The search for America’s best food cities: Houston

The search for America’s best food cities:

Houston

The search for America’s best food cities: Houston

The search for America's best food cities:

Houston

The search for America's best food cities: Houston

Published on November 10, 2015

Ninth in a monthly series.

Houston, you have a problem. Your food scene deserves more love.

News flash: Every eater who cares about creative cooking and innovative restaurants needs to make a trip to the fourth-largest city in the country and the ninth stop in my soon-to-conclude survey of the 10 best food cities in America.

The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I:
Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.

New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago were obvious inclusions from the start, as were Philadelphia, Charleston and Portland (Oregon). But Houston? Of the dozens of reader suggestions I’ve fielded since the launch of my cross-country tour, not one has flagged Space City, best known as the home of NASA. My own vague sense of the city, where I’d touched down but once before, and eons ago, had more to do with its size — 600 square miles — than with anything I ate. But increasingly frequent and favorable reviews from food pals put me on a plane in October, the goal being to trust but verify.

Now, fresh back from a week of grazing up and down the food chain, I’m crushing on Houston, which had me at hello, specifically lunch at Helen Greek Food and Wine, a spirited new taverna that wraps its dolmades in collards and slips a mash of Greek cheese and corn bread into grilled banana peppers. I quickly learned how amenable the restaurants are to turning outside influences into distinctive meals. At the soulful Kitchen 713, braised turkey necks in cool lettuce wraps get a jolt from a dipping sauce that tastes straight out of Thailand. Meanwhile, Cuchara beckons with the cooking of seven female chefs hired from all over Mexico and dishes that stay true to the flavors of home: Expect avocado leaves on the refried beans, iguana as a protein and snapper that arrives from Veracruz via the world’s 10th-largest port. (It’s Houston.)

Note: Clockwise from top left:With competing Cajun and Vietnamese influences, Houston’s crawfish boils take on a distinctive flavor; a mariachi band performs during a Day of the Dead celebration at Cuchara; the exterior of Kitchen 713 in Houston.From top to bottom:With competing Cajun and Vietnamese influences, Houston’s crawfish boils take on a distinctive flavor; a mariachi band performs during a Day of the Dead celebration at Cuchara; the exterior of Kitchen 713 in Houston.

At Tony’s, an old-guard restaurant best appreciated for its pastas and suave service, I ask Vernon Loeb, who left The Washington Post at the end of 2013 to join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor, what surprised him most about the city he had never visited before his job interview.

“Everything you know about Texas is wrong,” he replies, sounding like the Chamber of Commerce as he rattles off statistics bolstering the city’s diversity (ironically, just days before Houston voters rejected a broad anti-discrimination ordinance). More than 100 languages are spoken in the Houston Independent School District, Loeb says, with Arabic recently overtaking Vietnamese as the third-most-used language after English and Spanish. It’s “Los Angeles with high humidity,” Loeb cracks.

Houston is nothing if not diverse. Five years ago, a study by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University put Houston at the top of a list of 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the most equitable distribution of America’s four major racial and ethnic groups: whites, Hispanics, African Americans and Asians. “If L.A. and New Orleans had a baby, it might be Houston,” says Todd Romero, an associate history professor at the University of Houston.

When I ask one of the city’s best-known chefs, Chris Shepherd of the worldly Underbelly, about Houston’s iconic foods, the first word out of his mouth underscores both the cosmopolitan flavor of the market and the ease with which it embraces immigrant ideas: “pho” — good ol’ Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

Where Tom went:

Bar

Anvil Bar & Refuge

The drinks list at Houston’s acclaimed craft-cocktail bar steers customers to their preferences with categories including “Herbal & Spirituous,” “Bitter & Bold” and “Odds & Ends.” The last features a Prairie Oyster: mezcal, hot sauce and a raw egg yolk are said to be a hangover cure.

1424 Westheimer Rd., Suite B

713-523-1622

www.anvilhouston.com

Restaurant

Cajun Kitchen

Time your visit to coincide with the local crawfish season (typically March through June) to experience a local custom: a seafood boil bridging Louisiana and Vietnam. Ask for the "Thai basil" boil and you also taste tamarind, lemon grass and fish sauce in the elixir of garlic butter and Cajun seasonings. The best way to eat the spicy mudbugs, advises local food expert Robb Walsh, is to “grip, rip, unzip and dip.”

6938 Wilcrest Dr., Suite E

281-495-8881

Restaurant

Caracol

The focus is on fresh seafood — conch ceviche sparked with ginger and jalapeño, elegant seared tuna tacos, wood-grilled red vermilion — at this arty Mexican oasis from one of Houston’s veteran chefs, Hugo Ortega. The Greatest Margarita Ever Sold costs $29 and lives up to the hyperbole.

