When your cousin announces he and his family are moving to Houston, TX, it’s natural to feel sad. Especially when your cousin is an excellent cook who feeds you on a bimonthly basis. It is sad and you have to embrace the sad… But then you remember that you now have a place to stay in Houston! I am, of course, speaking from experience – this is too specific a scenario to be hypothetical. I am the formerly sad girl who planned a trip to Houston to meet up with her food-loving cousin and his awesome family. And, as expected, my foodie relatives did not let me leave before I sampled some of their favorite eats in their new city. What follows is an account of everything I managed to eat during my two days in Houston, which I think is an impressive amount. Welcome to Houston Eats: Everything I Ate in Houston.
The Bodega Breakfast Taco
This is a magical animal that I have yet to find in Toronto. Oh, we have breakfast tacos. But we don’t have high-quality convenience store breakfast tacos. At most, we have the taquitos from 7-Eleven, and you really don’t want to do that to yourself. But in Houston, there are a plethora of strip malls and in those strip malls, you can find Hispanic convenience stores selling all manner of groceries, fresh pastries, tamales and, yes, breakfast tacos.
We were on our way to my cousin’s oldest daughter’s softball game when we made a pit stop for this particular breed of taco. We selected egg & chorizo and bean & cheese. They were hastily made, wrapped in tin foil, and tossed into a plastic bag alongside mini-tubs of hot sauce and salsa verde. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, they were damn good. I’m not mentioning how they were packed to criticize. The tinfoil wrapper, the flimsy plastic bag, the containers of sauce; it’s all part of experiencing the bodega breakfast taco. Eat ‘em in front of a baseball diamond and let the Americana wash over you.
Huynh Restaurant – 912 St Emanuel St
I feel my obsession with pho and Vietnamese food has been amply expressed on this blog. So it should come as no surprise that I felt it necessary to hunt down a bowl of pho while in Houston. Fortunately, good pho is not hard to find in Houston. The city has a very strong and vibrant Vietnamese community and has the restaurants to prove it.
Knowing my fondness for pho, my cousin selected Huynh Restaurant for our post softball lunch. He hadn’t been yet, but the restaurant had been receiving a considerable amount of buzz. The dish to get was the Bun Mang Vit, a duck rice noodle soup flavored with fermented bamboo shoots. I can see why it is a dish of note, the flavor is pretty different, so different that it’s a little off-putting at first. After sip number two, it becomes increasingly addictive. After sip number 3, I thought, “Great! Now I’m going to have to track down fermented bamboo shoots in Toronto.” Sigh! A food fanatic’s work is never done.
West Alabama Ice House
I was pretty desperate to hit up an ice house while I was in Texas. I had first heard about the Texas ice house tradition on a podcast about Hidden Kitchens and I was enchanted by the idea of them.
Ice Houses were literally the houses where ice was stored. They became informal places to gather because Texas gets, well, hot and an ice house is just a smart place to drink. Ice Houses served beer and often acted as early convenience stores. In fact, the 7-Eleven brand evolved from an ice house. Eventually, when people no longer needed warehouses to store ice, the ice house tradition continued as open air bars.
The West Alabama Ice House has been in existence since 1928 and it seems to be as popular today as it was then. When we visited, we picked up a few local brews and settled into a picnic table a sensible distance from the live band. There was a crawfish boil in progress and most people were bent over giant styrofoam containers brimming with crawfish and chunks of corn on the cob. A few people had tacos from the truck across the street and the smell of BBQ from another nearby truck was enough to make me hungry in spite of being full of pho. Adorable dogs were everywhere hoping to snag a fallen crawfish or two and a couple of guys were shooting hoops precariously close to a table covered in plastic cups of beer. The ease of the entire place was contagious. I miss it. If you’re in Texas, you have to find an ice house.
Anvil Bar & Refuge – 1424 Westheimer Rd
We had pre-dinner drinks here and, quite honestly, they threatened to steal the show. The people at Anvil Bar & Refuge take mixology very seriously. This is not a style-over-substance situation as it so often is when it comes to cocktails. Anvil Bar has a staff of inventive but down-to-earth mixologists behind the bar. They make their own bitters and tinctures and have an impressive collection of well-made spirits at their disposal. Clearly, they are just as interested in the building blocks as they are in the final drink.
The menu is a 17-page affair filled with classics, classics-with-a-twist, and one-of-kind cocktails. My boyfriend took one look at the menu and decided he was home. He selected a Sazerac as his first drink because he was skeptical about the size of the menu and wanted to assess the place based on their handling of more classic cocktails. I was way less methodical and selected a so-called “Anvil Classic” cocktail called Pliny’s Tonic. I was seduced by the house-made habanero tincture listed in its ingredients. In the end, neither of us were disappointed and we left tipsy, happy and full of ideas.
Underbelly – 1100 Westheimer Rd
Ok, so I told you about Anvil and their delicious, delicious cocktails, right? Well, Underbelly is where we stumbled to next. It is also where we polished off two (maybe three?) bottles of wine, so I don’t have the best memory of the latter part of the meal, but I will do my best to remember what I ate. There is little point in highlighting particular dishes anyway, the menu changes constantly… No, I can’t let myself off the hook – I’m sorry. I’m a bad food reporter. Anyway, let’s jump into what I do remember.
Underbelly has laidback elegance down! I was seduced by the window-lined aging room populated with delicious cured meats, charmed by the containers of cutlery and chopsticks at every table, and swoony at the built-to-share menu. Our server was polite, knowledgeable and all about the establishment, which I really like in a server. We asked him to plan our culinary adventure for us and he put together a balanced (in terms of textures and flavors, certainly not nutrition) and well-paced meal. We had an awesome roast beet salad with pepita brittle, impossible delicious fish sauce spiked broccoli, goat shredded in a glossy gochujang-based sauce, and a smoked beef shoulder that was perfectly charred on the outside and sous vide tender on the inside. I know there was more, but alas, I was drunk.
Killen’s Barbeque – 3613 E Broadway St, Pearland, TX
Generally, I’m allergic to lines. I always kind of snicker at people who line up for things like rainbow bagels or cronuts. But I lined up for Killen’s BBQ and I would again. It also helped that I was lining up in sunshiny Houston instead of gray Toronto. That does make it a lot more bearable.
The operation is set up like a cafeteria. You tell the nice man with all the smoked meat how many pounds (yes, they price everything by the pound) of which meat you would like and he gives it to you. It’s a pretty good system. I let my cousin take charge and we wound up with a bounty of perfectly smoked brisket, the best pork ribs I’ve ever had, and smoked sausages with a glossy skin that gave a satisfying snap when you bit into it. We also had coleslaw and collard greens because “balance”. Oh and the pickled jalapenos at this place are ah-mazing and on the house. So in closing, you should probably go. If not for the food then for the big smoking rigs at the rear of the restaurant. I want to call them “impressive” but that doesn’t even begin to cover it.
So that is a complete list of all of the Houston Eats I managed to cram into a short two day. What did I miss? Tell me what you can’t wait to get at when you arrive in Houston in the comments below. Tell me because I’m definitely going back – there are so many things to eat.