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While most of America hears the name "Houston" and thinks beef, BBQ and Tex-Mex, the reality is much more vivid. In fact, you might find yourself enjoying a Czech pastry filled with Cajun sausage while drinking a Vietnamese-French iced coffee laced with sweetened condensed milk. This seemingly odd amalgam of culinary cultures may seem odd elsewhere, but it's perfectly at home in this sprawling Texas city. A historic port town, Houston has subtly changed from a place that offers a home to immigrants to a city of immigrants. The outsider simply becomes a part of the patchwork quilt of cultural influences that have come to define the city at its core. Vietnamese pho is as much a Houstonian birthright as a combo plate of cheese enchiladas. This mishmash of cultures is changing the face of Houston, and creating one of the most dynamic dining destinations in the country.

DINING

  • Blue Nile

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    Fragrant smoke drifts through the air as you reach for another handful of popcorn. Coffee is poured from the clay pot and you are transported. This, of course, comes after your meal. You've already had your fill of doro wat, a spicy chicken stew scooped up with hanks of spongy, slightly sour injera bread. Fans of tartare won't want to miss the kitfo or gored gored, alternately minced and cubed raw beef seasoned with a fiery version of the Ethiopian staple berbere spice blend. The incense lit during the after-meal coffee ceremony is meant to promote meditation, but the food is just as likely to get the job done. Details»

  • Crawfish and Noodles

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    Houston didn't invent the Viet-Cajun crawfish craze, but it's hard to imagine another city embracing it with such fervor. Every spring, roughly coinciding with Lent, it seems all of Houston loses its collective mind in the hunt for crawfish. Nobody rubs their eyes for the better part of a month, their cuticles stained with the spicy detritus of mounds of boiled crawfish. Prices per pound are traded like state secrets, as is the "state of the boil" at favorite haunts. Crawfish and Noodles is always at the top of that list; its crawfish are plump and vibrant, the bath of butter and spices addictive. Hands will be dirtied, heads will be sucked, fun will be had. The blue crabs are a sure bet whether or not mudbugs are in season. Details»

  • Goode Co. Seafood

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    Mesquite-grilled seafood in an old rail car is just the ticket at Goode Co. Seafood, a particularly bright gem in a local mini chain of storied Houston eateries. During peak oyster season (months ending in 'r'), Goode Co. shucks appellation oysters on the half shell that have been plucked from prized Gulf shoals and reefs, all of them putting to lie the notion that Third Coast oysters are a distant second. In the off season, order a tall, cool parfait glass of campechana, a seafood cocktail brimming with crab and shrimp doused in tomato and hot sauce. A sleeve of crackers and a cold beer round out an iconic Houston meal, but an extra order of seafood empanadas won't cause any hurt feelings. Details»

  • Hank's Ice Cream

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    It's less a parlor than a counter, but that's neither here nor there. For more than 20 years, Hank Wiggins and family have dished out triple scoops of favorites like butter pecan, rocky road and banana pudding—every scoop served with a smile. The selections rotate frequently and feature such oddball delights as roasted corn and grapenuts cereal. Wiggins passed away in 2012, but his successors have kept the quality and the charm intact. Though there are newer and hipper scoop-shops in town (Fat Cat Creamery, Cloud 10 Creamery), there's nothing else quite like Hank's. Details»

  • Himalaya Restaurant

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    Chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari might appraise you at the door of this strip mall jewel box of an Indian-Pakistani restaurant, gently suggesting your order before you've even seen a menu. Given that every dish here radiates with a sort of spice-drawer alchemy, showing a deft hand with seasoning, you might as well go ahead and let him. The Chicken Hara Masala's verdant brightness hints at a keen-edged freshness even if it doesn't warn you of the impending bloom of heat. The goat biryani has a lightness of texture that's the perfect foil for a riot of dusky spice and fall-off-the-bone meat. A pile of Hunter's Beef, a delicately spiced cousin to pastrami, will have you sussing out its flavors long after the platter is cleaned. Whatever your order, Himalaya offers some of the most captivating Desi food in a city whose offerings lead the national stage. Details»