2200 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 160

713-622-9996

caracol.net

Ice Cream

Cloud 10 Creamery

“It takes three days to make our ice cream,” says a proud scooper, who also turns out to be a sous-chef at what might be Houston’s best dispenser of the frozen house specialty. Explore the uncommon in this friendly blue-and-white retreat: ice cream flavored with toasted oats and persimmon, maybe, or sorbet based on butternut squash and rosemary.

5216 Morningside Dr.

713-434-6129

www.cloud10creamery.com

Restaurant

Coltivare

“This is where I come on my day off,” says Alison Cook, the veteran restaurant critic of the Houston Chronicle. The drinks are fab (try the world-class gin and tonic) and so are the pastas and pizzas, their crusts the texture of foccacia. The garden out back, a nice place to hang if you’re waiting for a table, provides the kitchen with fresh herbs, blackberries and radishes.

3320 White Oak Dr.

713-637-4095

coltivarehouston.com

Cafe

Common Bond Cafe & Bakery

Among Houston’s top stops for bread — Texas-size croissants, sugar-sprinkled brioche — Common Bond does well by desserts, too. Dressed with milk bottles, the light-filled industrial cafe is the perfect place to pause for a lemon-lavender macaron and espresso.

1706 Westheimer Rd.

713-529-3535

wearecommonbond.com

Restaurant

Cuchara

Its open kitchen benefits from an all-female crew recruited from around Mexico; the witty murals come by way of the owner’s artist-sister. Drop by on a Sunday for brunch, when a trio of musicians complements the meal. Among the lures are fresh guacamole garnished with fried grasshoppers, pork tamal swaddled in a banana leaf, and crisp tortilla triangles under a blanket of white cheese fired up with serranos: chilaquiles for the memory book.

214 Fairview St.

713-942-0000

cuchararestaurant.com

Bakery

Eck Bakery

Ultra-flaky and super-silken, the signature custard-filled Chinese pastry costs a buck, tastes like a million and delivers on the promise of the otherwise humble bakery’s initials, which stand for Egg Creme King.

6918 Wilcrest Dr., Suite A

281-933-6808

Restaurant

El Real

Outside, a giant neon-lit marquee calls attention to one of the area’s best Tex-Mex sources; inside, diners find beef fajitas, puffy shrimp tacos and cheese enchiladas draped with chili con carne in a vast dining hall that screens Westerns on the wall, a nod to the location’s past as a cinema. Yes, there’s lard in the refried beans, and they’re awesome.

1201 Westheimer Rd.

713-524-1201

elrealtexmex.com

Bakery

Fluff Bake Bar

Forget cupcakes. Fluff Bake Bar would rather you eat slices of cake, fetchingly served in clear cups. One of several flavors, Veruca Salt presents devil’s food cake with salted caramel buttercream and pretzel crunch. On display: flaky croissants, rhubarb kouign-amann and Couch Potato cookies crisp with potato chips and cornflakes. A plus behind the fragrant cafe with its pink neon “sugar” sign: a courtyard for nice weather.

314 Gray St.

713-522-1900

fluffbakebar.com

Restaurant

Foreign Correspondents

New to the scene and a promising work in progress, Foreign Correspondents looks to northern Thailand for inspiration. For your consideration: spicy blue crabs, water buffalo laap, pumpkin and pork tossed with scrambled egg, and garlic oil rice tinted with blood. The last dish, served in a banana leaf, goes down like boudin noir.

4721 N. Main St., Suite A

713-864-8424

treadsack.com/foreigncorrespondents

Restaurant

Fu Fu Cafe

Soup dumplings help fill the tables in this spartan, no-nonsense Chinatown storefront.

9889 Bellaire Blvd., Suite 105

713-981-8818

Restaurant

Gatlin’s BBQ

Some words of advice as you’re perusing the menu while waiting in the inevitable line: brisket, ribs, dirty rice. They’re among the stars of Gatlin’s open kitchen — not counting the cheerful family members who cook and serve some of the best barbecue in the city.

3510 Ella Blvd.

713-869-4227

www.gatlinsbbq.com

Restaurant

Helen Greek Food and Wine

A rare and respectable taste of Greece in the city, this narrow taverna in the neighborhood of Rice Village features an all-Greek wine list and such novelties as dolmades bound in collard greens, and feta-brined roast chicken.

2429 Rice Blvd.

832-831-7133

helengreekfoodandwine.com

Market

Hong Kong Food Market

Whatever you need to cook an Asian meal — a wok the size of a tub, barbecued ducks, featherback fish — this monster market inside the Hong Kong City Mall is apt to stock it. The produce section is especially impressive; amid the greens are banana flowers and winged beans.

11205 Bellaire Blvd.

281-575-7886

Bar

Julep

A star among bars, Julep pays homage to Southern classics, including the Sazerac and Vieux Carré, in both its handsome pewter-colored lounge and an exterior gravel patio set off with fire pits. Go for the cognac-fueled Georgia mint julep.

