Virtuoso Life January 2018 7 Spots to Eat in Houston Now

7 Spots to Eat in Houston Now

Cheese enchiladas at Irma’s Original.
Cheese enchiladas at Irma’s Original.
Diversity and down-home hospitality spark a culinary boom in Houston.

When David Chang, king of the New York-based Momofuku empire, mused that “Houston has the most exciting food scene in America right now” in Virtuoso Life last year, locals likely shrugged: Thanks, but tell us something we don’t already know.

The massive city is a poster child for Lone Star sprawl: the nation’s fourth largest by population, 655 square miles, parts of which were devastated by Hurricane Harvey last September. But the city and its restaurant community have proven resilient, and with the Astros winning the World Series for the first time in the team’s 56 years, there’s reason to celebrate.
 

Downtown Houston and the Buffalo Bayou.
Downtown Houston and the Buffalo Bayou.

In Houston, the dining scene can cure cravings for everything from incendiary Szechuan tofu stew to country-fried Wagyu rib eye. It’s also an immigrant haven, with newcomers (and oldcomers) from Vietnam, Guatemala, India, Korea, the Philippines, Pakistan, Mexico, and many other countries, and a mayor dedicated to defending Houston’s sanctuary city status. That makes for delicious, diverse dining. 
 
Another boon: Houston chefs have access to a long growing season and sterling meats and seafood. Follow Buffalo Bayou, the sluggish river twisting through the city, about 40 miles southeast and you’ll wind up in the Gulf of Mexico. To the north and west of town, the rolling pastures of cattle country, where some of the best barbecue in the country gets its start, stretch to the horizon. Add thoughtful cocktail dens, beer halls, and wine bars, and surprising overall affordability – even the highest-end restaurants seem reasonable – and you don’t have a city that might be the country’s culinary capital. You have a city that already is. Here’s where to go.
 

Octopus with salsa verde and squid chicharróns at One Fifth.
Octopus with salsa verde and squid chicharróns at One Fifth.

Game Changer: ONE FIFTH

Some chefs fear change. James Beard Award winner Chris Shepherd craves it, so for his newest restaurant, One Fifth, he baked change right in: a quintet of concepts that will unfold over the course of a five-year lease in the cathedral-like space formerly occupied by fine-dining stalwart Mark’s. One Fifth premiered last January as a steak house and in September pivoted to Romance Languages as “a way to focus on cultures that aren’t extremely dominant in Houston,” explains Shepherd. The menu features family-style chorizo-and-shellfish paella cooked in a cast-iron pan (Spain), torchon of foie gras (France), and pasta carbonara (Italy) enriched with “the perfect egg,” which Shepherd discovered after a months-long quest. In September, the space will morph into Fish – fitting, as the room’s vaulted ceilings create the effect of dining in a whale’s well-appointed rib cage. 1658 Westheimer Road.

Picking the perfect pickles at Underbelly.
Picking the perfect pickles at Underbelly.

Going Fishing: UNDERBELLY 

Just a few blocks west of One Fifth, Chris Shepherd’s five-year-old flagship, Underbelly, occupies an ark of space with pickle-lined bookshelves and a huge open kitchen with a new focus on seafood. “Bringing in whole steer was resulting in an imbalance of beef dishes on a 20-item menu,” explains the chef, who sources from the Gulf to the Virginia coast. Fruits of Underbelly’s new direction include crispy soft-shell crabs with soba and refreshing chilled vinegar dashi, and meaty golden tilefish on a tomato-seaweed salad. Talented wine director Matthew Pridgen stocks a cellar full of family-run vineyards and unexpected options such as an orange malvasia, a Texas vermentino, and a funky white trousseau, all of which pair beautifully with seafood. Anything by the glass is available in half the pour at half the price, which encourages experimentation. Cap off the meal with a Doktorenhof drinking vinegar: late-harvest grapes fortified with spices and herbs and barrel-aged into sweet-and-sour tongue twisters. 1100 Westheimer Road.

Irma Galvan and her Mexican restaurant are Houston hospitality fixtures.
Irma Galvan and her Mexican restaurant are Houston hospitality fixtures.

