With so many options, narrowing down a list of signature H-town bites is difficult at best. With that in mind, these selections offer a cross section of essential local eats for newcomers wishing to embrace the city's culinary treasures, as well as longtimers seeking tastes of the good old days. Chow your way through this list — and tweet us at @ZagatHouston to tell us which iconic dishes you think deserve a spot on the lineup.
Brazos Bottom pecan pie at Goode Company Barbecue
An iconic pie from an iconic locale, this family recipe dessert has been on the menu since 1977 when the restaurant first opened. Expect a flaky handmade crust cradling a generous helping of Texas pecans — and long lines for whole pies come holiday season.
Banh mi sandwiches at Cali Sandwich
In addition to pho, this family cafe is in demand for its baguette sandwiches, like barbecue pork with marinated and grilled pork, fresh cilantro, jalapeños, pickled carrots, soy sauce and Vietnamese mayo; and the Combination stuffed with housemade pâté, Vietnamese mayo, steamed barbecue pork, cucumber, carrots and jalapeños.
2900 Travis St.; 713-520-0710
Chilaquiles at Avalon Diner
Piles of tortilla chips drenched in a simmered spicy red salsa come laden with melted Jack cheese, two eggs any style, avocado and sour cream at this Houston institution in Upper Kirby serving locals since 1938. A side of hash browns or grits complete the experience.
2417 Westheimer Rd.; 713-527-8900
Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish at Crawfish and Noodles
Owner Trong Nguyen, one of the pioneers of “Viet-Cajun” cuisine in Houston, cooks crawfish in a secret simmering broth before tossing them in sauces like garlic butter and “gingergrass.”
11360 Bellaire Blvd. #990; 281-988-8098
Perry's Famous Pork Chop at Perry's Steakhouse
Prime pork loin is butchered in-house for this pork chop that measures “seven fingers high” and is carved tableside into three portions: the “eyelash” (the name Perry’s has given the section found above the eye of the chop), three babyback ribs and the center cut loin. The chop is rubbed with a proprietary spice blend, roasted for four to six hours on a rotisserie and then glazed, caramelized to order and finished with herb butter.
Red beans and rice at Treebeards
Louisiana flavors are the focus of this long-standing haunt popular with a professional lunch crowd. A thick stew of red beans drenches white rice, and a mound of shredded cheddar cheese and sliced scallions lends extra punch. A sausage link costs extra, but we think it's worth the splurge.
Market Square, 315 Travis St.; 713-228-2622
Pollo en mole negro Oaxaqueño at Picos
Chef Alejandro “Alex” Richards claims this as his favorite mole dish. It features a forequarter of chicken smothered in deep brown mole made from Mexican dark chocolate, chile ancho, chile pasilla and chile mulato, among many other ingredients, in a preparation that takes eight to 10 hours.
3601 Kirby Dr.; 832-831-9940
Fried shrimp po' boy at Ragin’ Cajun
Locals have lined up since 1974 for these golden fried shrimp spilling out of thick baguettes and dressed with iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes, ketchup and mayo.
4302 Richmond Ave.; 713-623-6321
Sausage, egg, cheese and jalapeño kolache at Kolache Shoppe
In business since 1970, this shop offers numerous variations of the Czech pastry made of slightly sweet dough wrapped around a range of fillings. This one is well suited to those who like some spice first thing in the morning.
3945 Richmond Ave.; 713-626-4580
Chipotle chicken tacos at Brothers Taco House
This popular hut in EaDo is known for its shredded chicken cooked in a combination of seeded chipotle peppers, sour cream and milk that is stuffed into tortillas with optional rice and refried beans.
1604 Dowling St.; 713-223-0091
Wings & waffles at The Breakfast Klub
Loyal fans wait in line for hours to indulge cravings for this large Belgian waffle crowned with six fried chicken wings, dusted with powdered sugar and topped with a strawberry.
3711 Travis St.; 713-528-8561
Donuts at Shipley Do-nuts
Generations of Houstonians grew up with donuts from this family shop, and today the 63 varieties remain as essential to Saturday morning (or any morning) as they did in the 1940s.
Chicken "Bryan Texas" at Carrabba's Original
Named in honor of the town where the Carrabba family first settled after immigrating from Sicily, this dish features a grilled chicken breast topped with goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and basil butter. More than 30 years later it remains one of the most requested dishes on the menu.
Woodway Collection, 1399 S. Voss Rd.; 713-468-0868
Barbecue at Killen’s Barbecue
Though technically in neighboring Pearland, this locale is a must-stop for anyone who appreciates good 'cue, including smoked chicken, pulled pork, mammoth beef ribs and smoked brisket. Selection varies depending on what time you go and what number you are in the notoriously long, long line.
3613 E. Broadway St.; 281-485-2272
Campechana de mariscos at Goode Co. Seafood
This cool appetizer has garnered regional and national attention thanks to generous portions of shrimp and Texas blue lump crabmeat, avocado, chiles, tomatoes and numerous other salsa-esque elements. It is served alongside housemade tortilla chips as an essential starter to any meal.
2621 Westpark Dr.; 713-523-7154
Gyro sandwich at Niko Niko’s
Warm pita wraps around a mixture of chopped beef and lamb, plus onions, tomatoes, spices and tzatziki sauce, in this popular sandwich that's been on the menu since the restaurant’s early days (in the 1970s) as a walk-up window with picnic tables.
2520 Montrose Blvd.; 713-528-4976
Fried chicken at Frenchy’s Chicken
Despite a thin skin, the fried chicken that hails from this local landmark is highly seasoned, crunchy and exceptionally moist thanks to an old New Orleans family recipe from founder and NOLA-native Percy “Frenchy” Creuzot, who started the company in 1969.
Cheese Coney at JCI Grill
Get this slight variation on the “original” Coney featuring mustard, Kraft Cheez Whiz, onions and the same chili sauce recipe made since opening day in 1923 when the restaurant was still called James Coney Island.
Turtle soup au sherry at Brennan’s of Houston
Though other dishes have evolved over the restaurant’s 50-year history, this savory recipe of turtle meat and lots of spices remains unchanged right down to the sherry finish.
3300 Smith St.; 713-522-9711
Garlic okra at Thai Gourmet
Developed by the owner’s father, this savory dish starts with fresh okra that is sliced, fried and tossed in an intense spicy brown garlic sauce. Open since 1995, the restaurant recently expanded to accommodate many more loyal patrons.
6324 Richmond Ave.; 713-780-7955