1919 Washington Ave.

713-869-4383

www.julephouston.com

Restaurant

Killen’s Barbecue

The biggest asset at one of the premiere barbecue joints in the country is a professional chef, Ronnie Killen, whose exacting standards apply not just to high-quality meats — the bone-in pork belly is peerless — but to the sides and desserts as well. Weekend lines are made easier with (yes!) free beer.

3613 E. Broadway St., Pearland

281-485-2272

www.killensbarbecue.com

Restaurant

Kitchen 713

Don’t be fooled by the modest facade in an industrial stretch of Houston’s East End. Co-chefs Ross Coleman and James Haywood excel at fusing diverse accents in their cooking. Braised turkey necks nestled in lettuce wraps get a lift from their teasing nuoc cham, and what appears to be a routine grilled cheese sandwich comes with a surprise between slices of sourdough: oxtail “marmalade” and pickled collards. P.S. The jerk chicken rocks, too.

4515 Canal St.

713-239-2498

kitchen713.com

Restaurant

Nam Giao

On the menu: the refined cooking of Hue in central Vietnam. Seek out saucers of steamed rice-flour pancakes, brightened with minced shrimp and carrots, and baby clam salad, lavished with toasted sesame seeds, fried shallots and pungent cilantro. The yellow dining room is modest; the kitchen has you seeing stars.

6938 Wilcrest Dr., Suite C

281-568-4888

Restaurant

Oxheart

Hard to define but easy to enjoy, chef Justin Yu’s vegetable-focused cooking embraces crisp mung bean pancakes stuffed with mustard greens, and guinea hen staged with crushed peanuts and glossy collards. Fine dining as defined in the intimate 30-seat restaurant translates to bread as its own course and locally made knives, presented in a cigar box.

1302 Nance St.

832-830-8592

oxhearthouston.com

Restaurant

Pho Dien 1

Discerning locals think of this dining room, set off with wavy overhead panels, as the area’s finest source for Vietnam’s classic beef noodle soup. The broth alone, clear as consomme, speaks to a kitchen that knows what it’s doing.

10623 Bellaire Blvd., Suite C198

832-328-1866

phodienhouston.webs.com

Restaurant

Pho Dien 2

Discerning locals think of this dining room, set off with wavy overhead panels, as the area’s finest source for Vietnam’s classic beef noodle soup. The broth alone, clear as consomme, speaks to a kitchen that knows what it’s doing.

11830 Bellaire Blvd., Suite C

281-495-9600

phodienhouston.webs.com

Market

Phoenicia Specialty Foods (Westheimer Market)

What began as a deli in 1983 has grown into multiple stores offering 15,000 items from 50 countries. Whether you’re looking for Marmite from Down Under, cherry jam from Turkey or ceramics from Poland, they’re here. The gleaming Downtown location is the newest. If your timing is right, you can watch freshly baked pita bread emerge from what resembles a roller coaster.

12141 Westheimer Rd.

281-558-8225

www.phoeniciafoods.com

Market

Phoenicia Specialty Foods (Downtown Market)

What began as a deli in 1983 has grown into multiple stores offering 15,000 items from 50 countries. Whether you’re looking for Marmite from Down Under, cherry jam from Turkey or ceramics from Poland, they’re here. The gleaming Downtown location is the newest. If your timing is right, you can watch freshly baked pita bread emerge from what resembles a roller coaster.

1001 Austin St.

832-360-2222

www.phoeniciafoods.com

Cafe

Pondicheri Bake Lab

Sibling to the ground-floor Pondicheri, an all-day dining room popular for its Indian street food and thali sampler platters, Bake Lab is a colorful second-floor cafe stocked with bulk spices and ghee pots on the shelves and jaggery dressing and enticing salads in the display cases. Draws include sunny Parsi eggs, doughnuts that taste like gulab jamun and sandwiches stuffed with Goan sausage.

2800 Kirby Dr., Suite B240

713-522-2012

www.pondichericafe.com

Market

Revival Market

The mission of the market, which also features a small cafe, is to source everything from within 150 miles of the city. Pasture-raised heritage breed pork goes into the house-made charcuterie; beans from four local purveyors fuel the coffee bar. Quail? Verjus? Apple pie? The gang’s all here.

550 Heights Blvd.

713-880-8463

revivalmarket.com

Restaurant

Tacos Tierra Caliente

Follow the lead of insiders by ordering some (dynamite) pork or beef tacos from this taqueria on wheels, whose salsas are as good as the meats, then eating them across the street on a picnic table with a beer you buy from the roof over your head, the West Alabama Ice House.

1919 W. Alabama St.

713-584-9359

Restaurant

Underbelly

Honored last year as Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation, chef-owner Chris Shepherd weaves into his cooking the many diverse cultures that make Houston such an exciting place to eat. The result: toast decked out with lardo, honey and chilies (the combination works), and Korean braised goat with pleasantly chewy dumplings freckled with benne seeds. Nice touch with the bill: Brochures listing the chef’s favorite eateries around town.

