Texas is defined in many ways by many different people. But there are at least three things anyone can agree on when it comes to the Lone Star State: barbecue, Tex-Mex and steaks. This is the holy trinity of Texas cuisine — foods that compose our most firmly entrenched food heritage. These are the foods we invented or perfected. They are our exports to the world, our richly flavored history, and although we may agree on them in broad strokes, they are also our favorite things to fight over.
In tiny Lockhart — a town long known as the Barbecue Capital of Texas — a decade-long family feud was sparked in 1999 at Kreuz Market, just shy of the barbecue joint's 100th anniversary, after patriarch Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt's death. The squabble led to the creation of a brand-new Kreuz Market just down the street, where its pits were christened with hot coals from Schmidt's timeworn pits after being carried there in a ceremonial display of reverence.
The old Kreuz was renamed Smitty's, and although the feud wasn't particularly fierce, it wasn't uncommon to hear Lockhart residents align themselves with either Smitty's or "The Church of Kreuz," as though barbecue was their one true religion. The dispute ended this past year when the family came together once again ... to open yet another barbecue joint, this one in Bee Cave. Food is what can separate us — whether along cultural lines or not — but it's also what brings us together.
For as much as we may love to squabble over food, we love to eat it even more. And every Texan worth his boots has his own personal list of restaurants that represent Texas at its best. These are the places we recommend to visitors and the places we take long road trips to visit ourselves. These are the places where every Texan should eat at least once before they die (preferably with those boots still on) and the restaurants that define the essential Texas dining experience.
But does that holy trinity of barbecue, Tex-Mex and steak still define Texas? Or is it our state food, chili? Maybe seafood from the Gulf Coast, or the ultramodern blending of local Texan products and international cuisines as seen at restaurants like Tyson Cole's Uchi or Chris Shepherd's Underbelly?
"Texas restaurants have come a long way since myopic New York editors thought it was strictly barbecue and chili," says John Mariani, longtime food writer for Esquire. "Texas, and Houston in particular, is rich in every kind of cuisine and many express it with a Texas swagger."
Mariani is one of 20 food writers whom we polled to determine once and for all what foods — and, just as important, what restaurants — define Texas. What are the 30 seminal Texas restaurants that everyone should visit at least once? we asked them. Not the best, per se. But the essential restaurants that have shaped our culinary landscape and continue to shape it to this day. The restaurants that, as Daniel Vaughn, a barbecue writer and author of the upcoming Texas barbecue book The Prophets of Smoked Meat, puts it, "help to tell the story of Texas cuisine."
"These are the restaurants where I'd send Texas newcomers who wanted to understand the state," said Hanna Raskin, a former Dallas Observer food critic who still reflects fondly on the state although she's now helming the Seattle Weekly's food section. "Or at least the state I like," she added jokingly.
We could have asked chefs or restaurant owners, but we asked food writers for a reason: Their lives and careers revolve around traveling and eating, comparing and contrasting and — most important — documenting Texas food history one column at a time.
3800 Seawall Blvd., Galveston
Although this 102-year-old restaurant is surprisingly amenable to beach attire (facing the Gulf of Mexico across only a thin stretch of pavement and sand will do that to a place, no matter how dignified), good luck simply walking in from a day on the island in the evenings. Gaido's is perennially popular for its Watkins' Bisque — a secret recipe that's kept people returning for decades — and shrimp plucked straight from the waters off Galveston Island. A long, elegant set of dining rooms draped in plush period attire makes it easy to envision the days in which visitors arrived at Gaido's on the old interurban line streetcars that used to crisscross the island.
222 9th St., Dickinson
It's difficult to find oysters much fresher than the ones at Gilhooley's, which pulls its bivalves off boats only a few blocks away in the sleepy coastal burg of Dickinson. Gilhooley's has also famously banned children — all the better to enjoy the gruff, bawdy atmosphere over a char-grilled batch of Oysters Gilhooley and a beer with your buddies. Coldest days are often best here, as the oysters are at their plumpest and the fire pits outside on Gilhooley's ramshackle patio are at their warmest.
