13 Foods And Drinks You Have To Try In Houston

Houston, we have a problem: trying to avoid obvious references when writing about all the tantalizing foods and drinks in your fine city. No longer just another notch in the Tex-Mex belt, Houston's food and drink scene has been transformed by waves of immigrants and refugees into a rich tapestry of global flavors. There aren't many other cities in Texas, nay the United States, where you can get Malaysian food from a James Beard semifinalist and East Asian-by-way-of-Louisiana Viet-Cajun crawfish. Of course, Houston also has great barbecue and Tex-Mex food, but you probably didn't need us to tell you that.

In addition to a panoply of food options, there are also various local beverages you can use to quench your thirst in the subtropical heat. Apples might make you think of New England, the upper Midwest, or the Pacific Northwest, but Houston has a number of good spots for fans of hard apple cider. Also, Houston is no stranger to the recent craft beer explosion. Several breweries in the city are pumping out the kind of high-quality suds that make beer geeks feverishly reach for their Untappd app (via Hop Culture).

Clearly, there's a lot to take in. If you're heading down to the town they call Space City, consider beaming up the following foods and drinks.

Houston hard cider brings the North down South

It's hard to believe that hard cider almost disappeared in the U.S. In a time we like to call the "golden era of hard cider," 18th-century American colonists were known to offer a glass of the stuff to house guests (via New England Historical Society). Sadly, Prohibition led to the chopping down cider-specific apple trees, devastating the industry for decades, according to the University of Wisconsin. The industry started to pick up again in the 1980s. Thanks to a massive resurgence in all things craft alcohol, the industry's market value will nearly quadruple by 2027 (via Market Data Forecast).

If you need evidence that hard cider is back with a vengeance, look no further than Houston. The rise of craft cider and an influx of northerners to the Texas town have spawned several cideries and cider-focused establishments. One of the best places to try hard cider in Houston is the Cidercade — a combination cider bar and video game arcade. The Cidercade is owned and operated by Bishop Cider Company. The barcade features all of the company's hard ciders, kombuchas, and seltzers. A must-try for fans of sweet cider is the Pineapple Paradise.

You have to try the pineapple fried rice from Phat Eatery

While some cities don't have a single restaurant serving Malaysian food, Houston has several, and one of the best is Phat Eatery. In 2022, chef-owner Alex Au-Yeung was named a semifinalist for the prestigious James Beard Award. The restaurant has been credited with elevating the profile of its surrounding Katy Asian Town, a plaza filled with dozens of Asian shops and restaurants (via The Buzz Magazines). In a city increasingly defined by fusion, Malaysian food itself is fusion. Au-Yeung describes it as a blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Singaporean, and Thai influences.

The menu at Phat Eatery is filled with a number of highlights. One of the standouts is the pineapple fried rice that manages to nail the balance between being simultaneously unique and approachable. Another menu favorite is the roti canai, which combines Malaysian flavors and a traditional Indian flatbread. Seafood fans should consider the Ikan Bakar, a whole fish cooked in banana leaves and sambal sauce (via Texas Lifestyle & Travel Magazine).

If you didn't eat kolache, did you even go to Texas

Brought to Texas by Eastern European immigrants in the 1800s, kolaches are one of the unique pastries you must try at least once. Made with yeast-risen dough, these traditional Czech pastries were sold for decades at fundraisers, church dinners, and bazaars (via NPR). After slowly entering Texas popular culture and becoming commercialized, these "Czexan" pastries went viral across the U.S. in the mid-2010s. Kolaches are traditionally filled with sweet fruit and cream cheese, but at some point, they were given a Texas spin and filled with a blend of sausage meat, cheese, and jalapeños. To this day, a fiery debate rages over what a proper kolache should be, with some calling the meat-filled pastries klobásníky.

Trying to find a kolache in Houston is not difficult ... they're everywhere. However, there are dedicated kolache shops worth your time. The Original Kolache Shoppe serves a wide range of kolaches, including the controversial meat-filled variety. Those with modern tastes may want to check out The Bomber at Kolache Bar, which is stuffed with breakfast sausage, bacon, gravy, and jalapeño. If you want something straight out of a Texas barbecue, Koala Kolache has pastries filled with anything from smoked brisket to mac 'n' cheese (via Houstonia).

Tacos are the real breakfast of champions

San Antonio or Austin? There's a great debate — some even call it a "taco war" — about the breakfast taco's birthplace (via WOAI). However, the breakfast version of our favorite tortilla-based treats can be found all over Texas, including Houston. Breakfast tacos are undeniably a Texan invention, and while variations exist, the standard breakfast taco contains scrambled eggs, refried beans, fried potatoes, and chorizo or bacon.

In Houston, there are dozens of places to get a good breakfast taco (via Houston Food Finder). Many agree that Brothers Taco House has some of the city's best breakfast tacos and an ever-present line out the door to prove it. La Guadalupana Bakery & Café primarily features baked goods, but its breakfast taco options are undeniably reason enough to stop there. If you have a taste for the Caribbean, the Cuban-Tex-Mex breakfast tacos at El Rey Taqueria feature eggs, fried plantains, and black beans. Tacos a Go Go offers up several breakfast taco variations, including vegetarian and Migas taco options.