1100 Westheimer Rd.

713-528-9800

www.underbellyhouston.com

Market

Urban Harvest Farmers Markets (Eastside Farmers Market, Saturdays)

Food fans flock to the Eastside Farmers Market on Saturday, where the finds include Egyptian breakfast (from Oddball Eats), peach barbecue sauce (from Underbelly restaurant), Texas wine (from Moravia Vineyard & Winery) and Mexican marigold mint (from Plant It Forward Farms).

3000 Richmond Ave.

713-880-5540

urbanharvest.org

How Houston stacks up

Creativity

Among chefs garnering the most attention are Chris Shepherd, whose Underbelly roams the world for inspiration; Justin Yu, a wonderman with vegetables at Oxheart; and Hugo Ortega, whose Caracol shows off Mexico’s coastal cuisine. Both the barbecue and Tex-Mex scenes are redefining themselves. Count on the sides at Gatlin’s BBQ to be as mouth-watering as the meats, and watch for a margarita cart to roll through the upscale Añejo restaurant.

Community

Few markets enjoy the camaraderie found in Houston’s food scene. The leader of the pack is Underbelly, which distributes a list of dozens of the chef’s favorite places to eat with diners’ checks. Sugar & Rice, an impressive food quarterly edited by author David Leftwich, tells stories about the Gulf Coast — its ingredients, history and people — that typically aren’t covered by mainstream media. The Gulf Coast Food Program at the University of Houston promotes the scholarly study of food in the region via documentary films, oral histories and public lectures.

Tradition

Fajitas, a signature Tex-Mex staple, were created here. A more modern expression of tradition, say insiders, is Vietnamese pho. And the whole world can get around Asian-Cajun seafood boils.

Ingredients

Cooks have the benefit of first-rate citrus — grapefruit, Meyer lemons, satsumas — and a sea of possibilities from the gulf, including snapper, grouper, shrimp, oysters and crab. (Texas produces almost 70 percent of the nation’s shrimp.) The Port of Houston, ranked first in U.S. imports and export tonnage, means easy access to goods from around the world.

Shopping

If it’s short on cookbook stores, Houston features markets whose inventory whisks consumers to Asia, Mexico and the Middle East. Especially impressive are the sprawling Hong Kong Food Market for produce and Phoenicia Specialty Foods for ingredients from around the globe. On the rise: bakeries, including Fluff Bake Bar, home of cakes in a cup.

Variety

Strong on Chinese, Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants — a reflection of the city’s diverse demographics — Houston has a relaxed style that might explain fewer examples of upscale French and Italian experiences.

Service

A big Texas welcome is typical in restaurants and shops of every stripe. At Killen’s Barbecue, for example, long weekend lines are made more tolerable thanks to free samples of both food and beer.

The fourth largest city in the country and the 10th largest port in the world, Houston also ranks as the U.S. metropolitan market with the most equitable distribution of America’s major racial and ethnic groups. The diversity is on full display in the city’s more than 10,000 restaurants featuring 70-plus cuisines. The home of fajitas and the source of prized ingredients from the gulf, Houston claims some of the country’s best Mexican and Vietnamese eateries. Currently, the area is also experiencing both a barbecue and Tex-Mex renaissance.

Pride and barbecue

For all its culinary progress, Houston hasn’t ditched tradition. Barbecue remains a mainstay and has friends in high places, including the newspaper of record, which employs a columnist dedicated to the subject. His name is J.C. Reid, and his weekly column in the Chronicle, launched last year, testifies to the allure of meat cooked low and slow, and not just locally. “What fascinates me is how other cultures assimilate something I’ve known my whole life,” says the native of Beaumont, Tex,, where the barbecue style mixes Southern traditions with Cajun influences: primarily pork with tomato-based sauces ratcheted up with cayenne and garlic.

Three years ago, Reid co-founded the Houston Barbecue Festival as a way to honor a dozen (mostly) mom-and-pops, an afternoon event that brought out 1,200 attendees. Last year, 25 vendors showed up for a crowd that had swelled to 2,500.

Who better to show a visitor the ropes than Reid, and where better to stain our fingers than at Killen’s Barbecue, in the nearby city of Pearland? Launched two years ago as a pop-up within Killen’s Steakhouse, the bricks-and-mortar extension is a prime example of what has been hailed as a “barbecue renaissance” in Texas.

Behind the counter is owner Ronnie Killen, a trained chef who sees barbecue as more than smoked meat. “I try to be about the whole experience, from start to finish,” says the 1999 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in London, who employs an unusually large staff of about 20 and is known for passing out Lone Star beer to folks waiting in line on weekends. (Texans are nothing if not generous.) The line snaking away from the door makes sense after eating here. Killen buys some of the best meat possible (purveyors include Strube Ranch in East Texas and Allen Brothers in Chicago) and insists that the sides and sweets be on par with all that they flank.

Before we eat, I ask Reid, joined by festival co-founder Michael Fulmer, to give me the skinny on how to peg a model barbecue spot from a corner-cutter.

