Since 2012, when he burst onto the scene with Underbelly, his celebrated snout-to-tail restaurant, Chris Shepherd has been the best-known evangelist of Houston’s food scene. Houston, he contends, is the “new-American Creole city of the South.” And he should know—the ever-changing menus at Underbelly (which was one of the best new restaurants on last year’s list) are essentially odes to the city’s motley, polyglot Gulf Coast culture, where Mexican, Cajun, Mediterranean, and Southeast Asian flavors mix with Southern influences in a wild melting pot. Drawing inspiration from this bonanza of global cuisine, restaurants like Underbelly, as well as Oxheart, Indika, Reef, and many others, have made Houston one of the most interesting dining scenes in the country over the past few years.

Recently, we asked Shepherd to help us choose twenty dishes that represent his city. It’s a familiar task: for the past four years, Shepherd has been leading gastronomic tours of the city that highlight many of these same foods. We also roped in some of his chef pals (you know that saying about “too many cooks”? Totally inaccurate), and together we concocted this spread. Don’t be surprised if you’ve already seen elements from this list popping up on the city’s trendiest menus: these are the muses of Houston dining.

1. Smoked boudin, Ray’s BBQ Shack 

2. Pot-roasted tilapia, Mala Sichuan

3. Fried chicken, Al Aseel 

4. Chilorio, Pico’s Mex-Mex 

5. BBQ pork banh mi, Don Café  

6. Morning thali, Pondicheri 

7. Rare steak pho, Pho Binh 

8. Barbacoa de borrego, El Hidalguense 

9. Mixed grill, Rainbow Lodge 

10. Fried catfish, Barbecue Inn 

11. Shrimp Chippewa, Brennan’s 

12. Butter-pecan ice cream, Hank’s 

13. Snapper a la parrilla, Golden Seafood 

14. Uni chawanmushi, Kata Robata 

15. Whole crab, Cajun Kitchen 

16. Beef tofu soup, Jang Guem 

17. Chicken hara masala, Himalaya 

18. Green papaya salad, Asia Market 

19. Long bone-in ribeye, Killen’s Steakhouse  

20. Cheese enchiladas + huevos, Spanish Village