Where to eat Texas barbecue, fried chicken, authentic Mexican and crawfish in Houston
I write about my mama a lot, but this Sunday is Father’s Day, and I can’t forget about my pops, nor my hometown. Reflecting on my dad’s recent stateside visit a few weeks ago, I share here things we ate together.
Since retiring, my pops relocated back to Vietnam. I’ve flown to Saigon a handful of times and hung out with my pops, but it’s not often he comes back to the U.S. This means when he does, we try to pack as much American —particularly Texan—foods into his belly as we can.
This is also a good list for all you potential visitors and/or residents of Houston; hit up these spots or take your out-of-town guests to these places, and you’ll get a great cross-section of Houston cultural cuisine. These are some of the places I always suggest when asked, “Where should I eat in Houston?”
What my pops misses most about Texas is its beef, so naturally, we had a lot of cow when he was here. When asked, he particularly said a burger, a taco, and barbecue. (Barbecue had become his latest obsession after he watched the movie Chef, in which the main character played by Jon Favreau stops by Franklin Barbecue.)
The hubs, the pops, and I considered driving to Austin just for Franklin’s, but none of us were willing to wait the several hours in queue for brisket. A few years ago at ACL music fest, we’d ordered Franklin’s ahead of time for pick-up, but now with their surge in popularity, you have to call in your order at least a month in advance. With my pops only being here for three weeks, the math didn’t work out. I assured my pops, though, there was very good barbecue right here in Houston, too.
Texas Barbecue & Southern Fried Chicken
I was referring to, of course, Killen’s BBQ in Pearland, a suburb south of Houston proper. We went on a Sunday because it’s the one day of the week Killen’s also happens to serve their southern fried chicken, and this is some serious fried chicken for the savvy connoisseur: juicy, aromatic, and crispy. One order gets you half a chicken and two sides. Other weekly specials include Tuesday chicken fried steaks and Wednesday pork chops among others.Killen’s BBQ is best known for their beef ribs, which can run you about $30 each, but they’re what the masses wait in line for: one rib is good to share between two, but don’t be surprised if you later wish you’d ordered a whole rib just for yourself. Other notable things to try: burnt ends (if they have ‘em–burnt ends are the flavorful, tender, prized tips of a brisket), brisket, creamed corn, mac-’n-cheese, and carrot cake.
We arrived 30 minutes before Killen’s opened their doors (operating hours are 11 AM to 3 PM daily), and we didn’t start eating till about an hour and 15 later. The wait isn’t too bad, though, when you find some shade on the covered patio and sip Lone Star beer from a keg [sometimes] provided for patient patrons. When you arrive, grab a number which generally secures your place in queue, and use it to figure out your place once doors open. It’s a self-governing system, though, so you have to be vigilant.
3613 Broadway St.
Pearland, TX 77581
Authentic Mexican TacosGive me a no-frills Mexican taco any day over the bastardized Tex-Mex version. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a time and place for tacos stuffed with ground meat, melted cheese, and sour cream—mostly during an alcohol-induced stupor. But nine times out of ten, the food purist in me prefers the streamlined street taco consisting of just meat, tortilla, onion, cilantro, lime juice, and maybe a dash of salsa.
For my pops’s taco craving, we went to Gerardo’s Drive-in, an ethnic mini-market with a hot food counter inside serving authentic Mexican meats. I was first introduced to Gerardo’s by our friend, Alvin, who was a contestant on “MasterChef” the season before mine. He lives in Houston, too, so naturally we became food friends fast.
We usually get barbacoa (cheeks/head of either cow or goat), lengua (beef tongue), sweetbreads (thymus gland), and tortillas with onion, cilantro, lime, and avocado or guacamole (warning: the guac is pretty spicy) to make our own tacos a la carte. Meats are reasonably priced by the pound. The service is always friendly, and we were offered some pork and brains to sample. The pork was very good and ended up being my dad’s favorite, and the brains were tasty, too—reminiscent of pâté.
We also ordered menudo (tripe soup) to wash everything down and, of course, Mexican Coke.
