12 Houston Restaurants: New, Classics, The Best Pho In America?

According to chef Justin Yu, Houston is an eating city. "It's really based on a lot of cuisines and cultures and people who base their life around coming together and eating," he told us recently. And while we hear these sentiments of pride often when a local chef starts talking about his community, Yu pretty much hit it on the head. You go to Houston to eat. Period. And eat really, really well. Located in the far eastern section of Texas, the sprawling city of over 2 million is situated basically on the Gulf Coast, and a short drive from Louisiana, so seafood plays a major role in the culinary scene — be it with boiled Vietnamese crab or Creole or high-minded fish cookery. Houston is also the spiritual home of Tex-Mex cuisine, and the claimed birthplace of cheese enchiladas and the fajita. Throw in some barbecue, mezcal and the country's most-famous Korean rice cake dish, and you've got a hell of an eating city — don't you, Justin. Here are 12 places to check out in an exciting, growing scene.

1. The Pass & Provisions

Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner met while working at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant in New York, and eventually moved to Houston to open this two-concept restaurant in the emerging Fourth Ward neighborhood (while launching, they penned a column for Food Republic cheekily titled The Worst Idea Ever?). No, gentlemen, not a bad idea at all. Provisions is the more casual of the two, with a large wood-burning oven driving the Mediterranean-focused cooking. Pastas are absolute knockouts, and make sure to order the Cresta di Gallo (a rooster-shaped noodle) with hen of the woods mushrooms, Parmesan and roasted yeast. Spell it out: u-m-a-m-i b-o-m-b. Quick-fired pizzas with toppings like bresaola/brussels sprouts and duck confit/mustard are good for sharing, as are meat-centric mains (roasted sweetbreads and octopus, ham plate) and a $125 roasted lobe of foie gras. On the Pass side (a totally enclosed restaurant within a restaurant) things are different — guests are offered two tasting menus (one vegetarian, one with more omnivore vibes) that can be ordered as 5 or 8 courses, with creative wine and cocktail/spirits pairings. The cooking is precise, with flavors of Europe and Asia matching and mingling. Just check out the always updating menus here and book that table ahead of time. 807 Taft Street Houston, TX 77019 713-628-9020 passandprovisions.com 

2. Reef

Reef, at its heart, is a Gulf Coast seafood restaurant. "We try really hard to do a true market-run seafood restaurant, which means that we sometimes only get 10 pounds of something," says chef-owner Bryan Caswell, a Food & Wine Best New Chef who spent nearly a decade working for Jean-Georges around the world. And true to the seafood claim, when you enter Caswell's Midtown restaurant you are greeted with a chalkboard listing of all the Gulf Coast seafood species the restaurant has served — nearly 110 at last count. This means global cooking like tempura rock shrimp with XO sauce and kimchi remoulade and grilled redfish on the "half-shell" with a towering side of fried mac and cheese. Wine, according to the menu's claim, is sold "ridiculously cheap" with a mostly American list that features 4,000 bottles from 400 makers. And with many bottles under $40, and several in the mid-$20s, chances are you're going to want to order that bottle. 2600 Travis St Houston, TX 77006 713-526-8282 reefhouston.com

3. Oxheart

Houston native Justin Yu worked in Chicago, Napa and Northern Europe before returning home with a notebook full of ideas and wind at his back. The world was his wood-fired, brown butter–topped oyster as he readied to open a restaurant in the old Erie City Iron Works building. The result has earned the young chef major awards and a loving review by Pete Wells in the New York Times. The general headline about Yu's tasting menu-only restaurant is that he's cooking using Texas products, but with modernist flair (radish emulsion, keiffer pear jellies and a whole lot of fermentation). The menus rotate with the seasons, which can be viewed here. But this isn't to say the experience of dining at Oxheart is hushed-toned and serious. The space is industrial and rough, and if you're lucky you will be seated at one of the dozen kitchen stadium seats, where you can observe the baby-faced staff having a bit of fun. "I love fantasy football," Yu told us in an interview earlier this year. "I could probably eat a burger every single day. I hate the whole celebrity chef aspect of it. I'm a human being. I love to have fun. I don't want anyone to really take us that seriously." 1302 Nance Street; Houston, TX 77002 832-830-8592; oxhearthouston.com

4. The Pastry War

Mezcal is the spirit of the moment in many parts of the world, and it's best served in the United States at this downtown mezcaleria from the dynamic duo Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta. Named after an 1838 conflict between Mexico and France, The Pastry War sells a 100+ bottles, many very hard to find (secured through Huerta's connects). But we're not here to talk about smoked agave. We're here to tell you that the tamales are reason alone to visit this place. Huerta tells us that a local woman makes the deeply flavorful pork and corn snacks at her home every morning, delivering them to the restaurant every afternoon. Goes incredibly well with mezcal, obvs. 310 Main St, Houston, TX 77002 no phone  thepastrywar.com

