Monday, March 02, 2009

Houston restaurants - What's missing?

Houston is proud of its food diversity. We have over 140 sushi, 450 Chinese, 170 Vietnamese, and 840 Mexican restaurants. In America, only New York and parts of California are more diverse.

But a lot of good cuisines are missing. There are types of food that every city with 5.6 million people should have. And we don't.

1. Portuguese. I love Portuguese food -- especially seafood stews. When I lived in Boston, there were countless Portuguese restaurants within 3 miles of my apartment. Houston only has Oporto, a Portuguese bar with a limited tapas menu.

2. German. After the Spanish, many of early European settlers to Texas were Germans. German place names are everywhere west of Houston. Yet our only German restaurants are Rudi Lechner's and Old Heidelberg. That's it. (It's a shame that Alfredo's sausage house on Montrose closed).

3. Ethiopian. I only know of two good Ethiopian restaurant in Houston - Addisaba and Blue Nile. Yet many smaller American cities, like Boston and D.C., have dozens.

4. Delis. Yes, Houston has over 100 places that claim to be delis. But good delis? New York-quality delis? Hardly. Instead the market is dominated by bland chains that hardly deserve to be called delis. Years ago, Houston had a fantastic Jewish Deli -- Alfred's. Today, we don't have any quite as good. The only ones that excite me at all are Khan's, Nielsen's, Kenny & Ziggy's and Specs. For a city our size, we should have more.

5. Moroccan. We have one Moroccan restaurant -- Saffron. It is quite good. But one Moroccan restaurant isn't enough for 5.6 million people.

6. New Mexican-Mexican. Mexican food in New Mexico is different. It uses ingredients like green chiles and blue corn. It is famous for dishes like posole and a unique kind of chile relleno. It can be extremely spicy. And it is quite different from Tex Mex. We have Chuy's and Canyon Cafe -- restaurants with a slight New Mexican influence. But we have little authentic New Mexican food.

7. Russian. In the past, Houston had some good Russian restaurants. Currently, I know of none.

8. Eastern European. We have three very good restaurants representing three Eastern European cuisines: Polonia (Poland), Charivari (Romanian), and Cafe Pita (Bosnia). But that is about it. Where in Houston can you get a Hungarian bean soup, Croatian mushroom-stuffed tomatoes, or Bulgarian red pepper stew?

9. Rural Texas food. There are fascinating rural foods in Texas that Houstonians just seem embarassed to serve. Central Texas from Schulenberg to Fredricksburg has a unique mix of German, Czech, and rural American food. And East Texas has a distinctive brand of Southern American cooking. These local cuisines get little respect in Houston are barely represented in our restaurants.

10. Molecular gastronomy. Most major cities have at least one restaurant that features avant garde cooking, i.e., WD-50 (New York), Alinea (Chicago), Minibar (D.C.), and Bazaar (Los Angeles). We had laidback manor for less than a year. But currently we don't have anything close to MG or any other branch of the avant garde.

UPDATE: Come to think of it, what Houston really needs is conveyor belt sushi so we can do this.


Dr. Ricky said...

LOL. Rather, a polite guffaw.

I don't think Houston as a market is particularly open to a great diversity of foods. Not quite enough niches, and the extremely low density of people makes it a tough sell for some of the more "adventurous" meals. But I'll throw my two cents in:

1. Sit down proper Filipino food. All we have are cafeteria-style buffets.

2. We only have one yakitori joint, and no one makes right proper ramen. There's more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, folks.

3. Walk-in pizza. Really. Actually, walk-in anything. I guess Little Big's is a start.

4. How about an Australian restaurant?

Unknown said...

Just have to mention Russian Bear for those who have not been. Good food and great party place; a Houston gem.

anonymouseater said...

Doctor - I couldn't agree more about Japanese food. Despite all the sushi, we don't seem to have the diversity of other Japanese foods that many American cities do.

But no Australian food? Our suburbs are littered with Outback Steakhouses.

Seriously, though, what is Australian food? Recently, I have been reading Misha's posts about Australia. It doesn't seem that distinct from American food, except perhaps more high-quality seafood. But I would love to know more about it.

Cynthiamonster - I was not aware of the Russian Bear. I'll go.

anonymouseater said...

Cynthiamonster -- says that Russian Bear is closed.

So it appears that, once again, we have no Russian food.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree w/your post! European/Jewish, African food, New England type stuff are definitely underrepresented in Houston.

