but a place you’ll be going to smash one of the greasiest, most satisfying burgers you’ll ever have. If it’s alarmingly good soul food you’re after, you’ll find it at the for-once appropriately named Houston’s This Is It Soul Food, which has been ridding us all of the Sunday scaries since it got its start in Freedmen’s Town in 1959. How to order: Dine-in or call for takeout; and score online ordering/contactless pickup at This Is It and Barbecue Inn.
The Holy Trinity of Tex-Mex
Houston That’d be the extraordinarily addicting combination of chips + queso + margarita (on-the-rocks or frozen, as long as the glass is bigger than your dome). You can throw a rock any direction in Houston and you’ll be able to find this combo, but here’s a start: Tejano spot Superica, taco ice house Eight Row Flint, downtown tequila tavern The Pastry War, or the absolute Tex-Mex titan that is El Tiempo. How to order: El Tiempo is open for dine-in, pickup, and delivery via UberEats, DoorDash, and Favor; Superica is open for dine-in, with online ordering for curbside pickup and DoorDash delivery; Eight Row has dine-in and to-go online ordering; and The Pastry War will announce its return (hopefully) soon.
A taste of New BBQ at Blood Brothers
Bellaire Brothers Robin and Terry Wong and best friend/chief smoker Quy Hoang look to their Chinese, Vietnamese, and Houston roots to dream up the next generation of Texas barbecue at the Bellaire smokehouse, Blood Brothers BBQ. The rules are there are no rules here. Just top-notch quality meat done right and hit with local flavor: thit nuong pork belly burnt ends, Thai chili peanut butter ribs, smoked beef cheek barbacoa tacos, and brisket fried rice. How to order: Stop by and dine-in.
Meltingly tender smoked brisket at Corkscrew BBQ
Spring We love all our barbecue spots (especially these ones), but if you’re looking for the purist brisket experience, we highly recommend a trip to Corkscrew BBQ in Old Town Spring. A perfectly rendered, silky cap and deep blackened bark make for a brisket that is pure bliss, especially when ordered moist (as any good Texan would know). How to order: Both dine-in and online ordering are available; walk-in orders welcome.
Gulf Coast oysters at Caracol
Galleria The ostiones asados-wood-roasted Gulf oysters dripping in chipotle butter and topped with cheese and toasted bread crumbs-at coastal Mexican haunt Caracol are a thing of beauty. If you’re looking for some more Third Coast oysters in your life, check out the buttery, chargrilled numbers at Gilhooley’s down in San Leon and the Gulf gems on-the-half-shell at La Lucha in the Heights. How to order: Reserve a table or get curbside/delivery online.
The fajita that sparked a national craze at The Original Ninfa’s
East End/Uptown “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo first started grilling skirt steak and stuffing it inside tortillas to save her family’s struggling tortilla factory. Those “tacos al carbon” later became widely known as “fajitas,” a dish which her namesake restaurant, The Original Ninfa’s, has been perfecting since 1973. Though many have tried, the legendary sizzling hot comal of fajitas here can’t be outdone. How to order: Score dine-in reservations, order online for pickup, or score delivery via DoorDash.
An Indo-Pak riff on KFC that’s like a CFS at Himalaya
Sharpstown Right off Southwest Freeway in a strip center lies Himalaya, an Indo-Pak restaurant that’s garnered many fans thanks to its global riff on Southern fried chicken. Known as HFC (Himalaya Fried Chicken), the masala-spiced chicken is marinated and deep-fried before getting a CFS-inspired white gravy coating made with almonds, cashews, and coconut. Those-plus creations from Indian style shepherd’s pie to a mutton biryani in celebration of the late Anthony Bourdain, who visited for his CNN series “Parts Unknown”-have also earned chef and owner Kaiser Lashkari a JBA Best Chef Southwest semifinalist nom. Go see why. How to order: Dine in, call or text your order to 713-532-2837; or score delivery on ChowNow, Favor, and Postmates.
A first-rate po’ boy at BB’s Tex-Orleans
Houston Not to be outdone by the banh mi, Houston’s po’boy sandwich is also here to play. Head to one of the many locations of BB’s Tex-Orleans for proof in the form of a Midnight Masterpiece, a fully dressed roast beef debris po’ boy; or the Half & Half, in which fried Gulf shrimp and oysters unite. For an optimal dining experience, upgrade your side of fries to the Tex-Cajun variety and you’ll be treated to a queso and roast beef gravy smothered taste of euphoria. How to order: Dine-in, order to-go, and look for your nearest location on DoorDash.
A first-rate banh mi
Houston Houston is home to the following: the Subway of banh mi shops (Roostar), more than one Vietnamese gastropub where you can get a local beer and a banh mi (Hughie’s Tavern, Nobi Public House), hole-in-the-wall sandwich joints (Thien An, Cafe TH), and one spot stuffing its banh mi with things like oak-smoked brisket, hoisin butter chicken, and coconut basil prawns (Les Ba’get) . You should get acquainted with one of them, at the very least. How to order: Pop-in or get online ordering at Roostar, Les Ba’get, Nobi, and both locations of Hughie’s.
Kolache (or klobasniky) for breakfast
Houston Only in Texas would a sausage stuffed sweet bun be considered the perfect morning meal. Those klobasniky and their cousin, the kolache (buns with dollops of sweet cheese, poppyseed, and fruit filling at the center) are prevalent around this part of town thanks to the Lone Star’s Czech belt. Go for classic versions at The Original Kolache Shoppe, or more imaginative takes at Koala Kolache. How to order: Pop in to either spot to load up on kolache.
A Bloody Mary spiked with gumbo at Eugene’s Gulf Coast Cuisine
Montrose Danton’s may be gone, but the team behind it picked up and moved to a new spot in Montrose to open up Eugene’s. That means you’ll still find the Bloody Danton, an epic riff on the classic morning after drink made with the kitchen’s homemade gumbo roux, Tito’s, sriracha, fresh lemon and a “secret” spice rim. Yes, it pairs well with oysters. How to order: Make dine-in reservations online.
Wings & waffles that are worth the wait at The Breakfast Klub
Midtown The crunchy, addicting Wings & Waffle combo at The Breakfast Klub are a weekend staple, here in Houston. It’s the place you go to or grab yourself a good damn breakfast, or to wow your out-of-town friends (pre-Covid, this is probably the reason there was always a line). Not feeling a Belgian waffle? You can get those same wings with French toast, pancakes, and grits, too. How to order: Dine-in or order online.
A beer and a taco at West Alabama Ice House
Montrose Spend the afternoon at West Alabama Ice House, Houston’s favorite (and longest running) outdoor dive. You’ll find all walks of life here, the biker and the baller, mustached dudes and social media stars, kids in the 20s and longtime friends of the bar. Everyone is here for the same reason: to enjoy no-frills, ice cold drinks on the patio alongside what many consider to be the best tacos in town, tiny, fiery numbers from neighboring taco truck, Tacos Tierra Caliente. How to order: Show up (in a mask), grab some tacos from the truck, and secure a table at the icehouse.Sign up here for our daily Houston email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.
Brooke Viggiano is a Houston writer who hopes they serve BB’s fries and Kata’s ramen at her funeral. Follow her less morbid thoughts on Twitter @BrookeViggiano.
“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it.
“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.
The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin.
“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.”
Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.
As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture.
“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland.
This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.
Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly.
“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.”
So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on.
Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate.
“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”
Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get.
“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”
As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland.
This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”
We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland.
“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”
Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter.
One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood.
If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world.
Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.