Houston is often misunderstood by tourists, but real ones know.
Houstonians who might refer to themselves as terminally online are once again abuzz with opinions about yet another national media outlet’s attempts to summarize the city’s greatness in just a few thousand words. This week, it was the New York Times, which published the latest edition of their “36 Hours In” travel series, this time ending up in Houston.
I always brace myself when these pieces come out—whatever mood I’m in, I’m sure to get a bit more sour. Houston is a wonderful, complex place that is often misunderstood by parachuters, although I was relieved to read that the author “grew up in Houston and lives there today,” per a note at the very top, probably to brace themselves for the onslaught of online clapbacks from locals.
There were indeed some infuriating omissions in this “36 Hours in Houston” and definitely a few headscratchers, but I’ll admit to not being as annoyed by this guide as I typically have been in the past. Stick with me.
My biggest pet peeve about the National-Media-Outlet-Does-Houston story is that it always—always!—starts out by apologizing for Houston. This one is no different, the second sentence mentioning the “endless friction [that] can be exhausting for residents and a turn-off for visitors.”
While Houston has its fair share of problems—don’t say it—I lived in New York City for eight years and I am very happy to inform the New York Times that I was endlessly more exhausted living there than in Houston, the city I am now blessed to call home. And yes, Houston is (mostly!) ugly. But do you know what other city is ugly? New York, and we don’t talk about it enough.
As for the visitors who are turned off? Perhaps they’ve been misled too many times by guides that don’t understand the essence of Houston or how to enjoy it properly. Let’s start, as I always do, with restaurants and bars. The author wisely notes that “identifying the best Texas barbecue in Houston is a fool’s errand,” and is correct in dubbing Truth BBQ “a valid contender.” I really have no argument here, and would love to add Gatlin’s BBQ, Pinkerton’s Barbecue and Blood Bros BBQ for anyone looking to explore H-Town’s awesome smoked-meats scene.
Lucille’s is also a particularly worthy addition, not just for the food and atmosphere consistently delivered at this 10-year-old Museum District spot, but also for the amount of philanthropic work chef and owner Chris Williams has put into giving back to Houston through his nonprofit, Lucille’s 1913.
Lucille’s mac and cheese
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Viet-Cajun cuisine, a fusion focused on crawfish that was born in Houston, is deserving of all the recognition it can get, and so is Crawfish & Noodles, whose owner Trong Nguyen has done considerable work advancing the category. One might argue that the spotlight always falls a little too much on him and his restaurant, and not enough on other notable spots, including Cajun Kitchen and 88 Boiling.
But the biggest problem is this: Beyond Crawfish & Noodles, no other Asian restaurants are mentioned. No other Asian restaurants in a city that has arguably the best and most expansive Chinatown in the country, which many now call Asiatown because of its inclusion of Vietnamese, Thai, Taiwanese, Korean, and Malaysian fare, as well as cuisines from multiple different provinces of China. Houston’s mind-blowingly good traditional Vietnamese food is particularly worth mentioning—there are simply too many to list, but I’ll leave you with a taste of Nam Giao, Thienh Thanh, Pho Binh and Khang Vietnamese Sandwich Cafe.
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An equally critical misstep of this guide was weighing heavily on Tex-Mex cuisine instead of exploring Mexican food as a whole. While my good friend José Ralat over at Texas Monthly likes to remind people that Tex-Mex should get more respect, as it is a regional form of Mexican cuisine, it’s a shame to not delve deeper and instead just erroneously repeat the idea that Tex-Mex is the only Mexican food worth talking about in Texas.
In Houston, you can have it all. Fine-dining Mexican fare from established chef Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s, Xochi, Caracol, Urbe) or newcomer Emmanuel Chavez at Tatemó. Neighborhood gems like La Guadalupana in Montrose or Dichos Taqueria and La Esquina in the East End. Breakfast tacos at Brothers Taco House or Laredo Taqueria. Insanely good barbacoa from Gerardo’s Drive In. Taco trucks quite literally on every corner—Tacos Tierra Caliente opposite West Alabama Ice House is rightfully mentioned, but I would have loved to read about more. To do so, check out the biweekly dispatches of Chron taco columnist Marco Torres. Broadly speaking, to encounter the best Mexican food in Houston, you have to actually venture into the East End and not just stop at “EaDo.”
Gerardo’s in Northside Houston
Finally, I guess it took Chris Shepherd leaving his restaurant group for national media to finally recognize that Shepherd’s restaurants are actually not the best places to eat in Houston.
