You know that Houston is the most diverse city in Texas, yet what do you do every time you visit? You stay in the same hotel downtown, plan your typical pilgrimage to the Galleria, and make reservations at the usual restaurants. This time, stay at a hip Montrose B&B and explore the city anew by embarking on an international eating tour that would make Anthony Bourdain jealous (and might just get your kids interested in more than chicken strips and mac and cheese). To design your week-long feast, I enlisted the help of Chris Shepherd, the locavore-in-chief at Catalan. Known for his globally influenced menu, Shepherd has been ferreting out Houston’s most authentic fare for twelve years. His gastronomic plan of attack, which he mapped out on two sides of a cocktail napkin as we quaffed old-school libations at Anvil Bar and Refuge, leads to kitchens representing a dozen types of cuisine, including Indian, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Polish, Middle Eastern—and pie. Once you’ve had your fill, your stomach will never think of Houston the same way again.
Where To Stay
Forgo a cookie-cutter hotel and check into the Modern B&B, a contemporary eight-room town house in the eclectic (and walkable) Montrose neighborhood. You can really spread out in the top-floor Treehouse and City View rooms, which have private entrances, spacious spalike baths, and shaded verandas. Plus there’s a fully stocked kitchen, where you can whip up your own culinary delights.
What To Eat
British expats Naresh and Surekha Patel, who run London Sizzler, a tandoori house off Hillcroft and Southwest Freeway, lament that “noone knows what a tandoor is.” But just taste the grilled pleasures of their yogurt-and-garlic-marinated chicken wings and the generously spiced lamb kebabs and you’ll want one of the cylindrical clay ovens for your kitchen. You could fill up on the appetizers alone: lamb-stuffed samosas, fried cassava (“crispy mogo” on the menu), and sweet, pistachio-dusted peshwari naan (not on the menu, but just ask).
Soup dumplings at Fu Fu Cafe
After outgrowing the original Chinatown, on the eastern edge of downtown, Houston’s Asian community relocated many of its businesses to Bellaire Boulevard. Duck into Fu Fu Cafe for spicy Szechuan flat, clear noodles and green-onion pancakes, but don’t overlook the soup dumplings, which are inexplicably listed as “steam pork buns” on the menu. There are various techniques for eating these doughy sacks filled with spicy meat and salty broth; try poking a hole in the top with your chopstick to let the steam escape before gently guiding the whole thing into your trap. Hungry Fu Fu congregants waiting for a table will be watching your every bite.
Al pastor tacos at Jarro Cafe
Taco junkies don’t have to drive around for long in this town in search of their next fix. It seems a little too easy to pull into Jarro Cafe, a Spring Branch restaurant with an ancillary taco truck in the parking lot that boasts of having “the best tacos in town.” And yet, the campechano (an unusual chorizo-and-beef combo) and the pastor (red-chile-tinged pork with slices of fresh pineapple) will more than satisfy your needs. Try only a dot of the neon-green salsa—the hottest of Jarro’s five—before proceeding. For your Tex-Mex breakfast cravings, head to the East End for villa arcos’ substantial Chorizo Super, with egg, potato, beans, and oozing yellow cheese all wrapped up in a handmade flour tortilla.
Two disco balls and a full set of living room furniture add to the quirky vibe at Vieng Thai, a beloved hole-in-the-wall on Long Point Road that serves daring homestyle dishes. The menu isn’t watered down for the sake of delicate American stomachs, though the waitress might try to dissuade you from ordering the nam prik krapi, a fiery chile dip made with shrimp paste. But don’t let anyone talk you out of the som tum, a papaya salad served Laotian-style with a garlicky lime dressing and crunchy bits of crab claw.
Combination platter at Polonia
The dingy strip-mall exterior of this Polish restaurant on Blalock Road shouldn’t deter you from crossing the threshold into Polonia’s cozy old-world dining room. A red-and-white flag proclaiming “Pol-ska! Pol-ska!” hangs above a large TV tuned to a Polish station. So too does the food transport you to Warsaw. Before a hefty combination platter of kielbasa, slow-cooked chicken leg, golabki (cabbage rolls), meat loaf, baked pork, and deliciously greasy sauerkraut-and-mushroom pierogies comes out on a sizzling pan, warm up with a bowl of red borscht (beetroot soup) and a plate of fried potato pancakes.
At Cafe Lili, a homey Lebanese eatery on Westheimer, it’s not unusual to find the restaurant’s matriarch (and namesake) sitting at a small table puffing on a hookah. The familial ambience extends to the menu, which is laden with traditional Middle Eastern delights, like a minty fatoush salad with pita croutons, crispy-falafel sandwiches (served with fries), and cardamom coffee. Standing at the counter—with Lili waiting patiently to get back to her hookah—I made the executive decision to spring for the sampler plate. Mere adjectives don’t do the offerings—hummus (creamy), tabouleh (refreshing), baba ganouj (smoky), spinach and meat pies (flaky), and fried kibbeh (spicy)—justice.
The Best of the Rest
Spot prawns at Sinn Sinn
Photograph by Jordan Breal
Get: The puffed flatbread called roti canai and the laksa noodle soup.
Get: Thick, handmade, cheese-stuffed pupusas that make regular tortillas seem utterly insubstantial.
Get: A slot in one of the intimate monthly cooking classes at this imaginative Indian restaurant.