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Houston is Poised to Become America's Next Great Food City

It’s widely known that Houston, America’s fourth largest metropolis, is also the country’s most ethnically diverse. Now officially a minority-majority city, with Harris County at 31% white, 42% Hispanic, 19% Black, and 8% Asian, its rapid growth and diversification is mirrored by its booming restaurant scene. Houston is now home to seemingly every cuisine on the planet, spread throughout city limits in different neighborhoods, dining formats, food halls, and hotels. The fact that, despite its massive size and urban amenities, the city still remains affordable (at least compared to other large cities like Chicago, L.A., and New York) is a boon to its restaurant culture, in that lower costs of doing business beget sustainability.  

For local chefs and out-of-towners alike, opening and operating restaurants in Space City has its appeals — a captive dining audience in the millions and a growing tourism industry means more hungry mouths to feed, while the city offers a similar metropolitan ecosystem to America’s largest foodie hubs, at a fraction of the cost.  The results? A veritable blank slate for chefs, bakers, pastry chefs, brewers, and mixologists to chase their dreams and fulfill them. And the dining public, from lifelong locals to new visitors catching on to Houston’s potential, are reaping the rewards. No longer an overlooked city in the shadows of other Southern stars like Austin or New Orleans, Houston is poised to become America’s next great food city, and restaurants like these are paving the way. (Photo: Bludorn beef Wellington by Michael Anthony)

Ostia

The perfect example of Houston’s magnetic draw for chefs and entrepreneurs, chef Travis McShane returned to his hometown — via a stint working at some of New York City’s most hallowed institutions — to open his own restaurant, in a market that’s far more affordable and hungry for innovation. Enter: Ostia, a chic wood-fired modern Italian restaurant with a wide-open kitchen and an indoor-outdoor feel thanks to lush planters and greenhouse-like glass walls. Located in the bustling Montrose neighborhood, Ostia features a fresh, Mediterranean-minded menu that exhibits restraint and skill, a clear nod to quality over quantity. The concise menu offers dishes that sound simple, yet burst with color, flavor, and wood-fired flavor, like a pitch-perfect roast chicken draped in lemon juice and salsa verde, bright slivers of delicate crudo flecked with almonds and ricotta salata, and thin-crust pizzas, fresh and fragrant from the oven, layered with thin slices of potato. (Photo: Jenn Duncan)

Bludorn

Elsewhere in Montrose, affirming the neighborhood as one of the nation’s buzziest for food-centric travelers, Bludorn is one of the biggest home run hits of the pandemic era. Opened in 2020, the stunning New American restaurant is the namesake passion project for chef Aaron Bludorn, another New York City transplant who opted to resettle in Houston, his wife Victoria’s hometown, to fulfill his culinary dreams. Flecked with tinges of French influence and Gulf Coast sensibilities, the restaurant is the kind of stunning, convivial space you’d expect to find in Manhattan or South Beach, offering a see-and-be-seen vibe without the pretense. Along with his wife as operations manager and general manager Cherif Mbodji, himself the consummate hospitality professional exuding welcoming warmth, Bludorn has cooked up a restaurant worthy of Houston’s restaurant renaissance, beckoning an exciting new era with envelope-pushing cuisine, top-tier cocktails, and an ambience sure to awe any discerning metropolitan diner. The seasonally minded dinner menu is a veritable choose-your-own adventure of shareable plates and elegant comfort food, with dishes like chermoula-spiced octopus, a hefty lobster-chicken pot pie, and blackened grouper seasoned with black garlic, tamarind, Thai basil, and green papaya, a flavorful homage to Mbodji’s home country of Senegal. Desserts offer a grand finale in the form of a whimsical baked Alaska and the Rocher Brûlée, an ode to the chocolate-hazelnut Ferrero Rocher candies. The future is only looking brighter for team Bludorn, too, as the group recently secured a huge space in Rice Village for their second Houston restaurant. (Photo: Julie Soefer)

Rosalie Italian Soul

Yet another example of Houston’s position as a national food city, Rosalie Italian Soul is a newer addition to the downtown dining scene, spotlighting classic-inspired Italian fare from San Francisco-based celebrity chef Chris Cosentino. Named after his first-generation Italian great-grandmother, Rosalie Cosentino, the restaurant on the ground floor of the C. Baldwin Hotel is a palpable love letter to family, heritage, and humble beginnings — albeit glammed up with Top Chef-worthy presentation, of course. The bill of fare at this retro, pretty-in-pink restaurant is old-school Italian-meets-playful modernity, like a New England-inspired bowlful of clams and shells, basil-scented meatballs, and a whopping whole chicken Parm, melting with buttery Burrata. Rosalie is also one of Houston’s most exciting spots for brunch, with hearty weekend-friendly plates like a strawberry-Nutella pizza, fried chicken sandwiches with Calabrian maple syrup, creamy breakfast polenta, and more of that whole chicken Parm, this time with eggs. 