“You want to smell the smoke,” says Fulmer. The type of wood “is a preference thing”; mesquite can be a hassle, but post oak burns well. Killen tells me he uses different wood for different meats: pecan for beef, for instance, and hickory for pork.

Next, Fulmer says, “walk in back” of the business, to look at the process. Killen’s uses four different kinds of smokers, the main one being an all-wood-burning Oyler. Reid likes to scope out a barbecue joint’s dumpster area for tossed packaging to “see where the brisket comes from” — all-natural Creekstone Farms Master Chef, the expert notes approvingly of one of Killen’s choices. When we reach the meat counter, Reid directs my attention to brisket that unfolds like an accordion after it’s sliced and held up — the all-important “jiggle factor.”

We make our way to a table where my guides spread out butcher paper and we dig into an indoor picnic of brisket, ribs, bone-in pork belly, creamed corn, smoky baked beans, bread pudding and — anyone got an extra stomach to spare? Each bite packs Texas pride. Pork sausage — punched up with pepper, garlic and mustard seeds — comes with an audible snap. Brisket benefits from a crust of Malabar peppercorns, ground fresh every week, while the gloss and savor on the beef ribs comes by way of fish sauce, lemon juice and brown sugar. Collard greens balance the tang of apple cider vinegar with pork jus; berry cobbler relies on Granny Smith apples for welcome tartness and texture.

No one eating at Killen’s could say barbecue isn’t an art.

Pulling up a chair to chat, the chef ticks off some of the variables that influence barbecue, among them “wind, temperature, wood, humidity.” Reflecting on his résumé, he says, “Fine dining is easy compared to this.”

The warm fall afternoon prompts Reid to weigh in with another indicator of a good barbecue operation, an ingredient Killen’s also claims: “AC. It’s huge!”

Note: Clockwise from top left:A youngster surveys the scene as her family shops at Phoenicia Specialty Foods in Houston; an entree of gulf hake at Oxheart; Sheryl Thi eats banh beo at Nam Giao; Edgar Xona unloads red snapper from a fishing boat.From top to bottom:A youngster surveys the scene as her family shops at Phoenicia Specialty Foods in Houston; an entree of gulf hake at Oxheart; Edgar Xona unloads red snapper from a fishing boat; Sheryl Thi eats banh beo at Nam Giao.

Oil fuels the kitchens

If Houston has a culinary ambassador, it’s Shepherd, a Nebraska native whose first job was washing dishes in a sushi joint in Tulsa. Last year, at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards gala, the Underbelly chef was among three nominees from Houston (out of five in the region) for Best Chef: Southwest. Shepherd ended up with the medal around his neck, beating out talented locals Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s) and Justin Yu (Oxheart).

PHOTOS: The dishes and places that make Houston one of the best food cities

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

To dine at Underbelly, whose neighbors in the Arts District of Montrose include El Real, a Tex-Mex standard-bearer, and Mala Sichuan, a fiery Chinese outpost, is to tap into Houston’s distinct melting pot. Underbelly, the chef says, pays tribute to “the side of things that are never seen.”

His repertoire includes a riff on oysters Rockefeller that flavors the spinach nest with house-made curry paste, and, on weekends, spicy pork tamales made by the wife of Underbelly’s Mexican butcher. My favorite memory of Underbelly is a dish the chef added to his opening menu at the last minute, when he counted 19 items and wanted an even 20: goat braised with beer, garlic and red chili paste and served over chewy Korean rice sticks. Previously, Shepherd had made the recipe only at home. No sooner did guests taste the spicy combination than the dish became Underbelly’s bestseller and the single item he can’t take off the list.

“If you only eat at one place,” says Shepherd (meaning Underbelly, naturally),“you can get a taste of the city.” Eager for his customers to explore the full range of possibilities, however, Shepherd has his staff distribute diners’ checks in slim folders listing dozens of his favorite restaurants around town.

Houston’s 2.2 million residents can pick from more than 10,000 places to eat, a buffet sprinkled with flavors from more than 70 countries. “Lots of money tends to support restaurants,” says Romero, the associate history professor at the University of Houston. (Forty percent of the city’s economy is linked to the oil industry, says Mayor Annise Parker.)

Seven years ago, in conjunction with the Center for Public History, Romero co-founded the Gulf Coast Food Project as a way to document what he sees as an under-appreciated but vibrant food culture shaped by the South in general and by Louisiana, Mexico and Asian immigrants in particular. Together, the elements create a cuisine of their own, he says, and add up to a “renaissance” in Houston.

The Texas food that has people standing in line

Play Video

At Killen’s in Pearland, Texas outside Houston, the line is down the sidewalk for a savory Southern favorite.

Anyone curious to sample one of the country’s earliest fusion cuisines need look no further than the aforementioned El Real. Set in the expanse of the former Tower Theatre, the restaurant celebrates what co-founder Robb Walsh, the author of numerous cookbooks devoted to Texas fare, calls “vintage” Tex-Mex: puffy (fried) tacos, fajitas made with premium “outside” skirt steak, and refried beans lavished with lard. El Real even bothers to make its own chili powder, from roasted ancho peppers and toasted cumin passed through an old coffee grinder.