1600 Westheimer Road, Houston
Long before Houston's Lower Westheimer was ground zero for hot new restaurants, there was Hugo's — the critical favorite from chef Hugo Ortega and his restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught. After their success with eternal brunch favorite Backstreet Cafe, Vaught and Ortega decided to take a shot at making the sort of interior Mexican food that Ortega and his brother Ruben, the pastry chef, had grown up eating in Mexico. The result was the best Mexican restaurant Houston had ever seen, a title that Hugo's still holds 11 years later. The humble Hugo Ortega's story of finally making it after crossing the Mexican border three separate times and working his way up from a dishwasher is the American dream personified.
Ninfa's on Navigation
2704 Navigation Blvd., Houston
"Mama" Ninfa Laurenzo is popularly credited with inventing fajitas and inspiring an entire nation to embrace Tex-Mex food in the form of flat beef strips delivered on an iron comal so hot it's hilariously and wonderfully unsafe. And although other Tex-Mex restaurants picked up on and diluted Ninfa's fajitas over the decades (and although all of the other Ninfa's were sold off to franchisees), the original Ninfa's on Navigation still makes its fajitas the old-fashioned way — the right way, if you ask many die-hard Tex-Mex fans — with outside flank steak. Although the patio has been greatly expanded and modernized, inside you'll still find that familiar jangly maze of rooms and abuelitas making tortillas as you walk in the front door.
Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
5839 Westheimer, Houston
"Any list of essential Texas restaurants must include at least one upscale steakhouse," says Edmund Tijerina, food critic at the San Antonio Express-News. And although he was referring to Bohanan's in San Antonio, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse rocketed to the top of our list with by far the most votes from our panel of food writers. This Houston-based steakhouse with possibly the best wine list in the state is the gold standard when it comes to high-end steakhouses, and although it's from a family that's made a business of exporting Houston concepts throughout the state (Pappadeaux, Pappasito's, Pappas Bar-B-Q and more), this clubby, ultra-plush steakhouse has only one other location — in Dallas.
2775 Washington Blvd., Beaumont
Owing to its proximity to Louisiana, this Beaumont barbecue joint offers a geographically appropriate blend of East Texas-style barbecue and Cajun cuisine. Patillo's is also "one of the few barbecue joints left in Southeast Texas that hand-makes the classic East Texas 'juicy link,'" says freelance food writer J.C. Reid. Houston Chronicle food writer Syd Kearney calls it simply "East Texas barbecue and white bread" and defends Patillo's famous links, saying simply: "No bitching about the tough sausage casing. You should have to work for sausage this good."
Sartin's Seafood Restaurant
3520 Nederland Ave., Nederland
Sure, Kim Sartin Tucker's restaurant sells food other than barbecued crabs. But that other stuff isn't why people make hours-long drives to this cutely shabby seafood shack in Nederland where the motto is: "We got the crabs." Sartin's is "home to one of the only native dishes of Southeast Texas," Reid says. "Barbecue crabs." And Kearney remarks that Sartin's is at its best when "you're digging into a huge plate of crabs, catfish, stuffed crabs and fried Gulf shrimp."
3755 Richmond Ave., Houston
Tony Vallone has hosted everyone from exotic royalty and sitting heads of state to Tony Bennett and Oscar de la Renta since opening his namesake restaurant in 1965, and although Vallone's focus hasn't always been Italian, he was instrumental in elevating that cuisine to fine-dining status with a restaurant that's held its coveted "see-and-be-seen" status for decades. Today, Tony's is still widely recognized as one of the top — and correspondingly most expensive — restaurants in the state. "Not only is Tony's one of the best Italian restaurants in the U.S. today," said Mariani in 2011, "it's one of the best restaurants period."
1100 Westheimer Road, Houston
Although it's still an infant by this list's standards, food writers across the state and the nation heralded chef Chris Shepherd's ambitious restaurant in Houston, which combines the city's tapestry of ethnic cuisines with an impressive array of locally produced, caught, raised or grown ingredients. Shepherd's unique and innovative menu bills itself as "The Story of Houston Food" and revels in remixing them in dishes such as Korean braised goat and dumplings, in a warm, casual setting that makes the open kitchen feel like a natural part of the wood-and-steel dining room.
Prairie & Lakes
Babe's Chicken Dinner House
104 N. Oak, Roanoke
As its name would suggest, chicken is Babe's signature dish. Babe herself — Mary Beth Vinyard — passed away in 2008, but husband Paul still runs the place they started in a 100-year-old warehouse in Roanoke two decades ago. People swear by Babe's original recipes for chicken-fried steak and fried chicken — and these are the only options at the original Roanoke location — although the restaurant chain is now equally famous for its Mamma Jo's roast (based on Paul's mother's recipe), the green chowchow that comes with its catfish and — believe it or not for a fried-chicken place — its vegetables.