Musaafer

To call Musaafer an Indian restaurant would be like calling Disney World a playground. This drop-dead gorgeous fine dining spot, curiously situated on the second floor of The Galleria, is a feast for the senses, starting with decadent decor inspired by — and sourced from — travels through 29 states of India. Gilded statues, soaring columns, and elaborate art pieces throughout the sprawling restaurant transport guests on a journey of their own. The name, Musaafer, means “traveler,” and that’s precisely what you’ll experience as you rove through the modern Indian menu, starting with fenugreek-scented foie gras cookies with cherry chutney, char-grilled tandoori hen with root vegetable carpaccio, and dabeli, a seasoned potato mash with milk bread, peanuts, and a serrano-scorched date chutney. Main courses include extravagant plates like beef short ribs with literal 24-karat edible gold and a “butter chicken experience,” which should clue you in to the fact that Musaafer is anything but your standard Indian restaurant. (Photo: Matt Kirouac)

POST Houston

Food halls continue to be all the rage across the U.S. these days, with new ventures taking shape and elevating the template with original chef-driven concepts and unique design elements. But POST Houston is truly in a league all its own. Located inside the massive Barbara Jean Post Office building downtown, the food hall comprises part of a massive community hub for art, music, and skyline views from the expansive rooftop garden. Curated by Top Chef winner and local heavy-hitter Paul Qui, POST Houston defies food hall standards with a soaring, staggering space and a dizzying roster of next-level restaurants. Much of the concepts are original to the food hall, including seafood-centric Golfstrømmen, the first U.S. venture from acclaimed Norwegian chef Christopher Haatuft. Celebrating Houston’s ethnic diversity and putting it on full display, there’s also South American fare at Andes Café, hulking fried chicken sandwiches from Lea Jane’s Hot Chicken, West African rice bowls from ChòpnBlok, and Pakistani-inspired paratha rolls from Rollin Phatties, among many others. (Photo: Golfstrømmen)

Wild Oats

As one of the most prolific restaurant groups in town, Underbelly Hospitality has been responsible for some of Houston’s most revered dining outlets, like Georgia James and Underbelly Burger. Their latest is Wild Oats, an edible homage to the foodways and native ingredients of Texas, located at the Houston Farmers Market. Chef/partner Nick Fine is at the helm, sourcing many ingredients from the farmers market around him — like mole from Los Cavazos, used to enrich flash-fried vegetables — and cooking dishes on a grill designed by acclaimed Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin. Proving that “Texas cuisine” goes far beyond Tex-Mex tropes and barbecue, Fine taps into regional traditions, flavors, and techniques found throughout the enormous state, from Gulf Coast shrimp to panhandle quail kissed with ember-roasted bacon. If there’s one single dish that exemplifies the Lone Star vision, it’s the burly chicken-fried steak, made with a hearty slab of wagyu from the market’s R-C- Ranch butcher shop. Inspired by Texas cattle drives, wherein ranchers would fry their steaks in bacon grease leftover from breakfast, the dish adorns the glorious filet with bacon-poblano gravy. (Photo: Claudia Casbarian)

Back Table Kitchen & Bar

Proof of the widespread culinary growth throughout the Houston metro area, far beyond the borders of buzzy neighborhoods like Montrose and The Heights, Back Table Kitchen & Bar is full-blown destination dining at The Woodlands Resort just north of the city. The homey restaurant, the anchor dining outlet at the lush, peaceful resort, Back Table Kitchen & Bar sports a menu of modern Southern-inspired cooking from award-winning chef Jonathan Lestingi. Recognized by both Michelin and James Beard, the chef comes to the restaurant by way of New Orleans, where he most recently racked up accolades at his Bywater restaurant, Oxalis. Now, he’s rolling out a parade of playful, shareable Southern plates, like a biscuit-clad ham and pimento cheese board, beer batter fish sticks with dill weed buttermilk tartar sauce, blackened redfish with Creole cream cheese tzatziki, and Bordeaux-braised short ribs so meltingly tender that knives are rendered useless. Desserts are anything but an afterthought, too. This is the kind of place that, after polishing off short ribs and ham platters, you won’t be able to stop eating the Old Fashioned tres leches cake, inspired by an orange-scented, bourbon-splashed Old Fashioned cocktail. 