One place to catch a rainbow of faces — and sit in on a history lesson — is at a Viet-Cajun establishment. Houston counts a fleet of them, their names — Cajun Kitchen, Crawfish & Noodles, LA Crawfish (LA being shorthand for “Louisiana”) — basically advertisements for the main event, a seafood boil.

Part of what sets a Houston version apart from a Louisiana boil is the ferociousness of the seasoning, says Walsh. “The liquid is usually old-fashioned Cajun boil, with lemon grass and other aromatics added in,” he wrote last year in Houstonia magazine. “But it’s the Vietnamese preoccupation with sauces and flavorings that really distinguishes” the trend, which Walsh traces to 2002 in Houston.

Note: Clockwise from top: Plating food in the kitchen at Oxheart; honey mesquite cake served at Pondicheri Bake Lab; Texas Junk Company sells items from an earlier time. From top to bottom: Plating food in the kitchen at Oxheart; Texas Junk Company sells items from an earlier time; honey mesquite cake served at Pondicheri Bake Lab.

The dish as done in Houston, which includes a sauce of garlic and butter, has its origins in the fall of Saigon in 1975, after which Houston acquired a sizable Vietnamese population. The newcomers arrived in several waves of immigration, lured by the city’s job prospects, low cost of living and tropical weather, according to a story last year in the fledgling Houston-based food quarterly Sugar & Rice. “Many Vietnamese refugees who resettled along the Texas Gulf Coast near Houston once made a living by fishing their native waters and made an easy transition from fishing to shrimping,” wrote author Roy Vu. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Houston absorbed an estimated 9,000 Vietnamese from New Orleans, according to Stephen Klineberg, co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Turns out there are plenty of parallels between Cajuns and Vietnamese: Both groups share rice, seafood, spicy accents and French influence. All manner of seafood might go into a Viet-Cajun boil — crab, lobster, shrimp — although the most prized ingredient is crawfish in season (which starts as early as January and lasts to June).

Casual and communal, the ritual is a messy affair, hence the tables dressed with rolls of paper towels and the option of plastic gloves, the latter as much a buffer to the fiery seasonings as a way to avoid the dry cleaners.

Judging by the clientele at Viet-Cajun boils, the world can get around the meal. Shepherd, for one, marvels at the power of one dish to adapt to taste preferences and build bridges: “White, black, Hispanic, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese — everyone together in one place.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the type of smoker used at Killen’s.

Recipe: Blistered Banana Peppers With Cheese

This riff on a classic recipe from Florina, a region in northwestern Greece, embodies the country's love of stuffed foods.

Recipe: Parsi Eggs

This egg-topped, yogurt- and spice-accented potato masala is a common breakfast dish in Parsi cuisine.

Where Tom went:

Bar

Anvil Bar & Refuge

The drinks list at Houston’s acclaimed craft-cocktail bar steers customers to their preferences with categories including “Herbal & Spirituous,” “Bitter & Bold” and “Odds & Ends.” The last features a Prairie Oyster: mezcal, hot sauce and a raw egg yolk are said to be a hangover cure.

1424 Westheimer Rd., Suite B

713-523-1622

www.anvilhouston.com

Restaurant

Cajun Kitchen

Time your visit to coincide with the local crawfish season (typically March through June) to experience a local custom: a seafood boil bridging Louisiana and Vietnam. Ask for the "Thai basil" boil and you also taste tamarind, lemon grass and fish sauce in the elixir of garlic butter and Cajun seasonings. The best way to eat the spicy mudbugs, advises local food expert Robb Walsh, is to “grip, rip, unzip and dip.”

6938 Wilcrest Dr., Suite E

281-495-8881

Restaurant

Caracol

The focus is on fresh seafood — conch ceviche sparked with ginger and jalapeño, elegant seared tuna tacos, wood-grilled red vermilion — at this arty Mexican oasis from one of Houston’s veteran chefs, Hugo Ortega. The Greatest Margarita Ever Sold costs $29 and lives up to the hyperbole.

2200 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 160

713-622-9996

caracol.net

Ice Cream

Cloud 10 Creamery

“It takes three days to make our ice cream,” says a proud scooper, who also turns out to be a sous-chef at what might be Houston’s best dispenser of the frozen house specialty. Explore the uncommon in this friendly blue-and-white retreat: ice cream flavored with toasted oats and persimmon, maybe, or sorbet based on butternut squash and rosemary.

5216 Morningside Dr.

713-434-6129

www.cloud10creamery.com

Restaurant

Coltivare

“This is where I come on my day off,” says Alison Cook, the veteran restaurant critic of the Houston Chronicle. The drinks are fab (try the world-class gin and tonic) and so are the pastas and pizzas, their crusts the texture of foccacia. The garden out back, a nice place to hang if you’re waiting for a table, provides the kitchen with fresh herbs, blackberries and radishes.