609 Patton St.
Houston, TX 77009
CajunFrom about February to June is crawfish season, peaking in April. Crawfish is the quintessence of Cajun cuisine, and the large Vietnamese population in Houston has turned traditional Cajun crawfish into something of their own. Vietnamese-style crawfish is still spicy, but it’s more heavily concentrated in butter and garlic rather than the more traditional native Louisianan peppers and citrus.
Crawfish is starting to reach international fame—I recently passed a crawfish restaurant in Saigon—but Houston is where Gulf seafood is king. We took my pops to Crawfish Cafe, located inside the Hong Kong mall on Bellaire and Boone in the heart of Houston’s booming Little Saigon/Chinatown.
The hubs and I eat about four pounds of crawfish each (crawfish usually runs around $7/lb.), but if you want to try other foods, you’ll find two pounds are plenty. My favorite flavor here is the mix of butter garlic and lemon pepper, but their Thai basil (while a tad too sweet for my palate) is popular, too. I like to get my crawfish cooked to a medium spice level, but that’s all preference. There are lots of other things you can order, but I tend to stick to just crawfish and crab fried rice.
Make sure you wear something you don’t mind getting smelly and dirty because Cajun food, especially crawfish, ain’t no clean feat. Wet wipes are also handy—some restaurants provide them with your check, but many don’t.
11209 Bellaire Blvd. #C36
Houston, TX 77072
Fried Pork BunsBanh bao are Vietnamese steamed buns. They’re typically filled with a meat and veggie patty of ground pork, onion, mushroom, and the occasional hard-boiled egg and/or Chinese sausage. I grew up eating these as they make good portable snacks (e.g. Picnic, road trips, packed lunch, after school snack). Most banh bao, however, are gigantic and have too much bland, dry dough-to-filling ratio, so when Alvin (again) introduced us to TP Banh Bao (located a couple of storefronts down from Crawfish Café), I was stoked to find smaller, delicate buns with the perfect dough-to-filling ratio. Even better, you can order them deep-fried which elevates the buns into a gastronomical galaxy above and beyond.
TP Banh Bao
11209 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072
BurgersHouston is considered by many the burger capital of the world, so there’s no shortage of great burgers here. My current favorite burger spot is Stanton’s City Bites. The burger shop has gotten a few makeovers over the years, growing from a rundown grocery mart to the current full-fledged restaurant it now is. Order at the counter and wait patiently for your burger to be brought to the table. Once you take your first bite, you’ll realize the sometimes lengthy wait was worth it.
I judge a burger by two things: the patty (does it have a nice mouth feel of coarsely ground meat, and is it full of beefy flavor?) and the bun (is it lightly buttered and toasted yet still pillowy on the inside?). Secondarily, are the optional toppings fresh or, if applicable, cooked well, is the burger an appropriate size (read: not too big to bite and make me feel ill afterwards), and is it easy to eat (does it remain intact or does it fall apart all over the table and my hands?).
As mentioned before, I’m a food purist, so the only things I like on my burger are mushrooms (optional), onion (caramelized or straight-up, I like ’em all), and a slice of melted cheese. A little mayo or mustard is nice too. Maybe a ripe tomato slice. No lettuce or pickles for me: I find lettuce tends to wilt in a burger, and pickles overwhelm them.
Stanton’s makes damn delicious burgers. Reticent and rare with praise, even my pops had to express his enjoyment of his bacon cheeseburger, proclaiming with his signature even keel, “This is really good.” I guess the street parking and trek over uneven sidewalks near barking dogs on the other side of chain-linked fences were all made worth it once he tasted the burger.
Stanton’s City Bites
1420 Edwards St.
Houston, TX 77007
To all my fellow Houstonians, next time you have visitors in town, take them to one of these places to experience the up-and-coming Houston food scene. I guarantee you and your guests won’t be disappointed. Next week, I’ll have even more suggestions of places to check out in Houston.
Have you been to any of these places? Where did you have your favorite barbecue, fried chicken, tacos, crawfish, or burgers?
And happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there! May you get your fair fill of your favorite foods!