  • Hong Kong Dim Sum

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    Don't let the lack of carts crisscrossing the dining room fool you. HK Dim Sum serves up serious stuff all day, every day—weekdays included. That alone is enough to recommend this Westside stalwart, but the food's no slouch, either. Mark a wide assortment on the check-off menu—variety is half the fun—and make sure you don't skip the vegetable dishes, which are done particularly well. Details»

  • Hubcap Grill

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    Neither of Hubcap Grill's two locations offers much in the way of creature comforts. The 19th Street outpost, however, offers beer. Grab a cold one, preferably from one of the local craft brewery selections available, then grab a seat at one of the picnic tables that dot the crushed gravel yard that comprises the vast majority of the space. Wait for your number to come up. Whether you order a standard burger or one of the many specialty burgers (the Philly Cheese Steak Burger and the über-Texan Frito Pie Burger are great examples), you'll be getting one of the finest specimens in a city full of fine specimens. Be sure to check the order window for off-menu burger and beer specials, like a waffle burger sandwiched between two Eggos and special releases from local favorite St. Arnold Brewery. Details»

  • Killen's BBQ

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    Visitors to Texas expect barbecue, but often get steered astray. Houston has a handful of worthy practitioners of the art of smoked meat, but a short journey south to Pearland will reward you with an experience worth bragging about. Ronnie Killen, chef-owner of nearby Killen's Steakhouse, churns out brisket, pork ribs and sausage that would make any BBQ fan weep with smoky, fatty joy. The real trick here, though, is the beef rib. Sold by the piece and worth every penny of the $18/lb. price tag, it's a meaty masterpiece. Peppery bark gives way to meat slicked with perfectly rendered fat, the whole thing exhibiting a smokiness that somehow manages to be forceful and genteel in equal measure, creating a hunk of meat both thoughtful and atavistic. This is fine dining served up on butcher paper in a former elementary school cafeteria. Details»

  • La Guadalupana Bakery & Cafe

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    A longtime favorite of the gentrifying bohemian Montrose neighborhood, this hole-in-the-wall Mexican spot boasts a classically trained pastry chef owner. Leave with a bag full of churros or a slice of flan, but not before you indulge in a plate of chilaquiles or enchiladas verdes. The former, a seemingly simple dish of fried tortillas stewed in salsa, winds up a marvel of flavor and texture. The chips range from cracklingly crisp to indulgently tender, and the salsa verde, permeated with the beguilingly unique flavor of epazote, will make you laugh at all future versions. That same salsa tops chicken enchiladas further enhanced with a field of shredded lettuce studded with ripe avocado, which lends the dish a lovely freshness. Details»

  • Mala Sichuan Bistro

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    Go with a group. Order more than you think is wise. Prepare to sweat. An acid trip for your taste buds, dishes like water-boiled beef and mapo tofu shimmer like an olfactory illusion, with chiles and Sichuan peppercorns alternating between incendiary and analgesic. It's a delicious head rush. A beverage selection from local booze man Justin Vann's PSA Wines lets you drink as well as you're eating, which is very well indeed. Details»

  • Melange Creperie

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    A food cart manned by a guy who calls himself Buffalo Sean parked outside of a hipster dive bar-cum-music venue might sound like a bit of a stretch, but Melange has a funny habit of over-delivering. First, Sean is about as charming a crepe-slinger as you're likely to meet, with a slanted smile and genuinely friendly banter ready for every customer as he spreads a thin layer of buckwheat batter on his griddles. Second, Sean has an uncanny knack for combining flavors and ingredients from across Houston's dining landscape. The fillings seem almost inevitable as soon as they're loaded into one of his lace-edged beauties and handed over with another off-kilter grin. Go simple with ham, egg and cheese, or spring for saag paneer or blueberries with granola and sorghum-laced sour cream. Details»

  • MF Sushi

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    Slightly dense, gently sticky grains of rice are kissed by vinegar and coaxed into delicate shape by the knowing hands of chef Chris Kinjo. These grains form the foundation of MF Sushi, already an essential element of Houston's sushi scene despite not having been open all that long. The fish laid out on top of said rice are works of art writ in skin, fat and flesh by the precision of knife hands that know how, when and why to cut. Indulge in an omakase meal and the chef will send out as many of these disarmingly simple masterpieces as you care to indulge in. Interspersed with the sashimi on the menu and just as gorgeous and elementally delicious are the occasional composed dishes, often culled from the more esoteric end of Kinjo's repertoire. Details»