3320 White Oak Dr.

713-637-4095

coltivarehouston.com

Cafe

Common Bond Cafe & Bakery

Among Houston’s top stops for bread — Texas-size croissants, sugar-sprinkled brioche — Common Bond does well by desserts, too. Dressed with milk bottles, the light-filled industrial cafe is the perfect place to pause for a lemon-lavender macaron and espresso.

1706 Westheimer Rd.

713-529-3535

wearecommonbond.com

Restaurant

Cuchara

Its open kitchen benefits from an all-female crew recruited from around Mexico; the witty murals come by way of the owner’s artist-sister. Drop by on a Sunday for brunch, when a trio of musicians complements the meal. Among the lures are fresh guacamole garnished with fried grasshoppers, pork tamal swaddled in a banana leaf, and crisp tortilla triangles under a blanket of white cheese fired up with serranos: chilaquiles for the memory book.

214 Fairview St.

713-942-0000

cuchararestaurant.com

Bakery

Eck Bakery

Ultra-flaky and super-silken, the signature custard-filled Chinese pastry costs a buck, tastes like a million and delivers on the promise of the otherwise humble bakery’s initials, which stand for Egg Creme King.

6918 Wilcrest Dr., Suite A

281-933-6808

Restaurant

El Real

Outside, a giant neon-lit marquee calls attention to one of the area’s best Tex-Mex sources; inside, diners find beef fajitas, puffy shrimp tacos and cheese enchiladas draped with chili con carne in a vast dining hall that screens Westerns on the wall, a nod to the location’s past as a cinema. Yes, there’s lard in the refried beans, and they’re awesome.

1201 Westheimer Rd.

713-524-1201

elrealtexmex.com

Bakery

Fluff Bake Bar

Forget cupcakes. Fluff Bake Bar would rather you eat slices of cake, fetchingly served in clear cups. One of several flavors, Veruca Salt presents devil’s food cake with salted caramel buttercream and pretzel crunch. On display: flaky croissants, rhubarb kouign-amann and Couch Potato cookies crisp with potato chips and cornflakes. A plus behind the fragrant cafe with its pink neon “sugar” sign: a courtyard for nice weather.

314 Gray St.

713-522-1900

fluffbakebar.com

Restaurant

Foreign Correspondents

New to the scene and a promising work in progress, Foreign Correspondents looks to northern Thailand for inspiration. For your consideration: spicy blue crabs, water buffalo laap, pumpkin and pork tossed with scrambled egg, and garlic oil rice tinted with blood. The last dish, served in a banana leaf, goes down like boudin noir.

4721 N. Main St., Suite A

713-864-8424

treadsack.com/foreigncorrespondents

Restaurant

Fu Fu Cafe

Soup dumplings help fill the tables in this spartan, no-nonsense Chinatown storefront.

9889 Bellaire Blvd., Suite 105

713-981-8818

Restaurant

Gatlin’s BBQ

Some words of advice as you’re perusing the menu while waiting in the inevitable line: brisket, ribs, dirty rice. They’re among the stars of Gatlin’s open kitchen — not counting the cheerful family members who cook and serve some of the best barbecue in the city.

3510 Ella Blvd.

713-869-4227

www.gatlinsbbq.com

Restaurant

Helen Greek Food and Wine

A rare and respectable taste of Greece in the city, this narrow taverna in the neighborhood of Rice Village features an all-Greek wine list and such novelties as dolmades bound in collard greens, and feta-brined roast chicken.

2429 Rice Blvd.

832-831-7133

helengreekfoodandwine.com

Market

Hong Kong Food Market

Whatever you need to cook an Asian meal — a wok the size of a tub, barbecued ducks, featherback fish — this monster market inside the Hong Kong City Mall is apt to stock it. The produce section is especially impressive; amid the greens are banana flowers and winged beans.

11205 Bellaire Blvd.

281-575-7886

Bar

Julep

A star among bars, Julep pays homage to Southern classics, including the Sazerac and Vieux Carré, in both its handsome pewter-colored lounge and an exterior gravel patio set off with fire pits. Go for the cognac-fueled Georgia mint julep.

1919 Washington Ave.

713-869-4383

www.julephouston.com

Restaurant

Killen’s Barbecue

The biggest asset at one of the premiere barbecue joints in the country is a professional chef, Ronnie Killen, whose exacting standards apply not just to high-quality meats — the bone-in pork belly is peerless — but to the sides and desserts as well. Weekend lines are made easier with (yes!) free beer.

3613 E. Broadway St., Pearland

281-485-2272

www.killensbarbecue.com

Restaurant

Kitchen 713

Don’t be fooled by the modest facade in an industrial stretch of Houston’s East End. Co-chefs Ross Coleman and James Haywood excel at fusing diverse accents in their cooking. Braised turkey necks nestled in lettuce wraps get a lift from their teasing nuoc cham, and what appears to be a routine grilled cheese sandwich comes with a surprise between slices of sourdough: oxtail “marmalade” and pickled collards. P.S. The jerk chicken rocks, too.