5. Underbelly

Chris Shepherd won a legion of fans with a smart take on a traditional Korean dish called ddeokbokki. In it, the chef braises goat low and slow with gochujang, a Korean chili paste, among other things and serves it with pillowy rice cakes that resemble gnocci. This dish is a serious crowd favorite, but only hints at Shepherd's immense talent and culinary vocabulary — well-worn cookbooks line the shelves near the restaurant's open kitchen and it's obvious that dishes like roasted butternut squash with bacon jam and fried whole fish with pork fried rice for two arrive from years of honing a global palate. Shepherd is also one of Houston's most serious charcuterie guys, curing all sorts of meat in a meat locker that can be viewed from the dining room. 1100 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77006 713-528-9800  underbellyhouston.com

6. Tacos Tierra Caliente

How can a taco that costs $1.50 be this good? Profound. We asked ourselves this on our second visit in as many days to the corner of West Alabama and Hazard Streets to visit this famous taco truck, parked outside the outdoor patio dive bar West Alabama Ice House. Operating from 8:30 a.m. (when you can score breakfast tacos — scrambled eggs wrapped in light flour tortillas), to just before midnight when grilled beef and al pastor marinated in pineapple juice is the best bet. Really, this is street tacos nirvana. If you are visiting from out of town, go straight from the airport. 1919 W Alabama St Houston, TX 77098 713-584-9359

7. The Original Ninfa's on Navigation

Legend has it that this is the place where a chef first had the notion to stuffed grilled marinated beef and vegetables info a soft handmade flour tortilla — launching what could be called America's national obsession with fajitas. Americans now even know how to pronounce it correctly! Ninfa's is located in the quickly gentrifying warehouse district and remains a favorite with Houstonians interested in real-deal Tex-Mex cooking. The sizzling platters, which are pricey at $23 and $35 for half a pound and 1 pound respectively, are things of beauty. The beef is Prime (it's Texas after all), and you can select between "off the menu" toppings (that appear on the menu). These include Durango (a mix of crispy bacon cooked down with tomatoes and jalapeños) and Chihuahua (bacon, green peppers, onions and yellow cheese). And speaking of cheese, it's also said that queso flameado was invented here too — creamy with bits of chorizo and deeply fried tortilla chips. This is all we have to say about that. 2704 Navigation Boulevard Houston, TX 77003 ninfas.com

8. Pho Binh

Unlike any other major urban center in the United States except maybe Orange County outside Los Angeles, the Vietnamese population in Houston has truly shaped the landscape, including its restaurants. Pho Binh sells exactly what the names suggest, a noodle soup called pho (here's more on that). They operate six locations, including a truck that parks outside bars at night. The pho bo is outstanding, made with a beefy broth (though with aromatics peaking through) and strips of beef brisket that are like nothing we've ever sampled. It's real-deal Prime beef floating in this soup, with nice marbling and immense flavor. Various locations, phobinh.com   

9. Coltivare Pizza & Garden

This is one of the more buzzier openings from the folks behind Revival Market. The focus is the cooking of Italy, which includes a nice selection of pizzas with more non-traditional toppings (shredded pork shoulder, grilled shrimp) than classics (pepperoni). Steaks, wood-grilled chicken and a couple of Gulf seafood options are the larger options. Reservations are not taken and the restaurant is only open for dinner, so you can expect waits from time to time.  3320 White Oak Drive Houston, TX 77007 713-637-4095 coltivarehouston.com

10. Killen's Barbecue

While the Texas Hill Country outside Austin is well known for its barbecue supremacy, Houston sort of gets forgotten. Not so at Killen's, which is located outside the city limits in Pearland and one of the city's favorites; selling brisket, but also homemade sausage, pork belly and turkey — all smoked low and slow. Sides are no afterthought either, with the creamed corn and mac and cheese being favorites.  3613 E Broadway St, Pearland, TX 77581 281-485-2272 killensbarbecue.com

11. Tout Suite

Morning, Noon and Night is how the menu is divided at this café turned 21st Century diner run by Anne Le and Sandy Tran. The cooking has health in mind, with salads and lean proteins anchoring the extensive menu (though you can still score breakfast tacos and a pretty kickass banh mi if you want). 2001 Commerce St, Houston, TX 77002 713-227-8868 toutsuite.co

12. Bistro Menil

This new European-inspired restaurant is located on the campus of the city's highly regarded Menil Collection and helmed by chef-owner Greg Martin. The cooking, which is intended to be paired with craft beer, is very French; with warm brie, duck rillettes and potato salad made with crème fraîche a few of the current offerings. An afternoon menu is ideal for those looking for a snack and glass of wine after viewing the collection. 1513 West Alabama Street, Houston, TX 77006 713-904-3537 bistromenil.com

Read more about the Houston dining scene on Food Republic:

  • Justin Yu Talks Vietnamese Influence, Copenhagen Hype
  • Chris Shepherd Went From Tailgating Master to Legit Stadium Chef
  • Houston, We Have A Problem