There are two things that often surprise visitors coming to Houston for the first time: the city’s diversity and its cuisine. More than a quarter of all Houstonians were born in other countries, and nowhere is that more obvious than in Houston’s food scene. While many know it as the Tex-Mex capital of the South (better luck next time, Austin), locals are partial to a wide range of multicultural dishes. If you’re visiting Houston, these are the 10 best foods to try.
More Vietnamese people live in Houston than almost anywhere else in the country. Vietnamese food is so popular and pervasive, that it’s often fused with other types of foods to create something wholly new. Enter: Viet-Cajun crawfish. Being on the Gulf Coast, Houston was no stranger to mudbugs (crawfish), but after Hurricane Katrina, the city welcomed thousands of Louisianans looking to make a new start, sparking a renewed enthusiasm for the Cajun delicacy. Vietnamese-owned crawfish joints made this dish their own by slathering the boiled crawfish in butter and dusting it with spices. The best time to find Viet-Cajun crawfish is during crawfish season in the late winter/early spring, but you can (and should) get it year-round at Crawfish and Noodles.
Austin and San Antonio can fight all they want over who has the best breakfast tacos, but Houston knows what’s up. You can’t throw a rock in the city without hitting a Tex-Mex place or taco truck where hot, fresh breakfast tacos are served up daily. These brunch favorites come in all varieties, but typically consist of scrambled eggs, meat (like bacon or chorizo) and often cheese and/or veggies. The best place to snag them is your favorite taqueria, but if you don’t have one yet, try Tacos a Go Go or Luna Y Sol Mexican Grill, both of which are in Houston’s Midtown.
Chicken & Waffles
Texas has a lot of its own culinary traditions, but it’s still the South. And that means locals love to fill up on good, old-fashioned comfort food like chicken and waffles. This dish is served up at a lot of brunch spots, but the best place to find it is the Breakfast Klub. There, the waffle is big, sweet, and fluffy, and the chicken wings are crispy, salty, and finger-lickin’ good. For a fun twist on a classic dish, however, check out Liberty Kitchen — where red velvet waffles come with dixie-fried chicken and bacon jam — or the chicken and waffle sliders from the Waffle Bus food truck.
Speaking of the South, is there anything more Southern than pecan (pronounced PEE-can) pie? It’s the most popular dessert to serve on Thanksgiving in Texas, but you can get it in Houston all year long. There is some heated debate about where to get the best slice of pecan pie in the city, but there are a few places that consistently top the list, namely: Goode Company, Three Brothers Bakery, House of Pies, and Flying Saucer Pie Company. However, if you do try to snag a pecan pie at one of these places come November, go early. People queue up for hours to bring one home to their families for Thanksgiving.
Another holiday classic: tamales. Made using masa (or corn-flour dough) and a savory blend of spices, tamales are steamed in a corn husk that you remove just before eating. This Mexican dish is a Christmas staple in Houston, but you can get them all year round if you know where to look. If you don’t have an abuelita to make them for you (because, honestly, that’s the best way to enjoy them), you can buy them from Original Alamo Tamales or Texas Tamale Company — the latter of which you can get from any number of grocery stores in the metro area.
Houston might not be the birthplace of fajitas, but it did popularize them — changing the course of Texas’ culinary history. So the legend goes, “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo started cooking up skirt steak in the 1970s to serve in the tortillas made from her small tortilla factory. The tacos al carbon (later called fajitas) were such a hit, that Mama Ninfa was able to open up her very own restaurant, the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation. She passed away in 2001, but her restaurant is still the best place to get Tex-Mex in Houston, especially tacos al carbon.
Barbecued Beef Ribs
Texans love their meat, and Houstonians are no exception. Austin might be the state’s reining capital of barbecue, but Houston can hold its own. Unlike Kansas City or North Carolina, Texas doesn’t rely on sauce for its barbecue. Here, pitmasters use a bold blend of spices to complement the natural flavors of the meat — not mask it. You can still get the sauce if you want to, but it doesn’t need it, especially if you go to Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland. Brisket is always a good go-to at Killen’s, but if you want a real treat, get the beef ribs.
Vietnamese food is everywhere in Houston — third only to perhaps American food and Tex-Mex as the city’s favorite cuisine — so naturally, bánh mì is the unofficially official sandwich of Houston. Bánh mì is made using a type of chewy baguette (bánh mì in Vietnamese means “bread”), that’s then stuffed with grilled meat, pickled veggies and hot peppers. Bánh mì sandwiches tend to be cheap (under $5), quick and ubiquitous — there’s no shortage of hole-in-the-wall cafes and food trucks that have them on their menu. For the best bánh mì, however, check out Les Givral's (cash-only), Thien An Sandwiches, Cali Sandwich & Fast Food, or Hughie's Tavern & Grille.
Gulf Coast Seafood
Being this close to the Gulf of Mexico, seafood in Houston is fresh and abundant. You’ll find it in po’boys (BB’s Cafe has great ones), sushi (lookin’ at you, Izakaya WA), ceviche (try Caracol) or as simply seasoned filets (check out Ibiza Food & Wine Bar for those). Shrimp, crawfish (when in season) and catfish are particularly common, but some of the higher-end fish are must-tries, too, like redfish, oysters and flounder. If you aren’t sure what you’re in the mood for, Goode Company Seafood has it all. Bonus: Once you’ve devoured the seafood, you can get the restaurant’s famous pecan pie.
Kolaches (pronounced koh-LAH-cheez) are a Houston breakfast go-to, up there with doughnuts and bagels. If it’s your turn to bring in something for the morning meeting, you bring kolaches. In their original Eastern European homeland, these yeast dough pastries are sweet, filled with fillings like fruit or sweet cheeses. But in Texas, they’re almost always savory, stuffed with sausage (not unlike a hot dog) or ham and cheese, with or without jalapeños. Occasionally, you’ll find them with scrambled egg or spinach, but few stray from the pork-and-cheese formula that works so well. Most Houstonians get their kolaches where they get their doughnuts: Shipley Do-nuts. Though the Kolache Factory and River Oaks Donuts have some unique flavors worth trying, too.