To truly understand the soul of a city, eat what the locals say are their favorite foods. To eat anywhere in Houston is to savor the flavors of the city’s rich past and immediate present. From Tex Mex and Cajun flavors to traditional French and modern Asian, this vibrant metropolitan area serves up some of the country’s most original and inspired fare. Whether brand new or on the menu for 40-plus years, these are some of the city’s favorite dishes so you can dine like a local in Houston on your next visit.
Fajitas, Ninfa’s on Navigation
The great American culinary lexicon would simply not be the same were it not for “Mama Ninfa” Laurenzo and her creation that launched a thousand imitators: fajitas. Known for a short time after their 1973 invention as tacos al carbon, Mama Ninfa’s innovation features sliced skirt steak seasoned with salt, pepper, and soy sauce. The not-so-secret seasoning, seared into the meat over white oak and pecan wood-stoked flames, adds a rounded smokiness to this Tex Mex classic. Executive chef Alex Padilla, who grew up at Ninfa’s while his mom cooked with Mama Ninfa, continues Mama Ninfa’s tradition of serving these world-renowned “little strips” in housemade corn tortillas. Thankfully, some things never change. Make a reservation at Ninfa’s.
Organic “Heritage” Chicken Roasted with Pinot Noir, La Table-Château
With tables draped in white linen and wrap-around chairs designed for optimal comfort, La Table-Château is a restaurant where the term “fine dining” literally means being comfortable while you eat. Known for their tableside presentations, La Table–Château showcases chicken in a style both rare and perfectly suited for the scene. Organic “Heritage” Chicken Roasted with Pinot Noir is presented whole in the pan. Witness the bird expertly carved and served. Savor the amazing flavors of vegetables bathed in aromatics and pan juices. The side of puréed potatoes is the perfect accompaniment touch to this soul-warming meal. Make a reservation at La Table-Château.
Jumbo Lump Crab Meat and Avocado, Star Fish
Opened earlier this year, Star Fish exudes the charm of an airy, coast-side bistro, and the food focuses on the gifts of the sea and shore. Executive chef Armando Ramirez brings his global experience to Star Fish and shows off his training in European and Asian flavors as well as his commitment to southeast Texas. Jumbo Lump Crab Meat and Avocado features blue crab pulled from nearby Galveston Bay atop a Japanese-style cucumber salad dressed with sweet rice vinegar, soy, and ginger oil. Reminiscent of Sunomono, a family of vinegary vegetable salads common in Japanese cuisine, the dish has gained a loyal following in just a few months with its inimitable local flavor. Make a reservation at Star Fish.
Smoked Duck and Sausage Gumbo, Rainbow Lodge
One glance at the warmly lit interior of this 100-year-old hunting lodge is all that’s needed to understand the long-running appeal of Rainbow Lodge, but grab a cushioned seat to more deeply experience why this place has held the attention of Houstonians for over a century. The menu from chef Mark Schmidt is anchored by game meats like venison and elk and spans continents and flavors with ease. South Texas Antelope Loin with smoked mustard glacé and jalapeños nimbly crosses the German-Mexican divide, but the item that speaks fluently to locals is Smoked Duck and Andouille Sausage Gumbo with Wild Rice Pilaf. Since its first menu appearance in 1987, head cook Pascual Garcia has prepared this dish, smoking the whole Pekin duck over apple wood, roasting the bird’s bones for the stock, and shredding the meat just so. Prepared in a thicker style, this gumbo nourished countless souls at hunting camps and mountain adventures but reached iconic status when served at post-Harvey healing events. Make a reservation at Rainbow Lodge.
Red Snapper with Green Curry, Third Coast
Seasonal produce and local seafood are not usually thought of as ingredients of caring and comfort. Third Coast, perched at the top of the Texas Medical Center, begs to differ. Its name a reference to Houston’s strength in health innovation, Third Coast highlights natural, sustainable, and local ingredients that will inspire anyone looking to eat well. Chef Jon Buchanan’s Red Snapper with Green Curry is a nod to the local Vietnamese community, capturing the essence of modern Houston. Wild-caught Gulf snapper, its skin crisped, is served tail-on and garnished with locally sourced, cilantro-flecked vegetable slaw. The dish’s side of Lemongrass-Ginger Rice soothes with the flavors and mainstay ingredients of southeast Asia and may be the single most comforting food on the planet. Make a reservation at Third Coast.
Carpet Bagger on the Half Shell, B&B Butchers
Inspired by a dish proprietor Benjamin Berg enjoyed while at school in New Orleans, the Carpet Bagger on the Half Shell fits into the Cajun-Southern tradition that filters through Houston’s revved-up food scene. Filet mignon is topped with thick bâtonnets of applewood-smoked bacon and a fried oyster fragrant with regional Cajun seasoning, and the dish wraps the meaty flavors with a cloak of housemade blue cheese dressing, then amps up the umami again with blue cheese crumbles and housemade hot sauce. Says Berg, “it is really an explosion of flavor. “ The presentation on a clay half shell seals the deal. Make a reservation at B&B Butchers.
Jumbo Lump Crab Cake, Killen’s Steakhouse
A must-order item since the restaurant opened in 2006, the aptly named Jumbo Lump Crab Cake is all about the flavorful crustacean. Four-point-five ounces of Texas-sized Gulf Coast-sourced crab folded with just enough egg, scallion, and holy trinity (onion, celery, and carrot) to allow for the word “cake” to be used make this crab a shining star on executive chef and owner Ronnie Killen’s menu. Killen gives this hunky nugget a quick pan sear before adding even more lump crab and topping it off with a large Gulf shrimp and a ripple of satiny lemon-butter emulsion. “Jumbo” simply does not capture this epic seafood experience. Make a reservation at Killen’s Steakhouse.
Chicken Asiago, D’Amicos Italian Market Café
Classic Italian-American fare like lasagna and tiramisu are the calling card of family-owned and operated D’Amico’s Italian Market Café. Owner Nash D’Amico credits his kitchen staff for designing local favorite Chicken Asiago. “We were playing around in the kitchen creating new dishes for our daily specials,” said D’Amico. The resulting panko-crusted and pan-seared chicken breast stuffed with Asiago cheese and fresh spinach was an immediate hit with customers who return again and again for the dish’s lemony cream sauce and side of perfectly cooked linguini marinara. The dish moved almost immediately from the specials menu to the regular menu, where it remains a daily best seller. Make a reservation at D’Amicos Italian Market Cafe.
What are your picks for where to dine like a local in Houston? Let us know here or over on Facebook, G+, Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter.And, remember to snap + share your #dishpics with us on Instagram for a chance to win in our weekly giveaway.
Christina Mueller is a San Francisco-based writer, epicurean adventurer, and culinary sleuth. Find her at http://christinamueller.com and follow her on Instagram @EatDrinkThink and Twitter @EatDrinkThink.
Photo credits: Cooper Rica (Ninfa’s on Navigation); Julie Soefer (Star Fish); Ralph Smith (Third Coast); Felix Sanchez (B&B Butchers); Kimberly Park (Killen’s); Paula Murphy (D’amico’s).