  • Original Ninfa's on Navigation

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    Mama Ninfa Laurenzo didn't quite invent fajitas, but she might as well have. Simply seasoned skirt steak, the increasingly rare cut of beef God intended for fajitas, comes straight from the grill to your table, heaped with peppers and onions on a sizzling comal. Every head in the restaurant follows every single order of tacos al carbon, and you want them turned in your direction. Pile slices of beef into tender tortillas and taste what Houston Tex-Mex is all about. Details»

  • Oxheart

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    Chef Justin Yu has a vision of Houston's future: His vegetable-centric cuisine may seem an affront to the meat-forward ethos that is Texas in the nation's mind's eye, but his commitment to what makes the Gulf Coast a uniquely wonderful place to eat is unparalleled. Working with local farms and purveyors, Chef Yu brings a sense of place to a city whose sense of self comes from all over the globe. He presents beautiful plates that turn simple ingredients (okra, eggplant, "trash fish") into uncommon luxuries. In the process, he is redefining what it means to eat well in Houston. Details»

  • Paulie's

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    Paulie's is what all neighborhood spots ought to be. Newcomers may find themselves rubbing shoulders with many of Houston's finest industry professionals, for whom it has become a default living room. Order a plate of bucatini amatriciana, homemade noodles swathed in a smoky and fiery mix of bacon, tomato and chiles. Pair the pasta with a selection from the thoughtful, affordable by-the-glass wine offerings, and be sure not to skip the much-lauded and fancifully decorated shortbread cookies. If you really want a Houston treat, grab a cappuccino made with locally roasted Greenway Coffee beans and dunk away. Details»

  • Pho Binh by Night

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    If you don't have pho in Houston, things have gone terribly awry. If you have time for just one bowl, have it at Pho Binh. The broth is fragrant with spices and alliums, deeply beefy but never heavy, and boasts an integration of flavor that makes other bowls seem like thin gruel. The original location, a semi-converted trailer near Hobby Airport, may serve the slightly better bowl, but you can visit Pho Binh by Night after 11 a.m. without the risk of missing out. Details»

  • Shri Balaji Bhavan

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    There are no descriptions on the menu. There is no meat. There is no reason not to go. If you're unfamiliar with South Indian cuisine, a quick chat with the man at the register will result in a flurry of vibrant dishes. You will discover fanciful puffs of dahi puri (a crisp-shelled chickpea dumpling of sorts, filled with potato or more chickpeas), with a riotous array of chutneys, yogurt, sev (fried noodles), cilantro, tomato and red onion stampeding across the top like a circus troop. Pop one into your mouth whole and prepare for fireworks. No matter what winds up on your table, expect a symphony of flavors, colors and textures, for not much more than a song. Details»

  • Spanish Village

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    Though Houston is far more than simply a Tex-Mex Mecca, that notion always feels like more than enough when you're sitting at a cement patio table under the storied Tex-Mex haunt's year-round Christmas lights. Special "Enchiladas a-la-Taylor," filled with intriguingly spiced ground beef and topped with cheese of appropriately questionable origin, are the way to go. Don't look askance at the throwback "guacamole salad" of smashed avocado on a bed of shredded lettuce and tomato, its architectural spire of jutting celery ringed by a lone slice of onion. Indulge in a margarita, its unique texture said to be the result of shaking the tequila with frozen lime juice, and count yourself lucky if your complimentary leche quemada comes topped with a ripe strawberry half. Details»

  • Taqueria Laredo

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    The flour tortillas, often made to order, are always pillowy and tender. The steam table is laden with every imaginable breakfast taco filling, from chorizo and eggs to silky-fatty braised chicharrones (pork skin) in salsa. The nopales, tender slips of cactus paddle, their slightly tart flavor anchored by lardons of bacon, are particularly excellent. There's often a line at the door when it opens at 6 a.m., and you'll want to be in it. Breakfast tacos are essential Houston food, and these are essential examples. Details»