Lunch Classic: IRMA’S ORIGINAL

No surface is spared a knickknack at Irma’s Original, a city institution at the bottom of an I-69 off-ramp. And as the cheerful clutter (kids’ drawings, beer-brand neon, wedding photos, toy figurines, a working traffic light) fills the multiple dining rooms, so does 77-year-old Irma Galvan’s homey Mexican cooking fill the belly. A Brownsville, Texas, native of Mexican descent, Galvan opened Irma’s in 1982 to support her family after her husband’s death and quickly earned a loyal local clientele. “Hi, sit anywhere,” is the no-nonsense greeting you’ll likely get from Galvan’s daughter, Monica, a fixture of the restaurant. But over the course of a lunch of plump chiles rellenos, fluffy pork tamales, or enchiladas with red and green salsas, she’ll be sending you out free tres leches sponge cakes – and then hugging you goodbye. 22 N. Chenevert Street

Mala Sichuan’s spicy mapo tofu.
Mala Sichuan’s spicy mapo tofu.

Belle of Bellaire: MALA SICHUAN BISTRO

Bellaire Boulevard, the multilane artery running west out of the city, is the spinal column of Houston’s vibrant Asian immigrant community, and on it, Mala Sichuan is the restaurant not to miss. The place is named after the tongue-numbing heat associated with Szechuan peppercorns, deployed here with precision in dishes such as custardy mapo tofu and popcorn-style fried chicken. The full-throated spice, convivial atmosphere, and wine list stocked with quenching off-dry rieslings draw multigenerational families, chefs on Bellaire field trips, and intrepid fire-eaters, helping Mala earn a James Beard Award nomination last year. 9348 Bellaire Boulevard.

The Texas-size short rib with espresso barbecue sauce at Killen’s STQ
The Texas-size short rib with espresso barbecue sauce at Killen’s STQ

Smoke Signals: KILLEN’S STQ

Ronnie Killen has tended pits since 1991, when he and his dad turned an old icehouse – that’s “beer store” in Texan – into a barbecue joint called Killen Time. Over the following decades, they spun off several restaurants, including the seminal Killen’s Barbecue, and emerged as Houston’s first family of barbecue. His latest restaurant, Killen’s STQ, is a well-articulated mash-up of Westworld looks (wood cladding, saloon doors) and steak house fine dining (white tablecloths, studious wine list). Gracing those pristine cloths, says Killen, “is the food we’ve done at events in the past that never found a place on our other menus.” Dishes such as molten corn ravioli, country-fried rib eye, pork-belly gumbo, and a forearm-size short rib bathed in espresso sauce may sound like odd menu mates, but smoke is the through line underpinning STQ’s varied, vivid flavors and influences. It gets into everything here – including your clothes. Leave your coat in the car. 2231 S. Voss Road.

Himalaya’s chicken hara masala.
Himalaya’s chicken hara masala.

Curry Climb: HIMALAYA

Located in a spiffy Little India shopping center, Himalaya serves evocative recipes from Karachi, Pakistan, hometown of gregarious chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari. As the “best-of” awards lining its walls attest, this place is beloved by Houstonians, and on any given day it’s a genuine cross section of the city’s manifold colors and creeds. In addition to Pakistani, North Indian, and Indo-Chinese dishes, Lashkari does fun Texan fusions such as smoked brisket masala and paratha-dillas. But the best thing on the huge menu is the hara masala, a pastel-green curry made with green chilies, yogurt, and cilantro. Scoop it up with lots of blistered naan and fragrant basmati rice. 6652 SW Freeway.

Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em: The Pit Room’s venison sausage plate.
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em: The Pit Room’s venison sausage plate.

New ’Cue: THE PIT ROOM

You don’t have to strain your imagination to figure out The Pit Room’s specialty. Halfway down its Montrose neighborhood block, this barbecue stop announces itself with aromas of smoke and barbecue drippings riding the Texas breeze. Served on aluminum trays lined with butcher paper, chef Bramwell Tripp’s brisket is heady and lush. But there are a dozen other enticements rounding out The Pit Room narrative, from the wine list – with barbecue, who knew? – to the house-made venison sausage that crackles with black pepper and the kick-ass crimson cherry pie, which is sold whole or by the slice and happens to taste even better late at night in a hotel bathrobe. 1201 Richmond Avenue

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