DESTINATION:
HOUSTON

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The biggest city in Texas is climbing to the top of everyone's eating list, after years of being known as a culinary wasteland built on chain restaurants and steakhouses.

One distinguishing characteristic about the lay of this city's food land: its interconnectedness.

There are individual talents, to be sure: chefs and bartenders who merit a visit in their own right. But the restaurant industry operates as a collective here, giving the town's establishments a neighborly, "everyone's a regular" feel.

Houston's location, too, is a springboard for chefs' rich creativity. The city's status as a port, as a Southern metropolis, as a destination for immigrants, makes it a font of flavorful influence.

Recently, we ate our way through Houston. To share the best ways to eat and drink your way through the United States' fourth-most populous city, we assembled three itineraries. Each is tailored to a different type of experience: A tour of Houston's multicultural terroir includes a stop for beef fajitas and a late-night bowl of pho, while a crawl among the city's up-and-comers yields house-made pasta in aerated Parmesan cream. Or get a taste of Houston's DIY movement by visiting some of its finest food shops.

But all of them are alike in one way: They will be delicious.

Photos by: Julie Soefer

Pick an Itinerary

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  • Underbelly

    The beef used at Underbelly, like in this satay dish, comes from a collaborative effort between chef Chris Shepherd, beef farmer Gene Terry, and the nearby St. Arnold Brewing Co. The spent grains from the beer are used to feed the cattle, resulting in an unbelievably tender cut of meat.

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  • Underbelly

    This dish of Korean rice dumplings with braised and pulled goat meat is one of the few items that has remained on the Underbelly menu since day one.

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  • Underbelly

    Meatballs are used as a canvas for Shepherd's creative whimsy: One night they might be made of smoked pork and served with slaw; another time, they could be treated like lamb vindaloo; here, they're prepared in delicate Vietnamese fashion.

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  • Underbelly

    Chris Shepherd is without doubt one of Houston's most talented chefs; he might also be the city's most active ambassador. He describes his menu at Underbelly as "the story of Houston food."

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  • Underbelly

    This photo montage features people and establishments throughout the city that Shepherd trumpets. The check comes with a list of places that he recommends and encourages guests to visit.

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Eat Tex-Mex Tacos

Your first stop is Ninfa's on Navigation, the original location of one of the most storied Tex-Mex restaurants in town. Last year the operations were taken over by Bobby Heugel (Anvil Bar & Refuge fame) and his team, giving the service and the cocktail menu a contemporary freshening. Order the beef fajitas with a Navigation Margarita.

2704 Navigation Blvd.; 713-228-1175 or ninfas.com | open daily for lunch and dinner
Have Dinner with a Hometown Hero

But save your appetite for Underbelly, where you'll find one of the best meals in the city--if not the country. Chris Shepherd is in charge of the menu, which drills the depths of the city's broad culinary influences. Don't miss the house signature, a spicy bowl of Korean rice dumplings nested in braised goat meat. Beyond that, the daily specials create an inspiring route: On the night we visited, a local pumpkin swordfish fillet came on a smear of kabocha squash purée, glistening with bone-marrow vinaigrette. Don't dare leave without a slice of vinegar pie, the perfect combination of sweet and tart.

1100 Westheimer Rd.; 713-528-9800 or underbellyhouston.com | open for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; open for dinner Monday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to close; closed Sunday | reservations recommended
Hear Local Musical Acts

After your meal, take in some live music at Fitzgerald's (locals call it Fitz). The former dance hall has two stages and hosts bands most nights of the week; the weekends tend to showcase larger acts.

2706 White Oak Blvd; 713-862-3838 or fitzlivemusic.com | check calendar for hours and tickets
Slurp Late-Night Noodle Bowls

If late-night hunger strikes, skip the drive-through lane and instead explore Houston's amazing late-night pho scene. Some of the shops that specialize in the Vietnamese noodle soup stay open until 2 or 3 a.m. on weekends. Our pick: Before hitting your pillow, slurp down the chicken pho at Pho Binh by Night.

12148 Bellaire Blvd.; 832-351-2464 or phobinh.com | open Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 4 p.m. to midnight; open Friday and Saturday from 4 p.m. to 3 a.m.; closed Tuesday
Sleep

Hotel Icon, located in the heart of Houston's burgeoning Downtown area, is housed in a beautifully restored old bank building. We appreciated the comfortable rooms and the luxurious bathrooms. Our one complaint: The Wi-Fi can be spotty.

220 Main St.; 713-224-4266 or hotelicon.com; rates from $259

View Destination: Houston - Terroir in a larger map
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  • Revival Market

    Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera comprise the dynamic pair behind Revival Market, and a forthcoming Italian restaurant, Coltivare.

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  • Revival Market

    Revival only sells pork that comes from the Mangalitsa hogs raised on Weber's farm, located a short distance from the shop. Pera oversees the immense in-house charcuterie program.

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  • Revival Market

    Charcuterie offerings include pho head cheese and bourbon-barrel-aged bologna.

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  • Revival Market

    Revival Market sells seafood that has been caught unintentionally by commercial fishermen and would otherwise be thrown away. Pera works with PJ Stoops, a fishmonger who sells this "by-catch" to many of the restaurants in town. Using what is fresh and available (sheepshead or triggerfish, maybe), Pera crafts this unbelievable fish confit sandwich.

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  • Revival Market

    Revival sells an abundance of local groceries, such as Mill-King Dairy products, organic produce and house-made preserves. It also carries specialty goods such as Anson Mills beans and grains.

