What they’re eating in Houston, Texas

Viet-Cajun crawfish, fried okra tempura and steak: here's what and where to eat in this American metropolis. 

By Sarah Barrell
Published 24 Apr 2020, 07:00 BST
Dish served at Ambrosia
Ambrosia fuses South Asian spices with American ingredients to create “new Indian” dishes.
Photograph by Ambrosia

Houston is a city that confounds stereotypes at every turn. In recent years the fast-expanding Texan city has several times eclipsed New York and LA as the most ethnically diverse in America. In much of the state, fusion food is a byword for Tex-Mex but in Houston you’ll struggle to find a burrito-eating blue colour worker, and 10 Gallon hats are in scant supply. Instead you’ll find a young, arty demographic hanging out at Ethiopian restaurants, vegan cafes, Middle Eastern delis, cold press coffee shops, and “new American” comfort food joints. GQ magazine recently dubbed Houston “capital of southern cool” while celebrity restaurateur David Chang reckons it’s America’s most exciting food city, wowed by the local-born trend for Viet-Cajun that sees the region’s sizeable Vietnamese population conjure spicy magic from the classic Louisiana-Texan crawfish broil.

While lunching office workers have traditionally beaten retreat from Houston’s fierce heat in the city’s six miles of subterranean tunnels, the burgeoning crop of new food halls is bringing buzzy life to downtown streets. Eight have opened since 2016 alone, bringing the city’s food truck stars, and chef-led pop-ups to a fixed venue, with everything from sushi to classic Texan brisket served under one air-conditioned roof. Meanwhile, such new food tours as Best Bites, are making the most of Downtown’s rich scene, including some newly emerging craft cocktail stop-offs. But it’s not all happening Downtown: Houston is just 40 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico, where Galveston Island, has 30 miles of sandy coastline, grand 19th mansions and an opera house that recalls it’s heyday as America’s wealthiest port city, plus a menu of international eats that once again reflects residents’ rainbow ethnic diversity.

Six dishes

Viet-Cajun crawfish, at Crawfish & Noodle
Native to nearby New Orleans, the classic cayenne-forward Cajun crawfish broil has been given new lease of life – and viral celebrity via online food channels – thanks to the addition of ginger, chilli, fish sauce and various Vietnamese spices. This rising star dish was acknowledged by the American food “Oscars” the James Beard Awards, when cooked by 2018 semi-finalist Trong Nguyen, whose Crawfish & Noodle restaurant is among the numerous places to try the mudbugs cooked in French butter, topped with immodest mountains of freshly-chopped garlic. Meanwhile at UB Preserve, buzzy new incarnation of chef Chris Shepherd’s pioneering Underbelly, sample American-Viet Crawfish Dan Dan noodles, plus dumplings, king crab, and ribs punchy with pan-Asian spices.

Masala Lamb Lollipops, at Ambrosia
America’s hipper cities have discovered Indian cuisine (not a standard offering in the US), and run with it, fusing South Asian spices with American ingredients to create some utterly indulgent “new Indian” dishes, such as these lamb chops at Ambrosia, pimped with tandoori masala, ginger juice, and chilli jam. Team them with Japanesian Brussels, flash fried with ponzu & kecap manis, topped with parmesan and not only will your taste buds thank you, you’ll likely never return to regular Christmas Brussels again. 

Okra tempura bites are among the new American comfort food on offer at Kulture.
Photograph by Kulture

Fried okra tempura, at Kulture
Flash fried rather than the traditional broil, these okra bites are among the new American comfort food on offer at Kulture, along with collared greens, black-eyed pea fritters, Gulf shrimp with grits, and Johnny Cakes (fried cornflour balls). This 2019 opening by Marcus Davis, of Houston’s beloved Breakfast Klub, Kulture takes fried chicken and waffles and other staples of Deep South comfort food to an experimental level. Chef Dawn Burrell uses Afro Caribbean and American ingredients to riff on classics, with menus annotated with tales of Southern black history culinary heritage. The 100% scratch kitchen includes a cocktail bar where veggies sit pickling in countertop jars. A gallery of local art adorns walls, and Kulture also hosts jazz brunches, film screenings, and salon dinners focused on cultural discussions complete with artfully themed menus. 

Shawarma, at  Phoenicia Foods
These richly spiced, galicky lamb and chicken wraps are Phoenicia Foods’ signature but this mega-deli serves everything from Syrian olive oil and Slavic sausage, to Russian caviar and American pot pies, along with meats, cheeses, preserves, wines and kitchenware from across the world. Phoenicia blends its own range of spices, bakes countless baklava; a cavernous one-stop, two-storey shop set up by husband and wife team Arpi and Zohrab Tcholakian, Lebanese immigrants almost four decades in Houston. The on-site restaurant bar does a roaring trade from breakfast through to after dinner drinks.

Pork belly bites and more, at Houston’s new food halls
In 2019 Downtown Houston added yet more food halls to its burgeoning scene of upscale culinary courts offering breakfast, lunch, happy hour drinks, dinner and often weekend brunch, too. Among the notables, Fin Hall, set in a Houston’s handsome PMorgan Chase & Co Art Deco skyscraper, serves signature pork belly bites at Dish Society – part of the condensed version of the menu served at owner Aaron Lyon's other Houston food locations.

Chef-driven micro restaurants come one roof at nearby Bravery Chef Hall where The Blind Goat serves Asian-American comfort food devised by Masterchef champ’ Christine Ha, Cherry Block Butcher + Kitchen triumphs at Texan grills like blackened catfish with alligator sausage, while KOKORO serves a flavourful of assortment of sushi, sashimi and rice dishes by a sushi chef duo from Houston’s feted UCHI. 

Prime steak, Vargas Cut & Catch
Fried green tomatoes topped with jumbo lump crab, and lobster bisque join meaty headliners of Prime and Waygu beef at the newly opened Vargas Cut & Catch. Proof that surf ‘n’ turf can be a refined affair, this is the latest venue for Rudy and Paco Vargas, long-standing Nicaraguan immigrants to Galveston Island, whose eponymous Restaurant & Bar across the street sets a Texan standard for fine dining from the Central Americas. 

Where to stay

With women as executive chef, designer, architect, key stakeholders, and general manager, plus a name that recalls the tenacious 19th “Mother of Houston” Charlotte Baldwin, C. Baldwin sets industry standards. Guestrooms overlook Downtown’s skyscrapers, while the ground floor’s buzzy lobby-bar-reception demands lingering.

Boutique sister to beachfront landmark, Hotel Galvez, The Tremont House – all cool white paintwork, marble, planter’s chairs and ceiling fans – has a rooftop cocktail bar overlooking Galveston Island’s working port and 19th century downtown streets (cobbled with English bricks once used as ballast). 

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