  • Underbelly

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    Chef Chris Shepherd, a recipient of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, wants to "tell the story of Houston food." At Underbelly, this means a menu that draws inspiration from the multicultural tapestry woven among the strip malls and urban sprawl—Korean rice cakes and braised goat, southern biscuits and gravy, crispy local vegetables dressed in caramelized fish sauce. Ask Shepherd where else you should eat and he might point you to any number of mom-and-pop shops serving Thai or Vietnamese or Mexican. Or, he might point to the wall of photographs paying homage to the people and plates that inform and inspire the cooking at Underbelly. He may even ask that you turn over your menu, whose backside reps a host of far-flung Houston dining rooms that Shepherd recommends, urges, implores you visit. Details»

DRINKING

  • The Pastry War

    One of Anvil owner Bobby Heugel's newer venues, The Pastry War is pays homage to Mexico, praising it with agave spirits. With a dizzyingly expansive list of handcrafted tequilas and mezcals on offer, it's easy to find something to love. Agave flights are a great way to find your favorite. Note: Don't expect to find household names like Jose Cuervo, and don't come looking for pastries. Details»

  • Goro & Gun

    This erstwhile izakaya is one of downtown Houston's most dynamic drinkeries. With head barman Alex Gregg behind the stick, you can expect to find well-crafted classics alongside intriguing originals with a lack of pretention and a wealth of whimsy. Take, for example, Gregg's retrofit of the classic college bar shot, the Surfer on Acid. He turns a 20-something's bad decision into a potential classic. Also of note is Goro's smart take on non-alcoholic "cocktails," giving the designated driver something delicious to dive into in lieu of a sword to fall on. Details»

  • Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge

    Through a door advertising a law firm, up a flight of stairs, tucked mostly out of sight, sits Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirit Lodge. Known more simply as Bad News Bar, Justin Burrows' intimate space is one of the city's nicest places to drink. Ask the barman to mix up a perfect $5 Old Fashioned and watch the records spin on the staff-stocked turntable. Have yours at the long wooden bar if you want, but you're better off heading for the balcony and its Main Street overlook. Details»

  • The Hay Merchant

    Houston has plenty of great beer bars, but Hay Merchant is an exceptional beer bar. If you want to get lost in the beer-geekery of the draft system, this is the place. An aggressive cask-beer program highlights rare and unusual offerings in a format that is only just becoming prevalent. That and a cellared bottle list culled from head honcho Kevin Floyd's personal collection make Hay Merchant a foregone conclusion for any serious beer nerd. The food's not half bad, either. Details»

  • Anvil

    Insomuch as Houston can be said to have a classic when it comes to cocktail bars with an eye to craftsmanship, Anvil is it. Owner Bobby Huegel is the rising tide that lifted all of Houston's booze boats (many of the barkeeps on this list are Anvil alums), and the ship is just as right as ever. Go early on a weeknight to ensure the optimal experience, and take a minute to chat with your bartender about what you'd like to drink. Between a list of 100 or so classics, rotating house specialties and an engaging staff always willing to shake something up just for you, Anvil is the quintessential Houston drinking experience. Details»

  • Rudyard's Pub

    Rudyard's is the classic bar in Houston's hip Montrose neighborhood. It's a simple place, not quite a dive but certainly not fancy. It's the sort of bar where a beer and a shot is probably the best way to go, though the beer offerings are well considered. Most nights find a favorite local act thrashing away on the small stage upstairs, taking advantage of the surprisingly good acoustics and the readymade audience. If you don't have any friends in Houston, "Rudz" is as good a place as any to make some, and better than most. Details»

  • West Alabama Ice House

    Houston used to be awash with Ice Houses, onetime purveyors of actual ice turned into neighborhood beer joints. There are still a few left, with West Alabama chief among them. Grab a cold brew from the counter under the awning and slide into one of the picnic tables set along West Alabama street. You're just as likely to find your seat next to a 9-to-5er as you are a would-be Sex Pistol. Houston's population patchwork quilt is always on display at West Alabama, and it comes with an ice-cold bucket of beer. Details»

  • Lei Low

    Call it kitsch if you want to, the tikiphiles at Lei Low are having too much fun to care much either way. This relative newcomer offers large-format tropical drinks in mermaid mugs and seashell cups. Your drink may or may not be on fire. Details»