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Wake Up Early For Breakfast

If it's Saturday, set your alarm: You'll want to be at Revival Market before 10 a.m. to experience its spectacular Saturday breakfast series. One week features house-made bagels and smoked fish; another week might bring fried chicken and waffles. If it's any other day of the week, sleep in and head to Revival for lunch, which is no less exciting: The gulf-fish confit sandwich might be the best take on tuna salad we've ever had. After you eat, start shopping. The store shelves are weighted with products made in-house (don't miss the charcuterie program, which features Mangalitsa pigs that co-owner Morgan Weber raises on his nearby farm). We stocked up on pho headcheese and bourbon-cured bologna, local strawberry preserves, okra pickles, and local bread from Slow Dough Bakery.

550 Heights Blvd.; 713-880-8463 or revivalmarket.com | open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Make a Mid-Morning Cheese Run

A short drive away is Houston Dairymaids, a tiny structure that evolved from a stand at the farmers' market. The owner, Lindsey Schechter, shines a spotlight on Texas cheese, but the shop also sells chocolate, beer and bread. Our picks: Texas Gold Cheddar from Veldhuizen Family Farm, and butter from Lucky Layla.

2201 Airline Dr.; 713-880-4800 or houstondairymaids.com | open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Monday
Shop in the Open Air

Continue up the road to Canino Market, which specializes in Latino ingredients. Make your way through the store to the back, where an open-air farmers' market offers everything from duck eggs to nopales. If the Taqueria Tacambaro truck happens to be parked out back when you visit, stop for proper lengua (tongue) tacos and beef gorditas.

2520 Airline Dr.; 713-862-4027 or caninoproduce.com | open daily from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Sleep

Rent an apartment with a kitchen from Airbnb to store and cook your Houston spread. We rented this one-bedroom apartment located in Downtown, which lacked personality but was clean and efficient, and had all of the necessary amenities.

Airbnb.com

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  • Nam Giao

    Chef Ai Le, proprietor of Nam Giao restaurant, is a former engineer who moved to Houston after retiring from his job in Washington, D.C.

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  • Nam Giao

    Nam Giao specializes in the cuisine of central Vietnam, and has some of the best banh bot loc in the country. These delicate rice dumplings are filled with shrimp.

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  • Nam Giao

    The rice with baby clams is another speciality of Hue. It comes dusted with sesame seeds and peanuts, alongside a bowl of fresh herbs and a cup of gingery broth.

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  • Nam Giao

    Beef noodle soup is the ultimate nose-to-tail experience; blood sausage and trotters bob in the fragrant broth.

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  • Okra Charity Saloon

    Okra Charity Saloon is run by O.K.R.A. (the Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs); Houston food luminaries like Bobby Heugel (Anvil and Underbelly), Justin Vann (Oxheart) and Ryan Pera (Revival Market) sit on the board.

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  • Okra Charity Saloon

    The bar is a nonprofit organization. At the end of each month, any proceeds go to a charity that has been selected by the bar's patrons.

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  • Okra Charity Saloon

    With every drink you buy, you receive a ticket, and can vote for one of four charities that are being featured that month.

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  • Okra Charity Saloon

    The bar offers beer, wine and craft cocktails, as well as a rotating food menu. The members of the board all pitch in with creative input.

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Lunch on Pizza and Pasta

We could spend all of our lunch breaks at Provisions, the casual side of a handsome dual restaurant concept known collectively as The Pass & Provisions. A sun-speckled patio is primed for a meal of modern Italian-leaning creations. We'd go with a half-portion of cresta di gallo pasta sitting in an aerated Parmesan broth with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and a sauceless wood-fired pizza, which comes with a do-it-yourself set of toppings: a bowl of squeaky, fresh burrata and seasoned Sunburst tomatoes.

807 Taft St.; 713-628-9020 or passandprovisions.com | open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.; closed Sunday
Have Dinner in the Garden

Reserve well in advance for dinner at Oxheart, a tiny studio of a restaurant that is on the lips of every food lover in town. From the record player that provides the music to the intimate open kitchen, the space thrives on familiarity. And in a time when so many chefs make food that is loud and aggressive, chef Justin Yu's mostly vegetable-driven dishes are like a whisper--and all the more impactful for it.

1302 Nance St.; 832-830-8592 or oxhearthouston.com | open Thursday through Monday from 5:30 to 10 p.m.; closed Tuesday and Wednesday | reservations recommended
Take a Trip to Hue

For an entirely different but equally inspiring meal, head to Nam Giao, a two-year-old restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Central Vietnam. Ai Le, the passionate owner and chef, is a former engineer from Washington, D.C., who retired to move to Houston and pursue his love of cooking. There may not be better banh beo (delicate rice cakes filled with shrimp) or banh bot (rice cakes filled with pork and steamed in a banana leaf) this side of the Pacific.

6938 Wilcrest Dr.; 281-568-4888 | open Friday to Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; closed Thursday
Drink for Charity

Round out your day with drinks at The Original Okra Charity Saloon. As the name implies, this bar is a nonprofit business, and raises funds for a rotating list of charities. With input and support from multiple restaurants in the city, the bar donates its profits to a charity each month that patrons have voted for over the course of the previous month (the purchase of one drink equals one vote). The Saloon's mission is serious, but the environment is fun (complete with pool table and shuffleboard) and always draws a crowd.

924 Congress St.; 713-237-8828 or friedokra.org/charity-bar | open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Sleep

For a hotel with a scene, pick the ZaZa, a Dallas import with a raucous pool area. Concept suites and a top-of-the-line spa round out the amenities.

5701 Main St.; 713-526-1991 or hotelzaza.com/#houston | rates start at $319 a night

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All Locations

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