Viet-Cajun crawfish is a thing in Houston

Many refugees escaping the Vietnam War in the 1970s settled along the Gulf Coast in the U.S. and took to the traditional crawfish boil (via Vice). Throughout the '70s and '80s, several Vietnamese immigrants found job opportunities in Houston. At some point before or after this migration, Vietnamese families began tossing their boiled crawfish in a butter-based sauce containing traditional Asian aromatics: garlic, ginger, and lemongrass. Hurricane Katrina drove even more Vietnamese families to Houston, and at some point in the mid-2000s — Viet-Cajun crawfish became a thing, eventually spreading back to Louisiana and beyond.

These days, you can find Viet-Cajun crawfish all over town. Those looking for an affordable, no-frills experience should hit Cajun Crawfish #1. If you want a more high-profile experience, the crawfish at Cajun Kitchen has been featured in places like The Washington Post and the acclaimed "Mind of a Chef" series on PBS (via Houstonia).

If you haven't done it before, there is an efficient way to crack and peel crawfish. Start by grabbing the tail with one hand and the body with the other. Twist off the tail and pull back the exoskeleton rings holding the tail meat. Remove the tail meat and dip it in your Viet-Cajun sauce. The pro move is to then suck the juice out of the head section.

Try the bacon BBQ burger (or anything else) at Craft Burger

The TV show "Chopped" has been on for over 50 seasons. In addition to providing us with countless hours of entertainment, the Food Network show has also become a kind of seal of approval, especially for those "Chopped" champions who win their episode. In 2016, Shannen Tune was the first chef from Houston to earn the title of "Chopped champion," just before launching his Craft Burger food truck (via Houston Press). Today, Craft Burger is a brick-and-mortar gourmet burger restaurant with two locations, including one in Houston.

According to the official Craft Burger website, the restaurant uses all-natural, locally sourced ingredients to make unique burgers that reflect the chef-owner's personality. One menu stand out is the bacon BBQ burger, which is topped with thick-cut bacon, American cheese, crispy onion straws, barbecue sauce, lettuce, tomato, and Craft Burger's signature sauce. Another menu highlight, which was featured on Food Network, is the Morning After Burger. This one's topped with brown sugar- and chili-rubbed bacon, smoked Gouda, lettuce, tomato, and a sunnyside-up egg served on bacon-cheddar waffle "buns."

Houston has some of the best brisket in Texas

When European immigrants brought their love of brisket to Texas cattle country in the 1800s, it was a match made in heaven (via MasterClass). This beautiful union didn't manifest itself instantly in the delectable smoked brisket that we know today. Nurtured by the Texas tradition of cooking meat in fiery open pits, the sale of smoked brisket at barbecue joints didn't happen until the 1950s. Over the ensuing decades, smoked brisket became associated with Texas.

In Houston, there are many places where you can find great smoked brisket. We highly recommend the brisket combo plate from Gatlin's BBQ, which includes a choice of two sides, like baked beans, fried okra, and mac 'n' cheese. In 2021, the Houston Press rated the brisket at The Pit Room "best barbecue brisket" for its tender slices with the perfect amount of peppery crust. Those looking for a unique spin on Texas brisket should consider Blood Bros. BBQ, where pitmaster Quy Hoang brings flavors of his Vietnamese heritage.

Regardless of which BBQ spot you choose, getting there early is always a good idea. The best spots are known for long lines and limited amounts of brisket. Once it's gone, it's gone!

Taste deep Mexican flavors with award-winning mole

Mexican cuisine receives a lot of attention, and rightly so. Mexico has many different regions, each offering a cornucopia of flavors and techniques. Perhaps no dish better represents Mexican food's deep, complex flavor possibilities than mole sauce. Often made with tens of ingredients and cooked over the course of days — even weeks — mole is a spicy, hot, sweet, and nutty sauce that goes great with meats and vegetables.

Arguably, some of the best mole in Texas is made in Houston by chef Hugo Ortega at his restaurant Xochi. Born in Mexico City to parents from Puebla, Ortega was the first Mexican-born chef to win the prestigious James Beard Award, doing so in 2017 (via Texas Monthly).

At Xochi, mole preparation starts the day before it's served. Chilies, garlic, onions, tomatoes, and herbs are cooked for 4 hours and then pureed. The next day, chicken stock is added, and the mole is simmered. Finally, the mole is fried to remove bitterness. If you're going to Xochi for this legendary sauce, we recommend the mole tasting, which includes four classic mole varieties served with Oaxacan cheese, beans, and a toasted tortilla called tlayuda.

Experience Texas' love affair with craft beer in Houston

According to VinePair, Texas consumes the second-most beer out of any state, which might explain the phrase "Don't Mess with Texas." In 2018, Lonestar Staters glugged down nearly 620 million gallons of beer.

In Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Houston has the oldest and one of the best craft breweries in the state. Not some fly-by-night operation, Saint Arnold knows the importance of flagship beers, and the brewery has 12 beers available all 12 months of the year. We recommend the amber ale for its rich, malty body with hints of floral and citrus.

While Saint Arnold continues to hold down the craft beer fort with classic styles, other local breweries have gotten fully on board the New England-style IPA train (via Hop Culture). SpindleTap Brewery is highly rated for its range of hoppy, hazy, and juicy beers. Ingenious Brewing Co. proudly carries the anti-flagship banner, offering a rotating cast of hazy IPAs, milkshake IPAs, and sweet dessert stouts. Fans of fruited sour beers should make the 40-mile trip to Baa Baa Brewhouse in Brookshire to try beers made with bananas, blackberries, mango, and tangerine.

At ChopnBlock, fast-casual meets West African cuisine

If you are a fan of fast-casual restaurants, you are probably familiar with the formula of rice, plus vegetables, plus protein. At ChòpnBlock in the POST Houston food mall, that standard trio is taken in an entirely new direction in the form of West African cuisine. Ingredients like jollof rice, plantains, black-eyed peas, and coconut milk may evoke West African countries like Ghana. Still, the All-American restaurant concept makes eating at ChòpnBlock a very familiar experience for non-Africans. The idea of fast-casual West African is such a winning one it's starting to pop up in different areas around the U.S. (via The New York Times)

While there are many great menu items at ChòpnBlok, we recommend the Motherland curry bowl for its vegan-friendly blend of West African ingredients and East African coconut curry. Another great dish is the Trad Bowl, which is a West African jambalaya that includes stewed plantains. You can also try a West African take on the Arnold Palmer, made with hibiscus tea.

Experience delicious empanadas at The Original Marini's Empanada House

If it takes a certain degree of fortitude to open your own restaurant, what must it take to reopen a restaurant again and again? That extra level of grit can be experienced and tasted at The Original Marini's Empanada House. After opening Marini's Empanada House in 1971, the Marini family lost everything when a fire burned down the restaurant in 1985. Years later, the family was able to reopen the restaurant, and in 2007, they opened a second location. However, that second location closed in 2022.

Perhaps the Marini family wouldn't be able to carry on the restaurant if it weren't for the quality of their Argentinian empanadas. We highly recommend the Texas BBQ empanada, filled with slow-cooked beef and tangy barbecue sauce. If you're seeking traditional Argentinian flavors, the beef gaucho empanada has beef, olives, onions, and a hard-boiled egg, while the humita is filled with cream corn, sautéed onions, and mozzarella cheese. If you're looking for nontraditional flavors, you can order the pizza, chicken BBQ, or Hawaiian Chu-Chu filled with ham, cheese, and pineapples.

Fajita history runs through Houston

Watch TV commercials during any NFL game, and you're likely to see an ad for a chain restaurant featuring sizzling fajita platters. But before we associated that sizzle with "eatin' good in the neighborhood," fajitas were a wildly popular local food in Houston. In 1973, Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo opened a Tex-Mex restaurant called Ninfa's that eventually became known for its fajitas. The restaurant called them "tacos a la Ninfa," even though fajitas had been around for many years, according to The Austin Chronicle. Ninfa's eventually became a chain of restaurants, thanks in no small part to the fajitas. Eventually, serving sizzling skillets of marinated skirt steak became so popular national chains like Taco Bell and Applebee's began featuring them on their menus.

When you're looking to taste a bit of history, The Original Ninfa's is still open today. If you're feeling a bit extra and possibly bringing along a friend, we recommend the fajita combo at Vida Mariscos called Parrillada Deliciosa. This massive sizzling platter includes the traditional grilled beef along with grilled chicken, octopus, and shrimp. In addition, the combo comes with a chicken quesadilla, Mexican rice, beans, pico de gallo, and guacamole.

Have an Aztec fever dream with hot tamales

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the Aztecs invented tamales as a portable foodstuff they could carry into battle. They were likely brought into the southern United States by indigenous peoples, Mexican migrant workers, or possibly by soldiers returning from the U.S.-Mexican War.

A typical recipe for chicken and poblano tamales starts with soaking corn husks in boiling water until they become pliable. After being filled with masa dough, tomatillo salsa, shredded chicken meat, and roasted poblano peppers, the husks are wrapped and steamed. Once allowed to cool, the little packages of goodness are ready to eat.

A lot of Houstonians will say that the best tamales are those sold by street vendors, which can be found at festivals and near major sporting events. Be warned: Most of them will only take cash, so it's recommended to have some on hand if you plan to attend an event. If you want to go to a brick-and-mortar restaurant for your tamales, ABC13 in Houston recommends Alamo Tamale y Taco, Arandas Bakery, and Los Toritos. If you end up getting too many tamales and have to bring the extras home, don't worry, there are many great ways to reheat tamales.