The best restaurants in Houston reflect the city's growing multiculturalism.
As the fourth largest city in the United States by population (2.3 million) and one of the country's most diverse, Houston has much to offer food fans.
A lot of this diversification happened in my lifetime, albeit long before I moved to Texas.
During the 1970s, Houston received an influx of Vietnamese immigrants due to the war.
Today, it has the third-largest Vietnamese population in the country (after Los Angeles and San Jose, California).
And since 1980, the Hispanic population has more than doubled, from about 15% to nearly 39%.
As a result, the dining scene in the largest city in Texas is not unlike New York City or Los Angeles.
Once I picked up on this fact, getting to know the delicious food in Houston restaurants held new appeal for me. What follows are some of the best places to eat in Houston.
Top Houston Restaurants
A hot spot in downtown Houston is Xochi by chef Hugo Ortega and the H Town Restaurant Group.
This popular Mexican restaurant, located on the Marriott Marquis ground floor adjacent to Discovery Green park, specializes in Oaxacan cuisine.
Before relocating to Austin, I spent two months living in Oaxaca, a city and region in Southwestern Mexico known for mole and mezcal.
On Saturdays, Xochi serves brunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. I saw this as an opportune time to sample the menu.
I began with a mouthwatering Spiced Pluma cocktail with tequila and hibiscus-salted margarita foam from the attractive bar before digging into Molotes de Xoxocotlan — masa cakes with potato, chorizo, avocado, chile de onza, crema, and queso fresco.
A crispy grasshopper was served alongside the masa, and I had no qualms about sprinkling it on top. I'd previously eaten chapulines in Oaxaca.
My entree, Memela y Huevos, featured a masa pancake with roasted chicken, mole negro, and two eggs. It was another heavy but oh-so-delectable dish!
The dessert menu is split, with chocolate options to the left and others like Horchata Mousse Cake to the right.
I chose the Cacao, made up of various "chocolate textures," including tejate foam, milk chocolate cloud, and chocolate criollo soil.
Rubin Ortega, brother of owner Hugo Ortega, was a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Pastry Chef.
1777 Walker St, Houston, TX, xochihouston.com
2. BCN Taste & Tradition
Let's leave North America for a moment to take in the flavors of Catalonia at BCN Taste & Tradition in Houston's Montrose neighborhood.
It's home to a longstanding culinary tradition and two restaurants previously named the best in the world (El Bulli and El Celler de Can Roca).
Chef Luis Roger hails from Barcelona and counts a post-graduate internship working for famed chef Ferran Adria at El Bulli as a life-changing experience.
And it was in Spain that Barcelona-born Ignacio Torres, a businessman based in Houston, met chef Roger, and they began to talk about opening restaurants.
Your European fine dining experience at BCN Taste & Tradition begins when you walk into the renovated 1920s bungalow.
Original works by Spanish artists, including Pablo Picasso, Dali, and Miro, adorn the walls. A gin and tonic menu features ten options to wet your palate.
My meal at one of the best restaurants in Houston began with chilled melon soup before the main event, Suckling Iberico Pig "a la Segoviana" with cherry and cardamom. It's a stellar preparation and one of the best dishes I've eaten in 2022.
I enjoyed a light rum-soaked brioche with coffee mousse and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
If the Michelin Guide operated in Texas, BCN Taste & Tradition deserves a star. Given the excellent service, it's well suited for special occasions.
4210 Roseland St, Houston, TX, bcnhouston.com
Art Alert: Give yourself 60-90 minutes before dinner to visit the nearby Rothko Chapel and Menil Collection; both are free.
3. Theodore Rex
It was a dinosaur-themed day when Kel and I dropped by Theodore Rex for a date night following an afternoon at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
Located in Houston's Warehouse District and billing itself as "relaxed fine dining with a French touch," Theodore Rex offers a seasonal menu of shareable plates and an extensive wine list.
The dining room of chef-owner Justin Yu's restaurant is small and rustic, with exposed red brick walls and a wood ceiling.
There's a tiny open kitchen, which we viewed up close as the only reservation I could get was counter seating.
For dinner, we ordered:
- Crepe of mung beans with alpine cheese, onions, and lavender
- Boiled dumplings with grass-fed beef, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and ricotta
- Chicken breast glazed in coconut with anchovy-garlic-chili-ginger sauce
- Sunchoke and chocolate chunk ice cream with honey and chocolate mint
- Warm blueberry butter cake with cold cream
The dumplings (pictured above) were our favorite because of the buttery sauce.
Theodore Rex is a non-tipping restaurant and instead adds a 22% service fee to all bills to benefit their staff.
1302 Nance St, Unit A, Houston, TX, trexhouston.com
4. Kata Robata
Japanese-born chef and four-time James Beard Award semifinalist Manabu Horiuchi has delighted sushi fans in Houston since 2009.
Chef Hori's credentials include graduating from the prestigious Tsuji Culinary Institute of Japan and certification in preparing fugu (blowfish).
At his restaurant in the Upper Kirby neighborhood, you'll find a casual setting for fresh sushi and sashimi served with premium ingredients.
I arrived for the first time a few minutes after opening at 11:40 a.m. on a Monday to find the Kata Robata already filling up. I sat at the sushi bar, my taste buds primed and ready.
Salmon, quail egg, and black truffle comprised a bite of warm luxury. Japanese amberjack sashimi comes with a generous portion of melt-in-your-mouth foie gras.
Beyond the imported seafood from Japan, often featured in daily specials, there's the robata, a traditional cooking technique using hot charcoal.
Try the Texas wagyu katsu sando with Japanese-style milk bread. Chicken skewers are prepared in three ways: spicy mentaiko, Osaka-style, and teriyaki.
The Chef's Premium Omakase experience is available for lunch or dinner.
