A Gastro Obscura Guide to Houston


Though it has a relatively unassuming reputation, Houston is city of many superlatives. For one, it’s the largest city in Texas—and the entire South. It’s home to NASA and the Houston Medical Center, the world’s largest complex for life sciences. And that’s not to mention the Houston Rodeo, the largest of its kind in the world.

Such exceptionalism extends to Houston’s culinary landscape, which historically has been shaped by both its Texan identity and its proximity to the Gulf Coast. In Houston, it’s just as easy to find Texas-style barbecue joints as it is Cajun crawfish kitchens. Then of course there’s Tex-Mex, the Tejano “fusion” cuisine that evolved along the southern border through the mid-20th century. It’s not to be confused with the many other regional Mexican cuisines, of which there are also plenty.

A roper with the Charros performs in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade in 2024.
A roper with the Charros performs in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade in 2024. Brett Comer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

In recent years, Houston earned yet another major superlative: It’s now by some measures the most ethnically diverse city in America. And by extension, it’s become one of the country’s most dynamic culinary destinations, one whose identity is shaped by a vibrant tableau of flavors—from Vietnamese to Indian and West African. Nowadays, “Houston” food could mean pho, kati rolls, or jollof rice.

All of this to say: There’s never been a better time to visit—and dine in—Houston. And while the city’s highly-decorated fine dining scene is a major draw, it’s still the mom-and-pop spots and the neighborhood institutions that best represent the soul of the city. Here, we’ve curated a list of essential restaurants to try in the Bayou City, from a Tex-Mex long-timer to a dim sum hall and the longest-running restaurant in the Greater Houston Area.

Molina's Cantina has been serving smothered enchiladas and other Tex-Mex favorites since 1941.
Molina’s Cantina has been serving smothered enchiladas and other Tex-Mex favorites since 1941. Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

The Old Guard

One of America’s most storied regional cuisines, Tex-Mex emerged in the late 19th century through the foodways of the Tejano people, some of whom have roots in Texas that pre-date the state itself. Opened in 1941, Molina’s Cantina holds the title of Houston’s oldest operational Tex-Mex restaurant. Originally purchased by longtime worker Raul Molina Sr., who had started 10 years earlier as a dishwasher, and his wife, Mary, the restaurant is today managed by their sons and grandsons. Across the generations, the restaurant has maintained traditional favorites like the queso dip, signature tortilla soup, and house enchiladas.

Houston's oldest continuously-operating restaurant likes to point out that it's been in business "since before you were born."
Houston’s oldest continuously-operating restaurant likes to point out that it’s been in business “since before you were born.” Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

Christie’s Seafood & Steak has been a Houston institution since 1917, when Greek immigrant Theodore Christie founded it as a simple sandwich shop in Galveston’s Tremont Hotel. More than a century later, it’s now located on Westheimer. Managed by the third generation of the Christie family, the restaurant continues to charm with its fried Gulf shrimp, fresh oysters, and trout sandwich.

Over in Houston’s historic Acres Homes neighborhood, Burns Original BBQ is the local go-to for the East Texas style of barbecue, emphasizing pork dishes smoked low and slow. Founded in 1973 by legendary pitmaster Roy Burns Sr, Burns is now run by his descendants. Standout items include tangy pork ribs, sausage links, chopped brisket sandwiches, Cajun dirty rice, and macaroni and cheese.

Burns Original BBQ started as a roadside stand in the 1970s.
Burns Original BBQ started as a roadside stand in the 1970s. Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

Start Your Day Right

Kolaches, a pastry of Czech origin adapted by Texan immigrants, have evolved into an essential regional breakfast with both sweet (like apricot or cream cheese) and savory (such as sausage and jalapeño kielbasa) fillings. Established in 1970, Kolache Shoppe has become a benchmark for these pastries, utilizing a signature sweet-yeast dough to produce its lighter-than-air bread. Since current owners Lucy and Randy Hines took over in 2014, Kolache Shoppe has expanded to five locations in Texas.