What I'd like to see more of:
More diverse Asian- I love my Chinese/Vietnamese and we have pretty serviceable Thai/Korean but I'd like to eat more of Asia too(Filipino, Malaysian, Indonesian, etc)
also we need Japanese casual/street food! Ramen, Takoyaki, Yakitori, Okonomiyake!

We have a good smattering of Latin/Central America/Carribean but nothing on the scale of the predominantly (great) Mexican food. I want more!

Also really awesome, unique dessert places/patisseries - just look at NY serious eats blog to see what we are missing!

John C said...

Charivari on Bagby is European generally, but a fair amount seems German to me. Whatever it is, it is very good.

Kahn's (not Khan's!) has gone way downhill. They remodeled, the former owner (Alfred's son) is maybe not involved anymore, the Russian dressing changed and is terrible. Very sad, but I have pledged never to return.

Dr. Ricky said...

With regards to Australian cuisine, take a look at

I'll admit the barbie is very much where Australia's cooking style goes, but there are distinctly Australian ingredients like wattleseed which makes things interesting.

Anonymous said...

If there is such a thing as Australian food, I have not found it. Modern Australian restaurants have quite a global bend with Asian flavors being represented most heavily. Comfort food seem to be slightly mutated British classics, such as pies. Pizza joints are everywhere. Sydney in general is a global melting pot unlike any other place I have seen.

The one thing that drives me nuts about Houston is lack of truly high end sushi and Japanese cuisine. I don't want to eat raw fish very often; when I do I want it to be stunning in quality and price (this is one case where there is a direct correlation between the two).

Polonia works just fine as a Eastern European fix, but what I really would like is a Russian pierogi place. The closest I have seen is Pieroshki Pieroshki in Seattle, but Houston has nothing like it.

On this last trip to Russia I had a chance to try a few truly great Armenian and Georgian restaurants. Along with Uzbek food, there are some real post-Soviet gems we never get exposed to.

So. Top 3 cuisines missing in Houston:

1. Regional Italian
2. Portuguese
3. Post-Soviet (Armenian, Uzbek, Georgian, Ukranian)

Top 3 foods missing in Houston:

1. Pierogi (Russian style)
2. Falafel
3. High-end sushi.

Also, why are the Greek restaurants so lame here?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree on the overall so-so quality of our local Greek places.

I miss Salvadoran food. There was tons of it in the DC area, because there was a huge Salvodoran population, and it's fabulous comfort food, and (sorry) so much more satisfying than Tex Mex.

I have not found any great Peruvian food, either (something else that could be found in the Washington area, and is just wonderful and unique.

And, as a northeasterner, I have to ding Houston (like most American cities) on the Italian food. There is good Italian food, and there is lots of Italian food. What we don't have is endless good and inexpensive Italian food like I grew up with - the places that people here told me I'd love when I first came here turned out to be okay, but not much more than okay. This isn't just a Houston problem; really great Italian food remains a regional cuisine in the US, not found often in the east south of the Mason Dixon line, or in the west outside other than larger California cities in my experience.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I'd agree about Portuguese, but I've never seen really good Portuguese anywhere in the US outside of southeastern Massachusetts. Even when i lived in Boston, it required a trip down to New Bedford or to Cape Cod to get it.

Anonymous said...

John: there are a ton of Salvadoran restaurants in the Bissonnet/Hillcroft area. La Roca is one of my favorites, with Pupusodromo being the most consistent out of the lot, but there are countless others. There is even a Vietnamese/Salvadoran place, as strange as it sounds.

Though if you are a really a Texan, no way do you cede Tex-Mex as ultimate comfort food:)

HoustonWok said...

Although we have some great restaurants here in H TOWN, I agree with you that we have a few missing cuisines.
1. Greek food, a real gyros would be nice.
2. A good french restaurant like La Creperie in Long Beach, CA
3. The only burger I fell in love with, "IN and Out"
Houston would be complete if I could all of the above here.

Anonymous said...

In-n-Out is good, but the spicy burger at Tornado Burger is much better.

Anonymous said...

australian cuisine = meat and two veg. for variety, seafood and two veg once or twice a week.

anonymouseater said...

John: I can't spell. I should beware the Wrath of Kahn's.

There are a lot of good Portuguese restaurants on the east side of Cambridge. There also are quite a few in NYC.

Misha: I want to hear more about your trip to Russia.

You make a lot of good points. We do lack good regional Italian food, post-Soviet food, high-end sushi, and good Greek food. You get pierogi all over the Northeast, but not here.

