Houston, Texas is the 4th largest city in the country. Its geographic footprint is immense and intimidating, much like how people feel about the talent of its more famous hometown hero Beyonce.
Perhaps that’s why, on a recent trip to the city, I was shocked to look up from my Tacos Al Carbon at Ninfa’s on Navigation only to see someone I knew not even an hour after checking into my hotel. That person was Alba Huerta, Houston’s bombshell bar owner behind such cocktail hot spots as Julep and The Pastry War. Alba laughed at my surprise. “Houston is actually a small town.”
My other H-town spirit guides, Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly and his equally food-obsessed girlfriend Lindsey Brown, echoed the same sentiment. I was skeptical, but after 76 hours of what felt like an extended episode of The Layover, Houston seemed less sprawling and faceless. It became more like one welcoming neighborhood, albeit enormous, from the offbeat Montrose area to the city’s rambling Chinatown -- delicious evidence of the city’s status as the most diverse metropolitan area in the country.
This list includes everywhere I went in chronological order, but be aware it doesn’t include some Houston must-visits like Justin Yu’s acclaimed Oxheart, Hugo Ortega’s authentic Mexican outposts, Bryan Caswell's Reef, or enough of the innumerable gems within the city’s ethnic dining scene. But if you’re looking to expand your perception of Houston’s food scene or just for a jumping off point for a weekend adventure, each of these restaurants and bars provides just that.
If Henry Louis Gates, Jr., could draw a family tree for the Tex-Mex craze, Ninfa’s on Navigation would be at the root of which it all began. Whether Mama Ninfa Laurenzo invented the first beef fajitas or not is debated by taco scholars, but there is no arguing she was instrumental in solidifying the dish as part of the Great American Cookbook. Today, the original location still makes her Tacos Al Carbon with flour tortillas filled with strips of steak served alongside beans and rice, pico de gallo, and guacamole. Purists may disregard the tiny cup of orange chile con queso, but I have no self-control over liquified cheese. Alba, mentioned above, has recently revamped Ninfa’s beverage menu, introducing fresh ingredients and concoctions, but rest assured the Ninfarita will remain unchanged.
After my Tacos Al Carbon, was an impromptu trip in Alba’s safari-style, apocalypse-proof Jeep to explore Phoenicia Fine Foods, a two-story international grocery store-restaurant-bar-bakery-venue hybrid. While many grocery stores have tried to create a model that makes you feel like it’s a cool place to hang (not just to pick up some bananas and leave), Phoenicia succeeds. The bar features a full menu of wine-based cocktails like the Splish-Splash, dill-infused agave nectar, pinot grigio and strained cucumber finished with bitters. You can even snack on za’atar-dusted shoestring fries with lemon zest or harissa chicken wings in the booths out front. Just don’t leave without discovering Alba’s favorite Phoenicia offering, Alfajores, Peruvian shortbread sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche and covered in powdered sugar.
Chef Chris and Lindsey (mentioned above) took a Texas-style approach to the evening, that being three dinners—our first at Coltivare, Chef Ryan Pera’s mystic pizza garden. The cozy, 50-seat restaurant with an open kitchen is adjacent to Pera’s plot of raised beds growing everything from ground cherries and pole beans to chile peppers and bay laurel leaves. Houstonians will wait whatever it takes to snag a seat here, which is made easier by biding your time on a bench underneath the romantic glow of string lights by the cucumber vines. It doesn’t take much more than a sip of the Fancy Gin and Tonic dressed up with lemon, star anise, and dill, and a bite of the roasted eggplant dip appetizer to see why this place stays perpetually packed. But, the pizza proves mind altering. The crust alone (burnished, brown, and crackly on the outside and impossibly pillowy on the inside) shatters whatever ceiling of pizza expectations you might have constructed in the past. The combination of toppings using the garden-raised produce and locally sourced meats are inventive and fresh, but basil, mozzarella, and tomato are all you need to see the difference. Other menu highlights: the wood grilled chicken agrio dulce with pickled grapes and the pasta bolognese.
At The Pass and Provisions, I felt as if I were on the train in Texan director Wes Anderson’s Darjeeling Limited. Each part of Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan's double concept restaurant down to the individual stalls of the restroom provide a different scenario. Enter Provisions from the hallway that also functions as an industrially elegant bar and you’ll find glossy walls made with the reclaimed wood from a basketball court, long pine tables covered with poster-sized, mirror-imaged menus, and an illuminated, oversized vintage sign for Antone’s (a Houston-area po’ boy shop). On the menu, there is an entire category devoted just to house-baked bread and cheese pairings, and then another for charcuterie. It is imperative you get the ham of the day as is it that you have the elemental take on Caesar salad, a wedge of romaine dressed with white anchovy, pickled lemon, parmesan, and breadcrumbs. Through the sliding wood door to the right of Provisions, you’ll find The Pass, a minimalist, white-walled space with lux black banquettes, which provides a more experiential dining experience with a tasting menu. While Chris and Lindsey said they’ve had one of their more memorable dining experiences there, they were insistent that I check out the just-as-memorable restroom. Walk through two ambiguous doors and you’ll find yourself next to an island of foot pedal-powered sinks and the voice of Julia Child preparing a chicken. If only Southern Living had a best restaurant restrooms award.