4515 Canal St.

713-239-2498

kitchen713.com

Restaurant

Nam Giao

On the menu: the refined cooking of Hue in central Vietnam. Seek out saucers of steamed rice-flour pancakes, brightened with minced shrimp and carrots, and baby clam salad, lavished with toasted sesame seeds, fried shallots and pungent cilantro. The yellow dining room is modest; the kitchen has you seeing stars.

6938 Wilcrest Dr., Suite C

281-568-4888

Restaurant

Oxheart

Hard to define but easy to enjoy, chef Justin Yu’s vegetable-focused cooking embraces crisp mung bean pancakes stuffed with mustard greens, and guinea hen staged with crushed peanuts and glossy collards. Fine dining as defined in the intimate 30-seat restaurant translates to bread as its own course and locally made knives, presented in a cigar box.

1302 Nance St.

832-830-8592

oxhearthouston.com

Restaurant

Pho Dien 1

Discerning locals think of this dining room, set off with wavy overhead panels, as the area’s finest source for Vietnam’s classic beef noodle soup. The broth alone, clear as consomme, speaks to a kitchen that knows what it’s doing.

10623 Bellaire Blvd., Suite C198

832-328-1866

phodienhouston.webs.com

Restaurant

Pho Dien 2

Discerning locals think of this dining room, set off with wavy overhead panels, as the area’s finest source for Vietnam’s classic beef noodle soup. The broth alone, clear as consomme, speaks to a kitchen that knows what it’s doing.

11830 Bellaire Blvd., Suite C

281-495-9600

phodienhouston.webs.com

Market

Phoenicia Specialty Foods (Westheimer Market)

What began as a deli in 1983 has grown into multiple stores offering 15,000 items from 50 countries. Whether you’re looking for Marmite from Down Under, cherry jam from Turkey or ceramics from Poland, they’re here. The gleaming Downtown location is the newest. If your timing is right, you can watch freshly baked pita bread emerge from what resembles a roller coaster.

12141 Westheimer Rd.

281-558-8225

www.phoeniciafoods.com

Market

Phoenicia Specialty Foods (Downtown Market)

What began as a deli in 1983 has grown into multiple stores offering 15,000 items from 50 countries. Whether you’re looking for Marmite from Down Under, cherry jam from Turkey or ceramics from Poland, they’re here. The gleaming Downtown location is the newest. If your timing is right, you can watch freshly baked pita bread emerge from what resembles a roller coaster.

1001 Austin St.

832-360-2222

www.phoeniciafoods.com

Cafe

Pondicheri Bake Lab

Sibling to the ground-floor Pondicheri, an all-day dining room popular for its Indian street food and thali sampler platters, Bake Lab is a colorful second-floor cafe stocked with bulk spices and ghee pots on the shelves and jaggery dressing and enticing salads in the display cases. Draws include sunny Parsi eggs, doughnuts that taste like gulab jamun and sandwiches stuffed with Goan sausage.

2800 Kirby Dr., Suite B240

713-522-2012

www.pondichericafe.com

Market

Revival Market

The mission of the market, which also features a small cafe, is to source everything from within 150 miles of the city. Pasture-raised heritage breed pork goes into the house-made charcuterie; beans from four local purveyors fuel the coffee bar. Quail? Verjus? Apple pie? The gang’s all here.

550 Heights Blvd.

713-880-8463

revivalmarket.com

Restaurant

Tacos Tierra Caliente

Follow the lead of insiders by ordering some (dynamite) pork or beef tacos from this taqueria on wheels, whose salsas are as good as the meats, then eating them across the street on a picnic table with a beer you buy from the roof over your head, the West Alabama Ice House.

1919 W. Alabama St.

713-584-9359

Restaurant

Underbelly

Honored last year as Best Chef: Southwest by the James Beard Foundation, chef-owner Chris Shepherd weaves into his cooking the many diverse cultures that make Houston such an exciting place to eat. The result: toast decked out with lardo, honey and chilies (the combination works), and Korean braised goat with pleasantly chewy dumplings freckled with benne seeds. Nice touch with the bill: Brochures listing the chef’s favorite eateries around town.

1100 Westheimer Rd.

713-528-9800

www.underbellyhouston.com

Market

Urban Harvest Farmers Markets (Eastside Farmers Market, Saturdays)

Food fans flock to the Eastside Farmers Market on Saturday, where the finds include Egyptian breakfast (from Oddball Eats), peach barbecue sauce (from Underbelly restaurant), Texas wine (from Moravia Vineyard & Winery) and Mexican marigold mint (from Plant It Forward Farms).

3000 Richmond Ave.

713-880-5540

urbanharvest.org

Credits

About the series

Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema explores America’s best food cities, 10 of which he’ll rate at year’s end.