Houston Wok: Yeah, we don't have many creperies. Coco's is decent. But we don't have anything like the Magic Pan in its heyday.

Unknown said...

As for New Mexican cuisine, there is a place called Santa Fe Flats on the NW side (off of 249). I am sure it is far from authentic b/c its out in the burbs but is bills itself as the only authentic NM cuisine in Houston.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad to hear that Russian Bear is closed. That place scared the bejesus out of me, with its creepy Russian quasi-prostitutes working the joint while you're trying to eat. *shudder*

With regard to Ethiopian, Boston and D.C. and L.A have huge ex-pat Ethiopian communities, hence the wide range of restaurants to choose from. Our own ex-pat Ethiopian community is quite small in comparison.

By the same turn, though, you'd expect to have a large variety of Eastern European and Russian restaurants, especially on the west side of town with its high concentration of those ex-pats.

When I was younger, there was a great Russian restaurant right across the street from my elementary school, a fantastic Russian market down the street, Polonia and its grocery store not too far away, and Russian Bear before it went downhill. Today? All we have left is Polonia. Very odd. Perhaps Misha can give some insight?

Anonymous said...

I think its odd that we don't have more BBQ restaurants around town, considering its popularity. There are very few non-chain options. The small surrounding towns have the city beat in quality BBQ by a long shot.

Anonymous said...

Ok, Ok, I will see when I can get my mother back down here to help me make some more pierogi's! They are one of my favorite foods, anyhow, so it's not too much of a hardship! Of course, our pierogi's are nothing like you'd get at an authentic place as our recipe has been handed down and Americanized over the years. Still, potatoes and cheese inside dough, and cooked in butter.... You can't really go too far wrong!

Anonymous said...

Megan - pirogi in Russia mean something entirely different than in Poland. We're talking about yeast risen dough wrapped around fillings and baked in the oven.

SheEats - I have no comment on Russian cuisine in Houston, because I am not plugged into the Russian community. I do know that Russians don't go out to eat as much as to celebrate. This is why Bohemia (I think it was owned by the Russian Bear lady) failed despite having Alberto Buffoni as a chef. At night the place turned into a cheesy night club with disco lights and dancers, which turned off American diners, myself included. The Russians thought the food was too expensive and poorly prepared (Buffoni's borcht was awful in an impressive way). Not sure if it's still open, but it was a complete mess.

tshu said...

New Japanese restaurants are definitely in the trendy category. I don't think this is unique to Houston. For old skool high end sushi that'll cost ya, try Teppay.

I must be in the minority on this. Do we really want what everyone appears to be espousing? There's something to be said for regional specialties. You wouldn't catch me wasting my time with Tex Mex in New England.

Anonymous said...


Ohhh, I see! Ok, well I will leave that to the experts, then! Still, might have to put some more of my kind of pierogi's on the menu again soon!

Rubiao said...

I agree that non-chain barbecue is conspicuously missing from near west Houston. After being in about 10 different tents at the barbecue cook off all with different sorts of barbecue and giant homemade smokers, I'm not sure I understand why this is. Hopefully Beaver's improves.

There is not really a pedestrian area of Houston that is active at night and during the day, so I guess it makes walk in restaurants tough, but we could really use a London style Fish and Chips shop(pe). Or a gyro place that serves real gyros, handstacked meat roasting on a spit. The same goes for Mexican pastor tacos.

And finally, I have searched through near Texas for Czech goulash with bread dumplings. There is so much Czech heritage here that it is crazy you can't get a decent goulash. I thought I'd found it in Galveston with Courtyard Cafe, but it was a major disappointment.

Dr. Ricky said...

You know, we have a dearth of bakeries, come to think of it. Outside of panaderias that do Mexican breads, and Vietnamese bakeries that do pretty good Viet/French bread. We don't really have great Eastern European bakeries. To get fresh babka bread, proper pretzels, fougasse, etc.

Anonymous said...

When I grew up in Houston in the 60's, there were no restaurants. Everybody ate at home. As far as Italian food, it's probably because there's not alot of Italians here, and the Irish or English (a huge majority of Houstonian decent for a long time) aren't really known for their restaurants. BAck in the 60's you couldn't even find a Mexican food restaurant, much less Chinese. So be happy you have anything at all.
Incidently, there's a wonderful French Restaurant in Humble on Main Street. Believe it or not, it's 4 star. Can't remember the name but it's awesome.

Anonymous said...

"When I grew up in Houston in the 60's, there were no restaurants... So be happy you have anything at all."