Koffeteria

Yet another chef who made his way back home to fulfill his dreams, pastry chef Vanarin Kuch set up shop with this wildly inventive bakery and cafe in East Downtown, aka EaDo. Modern and eclectic, Koffeteria takes a WiIlly Wonka-like approach to pastries, with Kuch cooking up an always-changing roster of dazzling desserts and baked goods, both savory and sweet. A few items, like deep-dish chocolate chip cookies and breakfast tacos stuffed with Chinese sausage, remain menu mainstays, but most everything else rotates on a near-daily basis. On any given morning, you can rise and shine with a loaded baked potato kolache (dense milk roll buns erupting with mashed potatoes, sour cream, Oaxaca cheese, and green onions), tri-colored Neapolitan brownies, banana bread Kouign-Amann, flaky Cambodian pesto rolls, and even a Hot Cheetohs croissant, filled with molten nacho cheese. Espresso drinks are just as whimsical, like the mulled wine mocha and the the Salty Cambodian, a latte with sweetened condensed milk, Maldon salt, and sourdough butter. (Photo: Matt Kirouac)

Anvil Bar & Refuge

Hot on the heels of Houston’s restaurant revival, Anvil Bar & Refuge is a potable example of the city’s equally striking cocktail scene. Showered with national praise and awards, the Montrose bar, a pioneer on the local drinking landscape, has been raising the bar since opening in 2009 — and it remains more in-demand than ever. The lengthy lineup of housemade bitters and artisanal spirits are meticulously and specifically chosen by the dexterous barkeeps, who preside over an ever-changing list of original cocktails and The 100 List, an impressive portfolio of always-on classics. At any given time, look for dazzling originals like the Trading Post, a bracing quaff of overproof bourbon, corn liqueur, and maple, or Monsoon Season, a creamy medley of rum, banana, Verjus, orgeat, and whipped tiki cream. Anvil also offers a curated selection of craft beer and wine, and snacks like charcuterie boards, pastrami sandwiches, and salty seafood conservas. (Photo: Anvil Bar & Refuge)

March

For even more mixology mastery, and so much more, head down the street to March. This Montrose restaurant is a mecca of Mediterranean-inspired swagger and sophistication, featuring dynamic tasting menus concentrating on hyper-regional flavors, dishes, and drinks. Prix fixe plates are always evolving at this date night-worthy haven, with recent examples like citrusy scarlet beets with anise hyssop, buttery bearnaise-splashed brandade, porcini consomme spiced with horseradish, lamb heart with salsify, and a chiboust of elderflower, cassis, and apple. The wine list is a deep dive into Old World and New World bottles and pairings, while intricate and artful cocktails, like an artichoke-scented Mai Tai variation, come from bar manager Alex Negranza. (Photo: Julie Soefer)

Guard & Grace

One of the latest out-of-town chefs to leave his mark on Houston, Troy Guard made his local debut with a downtown outpost of his Denver-based steakhouse stunner, Guard & Grace. Modern, sleek, and swanky, the restaurant takes the steakhouse formula to indulgent new levels, by offering prosciutto tasting flights, oyster platters, grand seafood towers, and a filet flight of gold-grade Wagyu from Snake River Farms. In case all that wasn’t rich enough, steaks can be adorned with crab Oscar or Bearnaise, and sides include chipotle-lime smashed potatoes and black truffle mac & cheese. (Photo: Guard & Grace Houston)

Matt Kirouac

Written by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac is a Chicago-based food and travel writer, editor and author. After graduating culinary school, he took his education in a different direction, writing for companies like Daily Candy, Kimpton Hotels, TripExpert, Flight Network, Time Out, Food Fanatics magazine, Brand USA and numerous others. Currently, he works for Zagat, Plate and other freelance positions. His first book, The Hunt Guides: Chicago, came out in 2016, and his next book, Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, hits shelves at the end of 2017.

Read more posts by Matt Kirouac

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