PROVISIONS

  • D&Q

    Long a mandatory stop for Houston's thriving beer nerd community, this convenience store-slash-bottle shop is the place to go for all things bubbly. In addition to one of the best beer selections in the city, D&Q also features a tightly curated selection of wines, sherries, ciders and other intoxicants selected by Justin Vann of PSA Wines, whose enthusiasm for all things alcoholic might best be compared to the experience of reading an encyclopedia after taking your brother's Ritalin. Feel free to grope about blindly until your hands find a bottle. It will be delicious. Details»

  • Revival Market

    A collaboration between a chef and a heritage breed pig farmer, Revival Market is the city's premier high-end butcher shop. In addition to a case filled with meat that feels as good to buy as it tastes to eat, Revival carries an interesting and unique selection of dry goods—from Sea Salt harvested from the waters of Galveston County to an assortment of syrups and pickles that speak of the South. There's also a small selection of produce from local farms, including low-temperature pasteurized and non-homogenized milk, yard eggs and seasonal veggies. An excellent in-house charcuterie program and a kitchen turning out ready-to-eat items make Revival a one-stop shop. Details»

  • Urban Harvest Farmers' Market at Eastside Street

    Every Saturday, from 8 a.m. to noon, Houston's largest farmers' market pops up under tarps and tents on a side street in the city's center. Vendors sell everything from farmstead goat cheese to readymade Indian food; stalls of fresh vegetables and fruits provide a unique perspective on Houston's unique growing season. For a glimpse of what's inspiring local chefs, head over to the Utility Research Garden tent, where you often can find an assortment of unusual produce. Details»

  • Mercantile

    Nestled in the shadow of Rice University, the baby brother of longtime favorite Catalina Coffee ups the ante by offering an array of products from craft beers and sodas to dried pastas to cookbooks. Mercantile's own Amaya Roasting Co. beans are brewed daily, with occasional guest offerings from the likes of Intelligentsia. Details»

  • Phoenicia

    Originally a Middle Eastern mega-mart in far-flung West Houston, Phoenicia has since moved into downtown, offering a truncated but no less intriguing selection of grocery and food options. Browse upstairs among the spices, grains and sundries. Back downstairs, grab a tub of hummus and some pita bread, still puffed and steaming and delivered on a twisting conveyor that snakes through the store. Halal meats are over in the corner, and an intriguing array of cured meats and cheeses sit smack dab in the middle. If you're there in the evening, you can catch a set from a rotating cast of local minor music celebs, spinning their favorites in the adjacent MKT Bar, which also boasts a small but smart menu. Details»

  • Houston Wine Merchant

    A boutique liquor store within a wine shop, Houston Wine Merchant has been a close ally of the local bar scene, striving to bring new and interesting spirits to the local market. If you want to find something unusual, this is a good place to go. It is also, of course, a good place to go for wine. An ever-friendly staff will help you select the right bottle, regardless of your level of expertise, and regular tastings will leave you better equipped for next time. Details»

  • Blacksmith

    Some of the city's best coffee is brewed up in this former bar, once a home base of sorts for the Montrose neighborhood's gay community. Best-in-class cortados and iced coffee made from owner David Buehrer's Greenway Coffee Company beans slide across the bar these days, along with unique creations like the coffee lassi or the coffee float, made with local Cloud 10 ice cream. Grab a bag of beans to take home with you and remember that "When Queen plays, Freddie pays." If you're the first customer in line when Mr. Mercury and gang come on, your drink's on the house. Details»

  • El Bolillo Bakery

    Freshly baked, stubby, torpedo-shaped bolillo bread gives this Mexican bakery its name, but that's far from the only draw. Grab a tray and bum-rush the pastry cases, loading up with an assortment of vibrant and often whimsically shaped treats. Don't let the name fool you, though; pan dulce tend to be restrained in sweetness, more bread than sugar and all the better for it. If you really have a sweet tooth, inquire after a slice of tres leches, a traditional Mexican cake soaked in three different kinds of dairy products, sweetened condensed milk chief among them. It sounds unusual to the uninitiated, but is a singular treat. Details»

EXPLORE

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DINING
DRINKING
PROVISIONS