LOL. I assume that was written after you finished yelling at some kids to stay off your lawn?

Anonymous said...

would settle for a decent wait person. Service is really lacking in the south.

Anonymous said...

"LOL. I assume that was written after you finished yelling at some kids to stay off your lawn?"
9:04 AM

Ah, no. Was that supposed to be funny? If it was, I don't get it.

Anonymous said...
"would settle for a decent wait person. Service is really lacking in the south."

That's because all the wait persons moved here from the north.

Little Wok said...

I just don't think Houston eating is ever seen as innovative and diverse. It's a melting pot of all cultures but not very off the main stream of our fancy steaks and fusion foods.

We have more lounge bars popping up more than restaurants it seems...

anonymouseater said...

Thanks for all the great comments! I have never had so many.

The only ones I disagree with are the folks who say Houston is not diverse.

We may not be as diverse as NYC or the OC. But Houston's food is FAR more diverse than most American cities. Look at the lack of diversity in San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. Even Dallas' top food critic called Houston much more diverse than Dallas. Houston's food also is more diverse than Boston, D.C., Atlanta, Seattle, and every single midwestern city, including Chicago.

I meant this post to suggest ideas to possible restauranteurs. (Hint, hint). But even if we have some gaps, Houston has made great strides since the 60s and is far better than most American cities.

HoustonWok said...

Anonymouse Eater,
I remember a few blogs ago we were commenting about your last burger blog but I think this comment is kind of on point. About missing restaurants, the other day I ate at this burger joint called "Five guys, burger and fries." They are from the East Coast, and I tell you, they had a tremendously good burger. If anyone here doesn't like burgers, this place may change your mind. I ll write about this place in the next few days.

Laura said...

Sushi Sara on 249 has a conveyor belt. It's not as dramatic as some, but the sushi is good and more importantly, the sushi chef takes an interest in my kids and helps them try new things.

Nord said...

I've got to second the motion for a cutting edge MG restaurant.

As for Russian, not only does the lack of a Russian eatery puzzle me, but moreso the lack of a traditional Russian banya. Dallas now has one. Boo. Wall Street Baths in NYC has a restaurant upstairs that serves some of the most deliciously frightening Russian dishes I can't pronounce, and they have a 240 degree banya that after several visits will guarantee a healthy appetite.

And as for "regional Italian," I would strongly recommend Fratelli's at 290 & 34th. Completely non-descript, strip mall facade, but the food is delicious. Most everything is in the Emiliana-Romagna style. The owner built the pizza oven by hand, and had many code compliance issues associated with firing it up. Open kitchen, bar seating, can't go wrong.

Anonymous said...

When I was living in Houston, I would visit New York Coffee Shop in the Meyerland area and get their pastrami on rye almost every time. If I didn't, they made great eggs. And if I just couldn't dine in, their bagels would more than suffice as they are made at the shop.

houstonmacbro said...

You forgot Puerto Rican. There is only one that I've been to several times, and another I've only heard legend of, but never been.

Anonymous said...

Someone mentioned lack of good falafel. Try Zabak's on Westheimer at Fountain View. Best I've had. It's family run and they are the kids of a old famous falafel place that closed down a while back (don't remember the name).

tcady said...

There is a brand new *large* classy conveyor belt sushi/moving sushi bar, that I think is GREAT - but the name is funny :) called Choo Choo Sushi - it just opened April 09 and is on 1960 just north of 290.
Address:12149 FM 1960 West Houston TX 77065 Phone: 281-955-2888

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Carin said...

I was looking for Aussie food in Houston because a friend from Australia might be visiting Houston soon. Found your blog.

I'm from New Mexico and live in Austin and the comparison of Chuy's to New Mexican food in even the slightest sense is disgusting. Chuy's smells and looks like dog food to me. It tastes terrible. I have yet to have authentic New Mexican food in Texas. Even the Hatch chile that Central Market roasts is not hot (even though it's billed at "hot"). I have to have my family ship posole and red chile from Santa Fe just to get my NM food fix.

nazmun said...

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nazmun@restaurant said...

Wish to have more guests?
We deliver recipes of real Japanese food from Japan. Also Articles which makes guest more enjoyable in your restaurant.
Check it out from our website "
You will find our twitter account is!/Piofront
Linkedin :
We can offer recipes and articles and so on with your language.

Zip code: 432-8018
Address: Shizuoka-ken, Hamamatsu-shi
Naka-ku Shijimizuka 2-13-17