Kolaches may have originated in what was then Czechoslovakia, but they're a thoroughly Texan breakfast staple now.
Kolaches may have originated in what was then Czechoslovakia, but they’re a thoroughly Texan breakfast staple now. Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

A Different Kind of Fusion

Set in downtown Houston, the flagship location of Kim Son epitomizes hybridized Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, a legacy of centuries of Chinese influence in Vietnam. Founded in 1982 by Kim Su Tran La, a former refugee who contributed all of the recipes, this institution is now overseen by her children. At the original, the menu melds traditional Chinese dishes such as Peking duck with Vietnamese favorites like Mekong Delta–style caramelized fish. Signature fusion dishes include hu tieu, pan-seared rice noodles, and the Kim Son Special—a robust blend of shrimp, scallops, beef, and chicken sautéed with vegetables in a savory, gravy-like sauce.

Himalaya Restaurant is a South-by-South-Asian cultural mash-up.
Himalaya Restaurant is a South-by-South-Asian cultural mash-up. Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

Located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District, Himalaya Restaurant is renowned for its whimsical fusion of Indian and Southern cuisine. Opened 1992 by Pakistani American Kaiser Lashkari, the restaurant’s signature dishes include Indian-spiced Southern fried chicken and a unique Desi-style pastrami known as hunter’s beef—marinated and sautéed with a robust blend of Indian spices.

Viet-Cajun is a vibrant fusion cuisine popularized in Houston by Vietnamese refugees who merged Southeast Asian seafood-boil techniques with Louisiana crawfish. Tucked in an Asiatown strip mall, Cajun Kitchen serves crawfish in a variety of styles ranging from classic garlic-butter to Thai basil and the citrus-packed Kitchen Special. Outside the seasonal cycles of fresh crawfish availability—from January through July—the restaurant turns out other Vietnamese-influenced takes on Gulf Coast seafood like Maine razor clams with Vietnamese chili butter sauce and mussels steamed in a lemongrass broth.

Cajun Kitchen serves exemplary Viet-Cajun food, a hybrid cuisine born from Houston's sizeable Vietnamese diaspora.
Cajun Kitchen serves exemplary Viet-Cajun food, a hybrid cuisine born from Houston’s sizeable Vietnamese diaspora. Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

Don’t Skip the Strip Malls

For largely economic reasons, strip malls boast some of the best immigrant restaurants in Houston. Following early waves of Southeast Asian immigrants, West African immigrants—from Nigeria and Ghana—have also arrived in Houston in recent decades. At United Sisters, a modest mom-and-pop eatery set in a strip mall, you’ll find authentic Nigerian fare in a homey setting. The menu features beloved staples like okra soup, creamy egusi soup made from melon seeds, and Southern Nigerian edikaikong soup with seafood and pumpkin leaves. Highlights include jollof rice paired with goat or chicken stew, plantains, and vegetables, along with meaty suya kebabs.

Delicious Asian Diaspora Cuisines

In the last decade, Houston’s Asiatowns (yes, there are more than one) have emerged as the city’s culinary frontiers. Set in the Asiatown of Houston mega-suburb Katy, Phat Eatery is the restaurant that has really mainstreamed Malay cuisine in Houston since it opened in 2018. Founded by the late chef Alex Au-Yeung, a James Beard Award Semifinalist, the restaurant highlights the richness and variety of Malaysian cooking in dishes like roti canai, a Chinese-influenced dim sum platter, and the crowd-beloved sizzling tofu.

At House of Bowls, a Hong Kong–style iced tea is the perfect complement to Cantonese comfort food.
At House of Bowls, a Hong Kong–style iced tea is the perfect complement to Cantonese comfort food. Johnny Luu for Gastro Obscura

Since 2003, House of Bowls in Houston’s Asiatown has epitomized Hong Kong comfort food. Although initially serving dishes exclusively in bowls—hence the name—the menu has evolved to include plates while maintaining a selection of traditional and modern Cantonese dishes. Favorites include stir-fried beef chow fun (flat rice noodles), comforting congee, crispy chicken wings, and a unique Hong Kong–style French toast stuffed with peanut butter and drizzled with condensed milk.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.

Sign up for our email, delivered twice a week.





Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top