Now onto bar recommendations. West Alabama Ice House is the most perfect place in Houston, period, and I will not accept any other opinions on this matter. Beyond this addition, the list is a bit puzzling. Bad News is an awesome bar, but must we really “drink-hop in downtown”? Maybe for travelers who just turned 22, but it’s not for me and I doubt it’s for New York Times readers either. I will admit to having deep bias against downtown. Even still, there are so many other bars in Houston—in actual neighborhoods you’d want to hang out in and introduce newcomers to.
Perhaps the James Beard Award-decorated Julep cocktail bar by favorite Houstonian Alba Huerta? Or you could start at the classic Anvil on Westheimer before venturing upstairs to the newer, sexier Refuge. Lei Low is a must for tiki cocktails, Pearl Bar for a queer scene, or you could check out the vibey Axelrad Beer Garden when they have DJ sets. If it’s a dive bar you seek, may I direct you to all-timers including Grand Prize, Poison Girl, Big Star Bar, Voodoo Queen Daiquiri Dive, and many more that I am forgetting and will probably get skewered for later. If you absolutely must go downtown, do yourself a favor and go to Notsuoh—just do it, you’ll see.
Having rambled on for too long already, I won’t dwell on the confusing addition of Agora here (It’s nice! But you’ve only got 36 hours!) and turn my attention on the non-food portion of this whirlwind itinerary. I can’t argue with the Museum of Fine Arts and the new Kinder building, both are excellent places to visit. During your short window in town, surely you’d have time to also take in the Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel, which are free, effectively next door to one another, and don’t take a lot of time to swing through. However, I’m glad the author mentioned Houston’s rich Black history, recommending a visit to Freedsmens’ Town in Fourth Ward and the Heritage Society’s Black history walking tour.
At 2 p.m., the itinerary suggests shopping local on Westheimer. Space Montrose is the cutest little store, especially for Texas-y gifts—no notes. My latest obsession though is Mala Market, a nonprofit collective owned by women of color that carries home and gift items from local artisans. I’ve now been there so many times to buy presents for friends (or myself) that the staff now knows me and always welcomes me back.
I’d much rather spend 36 hours in Mala Market than even a few minutes at Pavement, to be honest. But perhaps I’ve become allergic to youth culture as I fell on the other side of 30. I still love thrifting, though, and suggest dropping into Out of the Closet a little farther down Westheimer from Pavement, whose profits go to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
On a final shopping note, one of my most embarrassing traits is that I paid a lot of money for cactus-patterned bed sheets at Biscuit early on during the pandemic, and while I have absolutely no regrets, I don’t know if this annoyingly bougie store is where I’d recommend spending my precious moments in Houston, a wonderfully non-bougie place, in the best way.
Wide shot of Houston’s skyline and paved bicycle/walking path in Buffalo Bayou Park on a summer afternoon.
If you’d like to venture outside, should it be a bearable time of year to do so in Houston, the New York Times recommends a couple of parks. There are three main green spaces inside the 610 Loop: Buffalo Bayou Park, Hermann Park and Memorial Park. Only the first two earn a mention, making me wonder how the third feels being left out. Buffalo Bayou is where you go if you want the dope view of Houston’s skyline (featured in the photo above), and Memorial is where you go if you don’t want any trouble finding parking. It is also a beautiful green space that has undergone quite a lot of (costly) facelifts in the last couple years, with the latest phase unveiling to the public next month.
The best park, however, is Hermann (mentioned). It has a reflection pool (mentioned) and a choo-choo train (criminally not mentioned), as well as an outdoor theater and a Japanese Garden (neither mentioned). And that’s all I have to say on that.
The New York Times article ends with what I’m going to consider a half-apology for how it started: “Sometimes Houston can be really beautiful.” Thanks for that. The historic district of North and South Boulevard is indeed one of the most gorgeous spots in the city, its live oaks towering up and over the red-brick sidewalks. But it’s not this small, uber-affluent neighborhood where all of Houston’s beauty lies. That’s for Houstonians to know and diligent visitors to find out.
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Emma Balter is the food editor for Chron.
She was previously an entertainment reporter for the Houston Chronicle, writing food, drink and feature stories. Before joining the Chronicle in March 2020, Balter worked for Wine Spectator magazine for six years as a writer, editor and tasting coordinator. She has also contributed to Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, Eater, PureWow, Chowhound and VinePair, among others.
Balter grew up in Paris, France, where she got an early taste for good food and wine. She studied English Literature at Newcastle University in the U.K. and was the lifestyle editor of the student newspaper. She currently lives in southwest Houston.
Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaBalter