As the center of booming oil and gas industries, the common perception of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country, has been one of convention centers, steakhouses, and freeways. Recently, its local voice has started to drown out the noise of big business, thanks in large part to the leaders of its restaurant scene. From seafood programs that focus on local bycatch -- fish caught unintentionally in nets -- to a trendy nonprofit saloon, Houston is producing not only some of the most delicious, but also the most thought-provoking meals in the country. Here, a gastronomic hit list.
“The story of Houston food”—the motto of this restaurant—is apt. Having explored the kitchens of both fine-dining temples and hole-in-the-wall gems, chef Chris Shepherd shares his knowledge of the city in dishes like Korean rice dumplings, each a fiery missile burrowed in a pile of pulled goat, and the daily bycatch special, which on one recent trip was a fillet of mako shark with bone marrow vinaigrette and kabocha squash purée.
1100 Westheimer Rd.; UnderbellyHouston.com
This slip of a restaurant flies in defiance of the idea that Houston is a steakhouse town. Your only decision: five or seven courses. Once you’ve made it, chef Justin Yu will trot out a series of delicate, vegetable-heavy dishes that balance the cutting-edge with the comfortingly flavorful. Think heirloom carrots poached in coconut milk with smoked avocado, or beef tartare with a thin skin of kombu jelly.
1302 Nance St.; OxheartHouston.com
The Pass & Provisions
Everything about this comely newcomer is ambitious, including the fact that the building actually houses two separate eateries. On the left, Provisions is a warm, Italian-leaning tavern with exemplary housemade pasta. Then, behind a hidden door, is the Pass, a minimalist tasting-menu affair where “ham and eggs” translates to cracklins dusted in dehydrated pork alongside a tin of caviar and crème fraîche.
807 Taft St.; PassandProvisions.com
OKRA Charity Saloon
Located downtown, this bar is the brainchild of more than a dozen local restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, including Underbelly and Oxheart. Each month, it nominates four charities, and patrons get a vote for every drink they purchase. (Your best bets: the Boulevardier, a bourbon sidecar, or just ask for the bartender’s choice.) At the end of the month, the charity with the most votes receives the proceeds from that month’s sales.
924 Congress St.; FriedOKRA.org/Charity-Bar