14138741_1165599530162933_3230843658718162583_o
This hearty burger at Au Cheval in Chicago just might be among the country’s best.

What are the best food cities in America? It’s a commonly asked question that has a wide range of possible answers. Naturally, it’s also frequently a source of passionate debate.

There’s no more visible sign of a city’s growing food scene, for example, than a ringing endorsement from a nationally acclaimed chef. And that’s exactly what Houston, Texas, received a couple of weeks ago in GQ from NYC-based Momofuku honcho David Chang. The piece has its roots all the way back in 2012, when the chef jokingly suggested he’d open the next iteration of his restaurant in Houston to watch the Rockets’ newly signed NBA star Jeremy Lin play. Fast-forward a few years, and Chang admits the joke was on him all along — after a number of visits to Houston, he now includes it on his short list for “the next food capital of America.”

Chang’s succinct praise of the supposed up-and-coming food city got us thinking: Which cities in the U.S. would we personally nominate for the same honor? The chef’s criteria are intelligently straightforward: Houston is ethnically diverse, has relatively inexpensive commercial and residential rents, no state income tax and a couple of well-established and nationally recognized chefs leading the way. This formula is fundamentally key for a city to foster a dining climate that’s friendly to restaurateurs, chefs, restaurant workers and diners alike.

Any rundown of blossoming culinary scenes should, of course, first acknowledge cities that have already established themselves as food meccas. This process is made somewhat easier by placing American cities into tiers.

The first tier represents the country’s firmly entrenched “best” food cities — the ones with the most extensive histories and traditions, biggest-name chefs, most renowned restaurants and continually evolving cuisines. There’s not much doubt in our minds about bestowing such honors upon the following five cities. [Editor’s note: There is no type of order within each tier.]

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 3.34.16 PM
Katz’s Delicatessen and its world-famous pastrami sandwiches have stood the test of time in New York City.

Tier One

New York; Chicago; Los Angeles; San Francisco; New Orleans

The second tier encompasses cities whose food landscapes have been steadily on the rise over the past several years: Well-known chefs are moving there to open restaurants, avid diners are scrambling for reservations at a whole variety of places, and out-of-towners can name more than a few restaurant and/or dish staples. You can visit — or live — in any of these places for an extended period of time and continue to explore and find hidden gems well into the honeymoon stage of your stay. Here’s what we have so far.

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 3.42.29 PM
Grilled dry-aged pigeon with accoutrements at Portland, Oregon’s fine-dining institution Le Pigeon.

Tier Two

Austin; Nashville; Charleston; Portland, Oregon; Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.

Naturally, such lists are highly subjective and we encourage constructive (critical?) feedback. We’ll specifically mention Boston as a potential snub in the second tier. Cities like Miami and Las Vegas certainly have the quantity of high-quality restaurants necessary to qualify for inclusion here, and the draw of big-name chefs is definitely there. But they also feel like there’s a little more sizzle than steak present to us, with these chefs tending to tack on their names to glitzy, large-scale projects rather than being involved every step of the way.

Meanwhile, below is what we came up with for possibly emerging “tier three” cities. We kept in mind Chang’s original criteria, which amount generally to a city’s ability to grow exponentially in the near future.

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 3.40.49 PM
A shareable, colorful plate of hamachi crudo at Acorn in Denver, Colorado.

Tier Three

Houston; Atlanta; Denver; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; Seattle; Minneapolis; Dallas

Narrowing down the picks in this final category is no easy feat. There are plenty of cities — Savannah, Georgia; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Asheville, North Carolina; and Portland, Maine immediately come to mind — that are deserving of inclusion but may never reach the benchmark of having an extensive selection of quality food due solely to population size. Highly worthy of top-notch, food-filled weekend getaways and shorter trips, these cities just might not have enough space to expand and sustain the volume of diverse spots needed to crack this list. They may very well form their own category — a fourth tier, if you will.

The reality is that there will never be a definitive answer to the oft-posed query regarding the best food cities in America. The restaurant industry is as unpredictable as any, and a bevy of factors — both expected and unforeseen — could have us reconsidering many of our picks in the coming months or years. Such is the business of opening restaurants, not to mention predicting their success. Just like Chang hedges his argument by stating that Houston “just might be” the next big food city and that he “believes” it to be true, so did we initially by tacking on a few cities to our “tier three” list before ultimately trimming it. In any case, on this one day, at least — December 7, 2016 — we feel confident in our choices.