Finally we made our way back to Chris’s Underbelly, a physical homage to Houston’s old and new food culture. Chris draws upon the city’s diverse cultures to inform every element of the restaurant from the Korean Braised Goat with Dumplings to the extensive comic book-style menu annotated by area rapper Bun B. My favorite example? The humble yellow wax bean caramelized the same way Vietnamese chicken wings are in fish-sauce. Look to the far wall and what looks like a Claes Oldenburg piece is actually a dramatically-lit window to the curing room where one very special piece of charcuterie has been resting. His name? Allen The Leg. He’s a whole Akauishi beef leg that has more Twitter followers than you (2,835 to be specific). If you’re so lucky as to taste him, you’ll know why. While you may be tempted, don’t skip dessert, or you’ll miss the work of Pastry Chef Victoria Dearmond, who renders kidney fat (left from the whole animal butchering in the kitchen) into lard for a fried blackberry hand pie that will make you forget you were full.
While there’s nothing pretentious about Anvil, the bar staff here, which includes Alex Negranza named one of Eater’s 2016 Young Guns, more than know their stuff. The menu features their “100 list,” an amalgamation of classic cocktails the bartenders know by heart divided into emotionally based lists from bitter and bold (The Jungle Bird: Dark Virgin Islands Rum, Italian Bitter, Pineapple, Lime) to boozy and alluring (Creole Contentment: Cognac, Madeira, Maraschino, Orange Bitters). Still can’t decide? Ask Alex to guide the way, and you won’t be disappointed.
If you’re more a wine lover than a cocktail drinker, head to Camerata. If you’re not a wine person, you have even more reason to visit Camerata. No matter your vino knowledge, whether you frequently read up on vintages from the Loire Valley or you buy something with an appealing label at the grocery store when the mood strikes you, Camerata is not a cool kids club. Rather, it’s a place where wine is fun and shared without any snobbery, and that matters so much more than how detailed a list is or what regions it represents. Although, the answers are very and many in this case.
Houston’s answer to the nation’s food hall craze, Conservatory is a subterranean beer garden and food court where you can build a worldly meal fit for these globalized times. Try deep fried Takoyaki octopus dumplings drizzled in mayo from Samurai Noodle; brisket with tamarind BBQ sauce and ranchero beans from El Burro and the Bull (helmed by John Avila, one of Franklin BBQ’s first employees); Papa Poulaki, a Greek-style lemon-herb chicken, and Harry’s 1000 Ovens Pie, milk custard inside phyllo dough, from Myth Kafe; and/or a veggie crepe from Melange Creperie. And with 4 (yes, 4) different happy hours, you can always get that second round of beers too.
Houston’s Chinatown area, a rambling beehive of two-story strip malls, hides too many treasures to find in a day, a weekend, maybe a lifetime. Without a plan, you can be left feeling disoriented, hungry, and overwhelmed–a tragic trifecta. Chris and Lindsey have devoted much of their free time to panning the gold from the river of restaurants that is Bellaire Boulevard. They recommend Saigon Pagolac, HK Dim Sum, and Hai Cang for a direct plan of action along with Phi Coffee and Tea, a cartoonishly cute coffee house with mustard yellow chairs and a baby grand piano, inside the Hong Kong City Market, which provides hours of entertainment for grocery store tourists like myself. The iced Vietnamese-style coffee here is everything you want it to be: sweet, pleasantly bitter, strong, and the perfect antidote to the crushing humidity outside.
If there’s one place you go to in Chinatown, make it the Houston pilgrimage site known as Crawfish and Noodles. In our case, it was worth one of our eating companions switching her flight as to not miss out on the mid-afternoon feast, which included a massive, metal mixing bowl full of giant sinus-clearing, garlic-and-butter-covered crawfish. Prior to the bowl’s arrival at our table, Chris began tearing off sheets of paper towels and methodically folding and stacking them next to our plates. He seriously recommended we tie on the plastic bibs provided without any prompt to the server. We giggled at his seriousness but quickly learned that we were dining with a professional. Follow the Chris method and you won’t find yourself re-enacting a much messier version of the scene in Christmas Vacation where Clark tries to read a magazine and turn off a lamp while covered in tree sap. Another pro tip: don’t just stop at crawfish; the menu is full of other non-namesake goods like fish sauce chicken wings (the inspiration behind Chris’ veggie version at Underbelly), blue crabs, and for the truly adventurous, spicy turkey necks.
For more Southern travel finds, follow me on Instagram at @hayeshannah