3600 Kirby Dr, Suite H, Houston, TX, katarobata.com
Related: Best Sushi in Austin
5. Truth BBQ
Pitmaster Leonard Botello IV went from selling three briskets a day in 2015 from a shack in rural Brenham, Texas, to being rated the third-best BBQ joint in the state by Texas Monthly in 2021.
Long lines at Truth BBQ in Houston, his second location, soon followed.
The fatty brisket here is on par with Franklin Barbecue in Austin and, therefore, worth the wait (which, thankfully, is not as long as Franklin's). Truth BBQ is also known for its housemade sausage.
Savory sides include corn pudding, mac 'n cheese, and tater tot casserole, and for veggie lovers, there are green beans and Brussels sprouts.
Botello's mom, Janel, and head baker Laquita Wilkins bake the cakes. The enormous slices can be bought without waiting in the BBQ line.
110 S Heights Blvd, Houston, TX, truthbbq.com
Related: Best BBQ in Austin
Indian food lovers will find much to appreciate about chef Anita Jaisinghani's second Houston restaurant, Pondicheri.
The full menu features modern takes on traditional dishes, from Punjab's butter chicken to Mumbai street food and Goa pork.
I savored a bowl of lamb keema, minced lamb meat in a tomato cardamom yogurt masala with wild mushrooms and naan.
Meatless Mondays encourage the exploration of Pondicheri's vegetarian and vegan offerings.
The industrial interior felt a little cold on a rainy autumn day; however, it wasn't hard to imagine a restaurant and patio full of happy diners on a sunnier one.
The contents of the pastry counter, by the cashier where you place your order, are unmissable. Ginger cloud, chocolate chili, and lavender cookies are a few sweet treats available.
Head upstairs to the second-floor Bake Lab for a complete selection of cookies, cakes, and confections to enjoy with chai tea.
2800 Kirby Dr, B132, Houston, TX, pondicheri.com
7. Ninfa's on Navigation
The Original Ninfa's on Navigation Boulevard is known for its beef fajitas.
In 1973, "Mama" Ninfa Laurenzo began serving grilled skirt steak in handmade flour tortillas at this location, helping to popularize the dish in Houston.
The Original Ninfa's was bought by Legacy Restaurants in 2005, and together with executive chef Alex Padilla, they've built on Mama's recipes.
Margaritas and Tex-Mex are on the menu here. On my first visit, I was impressed by the Elote Loco — Mexican street corn on the cob, with Huitlacoche aioli, cotija cheese, and bone marrow on the side.
The generously-sized pieces of chargrilled sliced steak stuffed in each fajita are also noteworthy. If you have room for dessert, try the tres leches cake.
Ninfa's lives up to its reputation as a preeminent place for Tex-Mex and one of the best restaurants in Houston.
2704 Navigation Blvd, Houston, TX, ninfas.com
8. Xin Chao
One of the best new restaurants to open in recent years is Xin Chao (which translates as "hi" in Vietnamese).
Vietnamese American co-executive chefs Christine Ha and Tony J. Nguyen had previously opened their own restaurants in Houston before joining forces.
Ha had The Blind Goat in Bravery Chef Hall, and Nguyen was a partner at Saigon House. Together at Xin Chao, they were 2022 James Beard Award finalists for Best Chef — Texas.
Ten years earlier, chef Ha had been a contestant on MasterChef with Gordon Ramsay, and several items on the menu today are riffs on dishes from her experience.
I got the Caramelized Salmon with Rice, a version of another dish she cooked for her MasterChef audition, and the sauce was fabulous.
Additional mains on the lunch menu include Texas BBQ Fried Rice, Lemongrass Pork with Vermicelli, and a six-ounce American Wagyu Smashburger. All are from $14 to $17.
The Rubbish Apple Pie a la Mode is another dish that impressed Gordon Ramsay.
The menu indicates chef Ha has tweaked her recipe using star anise, ginger, lemongrass, vanilla ice cream, and fish sauce caramel. It's a one-of-a-kind dessert you won't want to miss.
2310 Decatur St, Houston, TX, xinchaohtx.com
9. Blood Bros. BBQ
The perfect place to try a new approach to barbecue is Blood Bros. BBQ.
It wasn't the brisket that impressed me the most. Nor was it the Gochujang glazed pork ribs or pork belly fried bao buns.
No, it was the mighty Pig Moe sandwich with pulled pork, melted provolone-mozzarella cheese, and blueberry habanero sauce on grilled Hawaiian bread.
I only wish I'd begun with this epic sandwich instead of ending with it, as I was so full by then I couldn't manage more than a few bites.
For his skills and willingness to take risks, pitmaster Quy Hoang was named a 2022 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef — Texas.
The backstory of how Blood Bros. BBQ began and became one of Houston's best restaurants is in Smithsonian Magazine.
5425 Bellaire Blvd, Bellaire, TX, bloodbrosbbq.com
10. Hobbit Cafe
A few blocks east of Kata Robata is the Hobbit Cafe, which began as a vegetarian restaurant in 1972.
After its first ten years, the cafe expanded the menu to include meats, and today it features a host of hobbit-sized sandwiches, burgers, brunch foods, and Mexican fare.
An extensive beer and mead menu is also available, making it a great place to take advantage of happy hour. Outdoor seating is available under a giant oak tree.
Famous guests to have stopped by this Shire-inspired cafe include Neil Young, Jack Nicholson, and Depeche Mode.
2243 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX, hobbitcafehtx.com
The best restaurants in Houston cater to people of all persuasions, from fine dining at BCN Taste & Tradition to fantasy-inspired fans of J.R.R. Tolkien.
My foodie adventures in H-town have only begun, and I'll continue seeking great food and service on future trips (and sharing the best places here).