2458 N. Main St., Fort Worth
It's said that Fort Worth is where the West begins, and that sense is always keenly felt as you approach the Cattlemen's Steakhouse, located smack in the middle of Fort Worth's still-bustling stockyards. The restaurant that Jesse E. Roach opened on a whim in 1947 has become internationally renowned for its aged beef and massive steaks. These days, it's a clamorous riot of a restaurant that's so proud of its charcoal-broiled steaks it refuses to recognize the validity of "medium-well" or "well done" as serious options. Although Roach passed away in 1988 and Cattlemen's was bought out in 1994, it remains a Fort Worth favorite and a monument to Texas' Wild West sensibilities.
1601 McKinney Ave., Dallas
There were cries of foul when El Fenix was sold in 2008 to an investment group after 90 years as a family-owned business, but the legacy of the Dallas-based restaurant chain remains intact. El Fenix perfected the Tex-Mex combo plate and helped popularize the food throughout the state and eventually the nation as chains popped up in other cities and emulated the El Fenix model. Generations of families have dined at El Fenix since it was first opened in 1918 by Mike Martinez and return regularly for heart-melting portions of cheese enchiladas and tortilla chips that are perfectly crunchy down to the last crumb.
2121 McKinney AVE., Dallas
Kentucky-born Dean Fearing is credited as the father of Southwestern cuisine thanks to his 20-year tenure at the glitzy Mansion on Turtle Creek, a Dallas institution. In 2007, however, Fearing moved away from his signature cuisine and the Mansion to open the equally glamorous Fearing's inside the imposing Ritz-Carlton hotel. The lavish eight-roomed restaurant quickly secured itself a spot in the Dallas culinary firmament with Fearing's upscale Texas fare and earned plenty of national accolades along the way. Want to splash out like a modern-day oil baron? Fearing's is the place to do it.
Louie Mueller BBQ
206 W. 2nd St., Taylor
Louie Mueller has a history in Taylor that extends beyond his barbecue joint, first arriving in the little town to manage its newly opened Safeway grocery store. But it's his barbecue he's famous for, cooked the same way since 1949. Although Louie himself passed away in 1992, his son Bobby has carried on the family tradition in such fine form that Louie Mueller BBQ was awarded an America's Classic award by the James Beard Foundation in 2006. The black-pepper-rubbed fatty brisket and pork ribs fall apart before they reach your mouth and melt on your tongue once there.
The Mansion on Turtle Creek
2821 Turtle Creek BLVD., Dallas
Even if its full name is "Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek," true Texans will always refer to this timeless restaurant as simply "The Mansion." This is where Dean Fearing established New Southwestern cuisine during the high-spirited '80s in an estate-like setting that — to this day — oozes class. What was originally built in 1925 by cotton magnate Sheppard King as a sophisticated Italian Renaissance-style residence remains, according to Bill Addison, formerly the food critic at The Dallas Morning News and now at Atlanta Magazine, "a classic that keeps reinventing itself brilliantly." And although new chef Bruno Davaillon promised to remove The Mansion's famous tortilla soup after taking over in 2010, it remains on the menu to this day.
1722 Routh St., Dallas
"This is my favorite restaurant in Dallas," recalls Addison, "and certainly one of the finest Japanese restaurants in Texas, if not the country. Owner Teiichi Sakurai is a chef who keeps his head down and concentrates more on his cooking than his national reputation. He studied the craft of making soba in Tokyo and blesses Texas with his seasonal riffs on hot and cold noodle dishes. His omakase — ever changing, frequently surprising with unusual ingredients — is an immersion course in Japanese cuisine."
Joe T. Garcia's
2201 North Commerce St., Fort Worth
Although it's hard to imagine today when you're seated inside the enormous gardens and grounds of Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth, there was a time when the restaurant seated only 16 people instead of 1,000. That was when Joe T. Garcia himself established one of the state's most famous Tex-Mex restaurants with his wife on Independence Day in 1935. Nearly 80 years later, it's still family-owned and -run and the lush patio the Garcias installed in the 1970s is just as popular as the restaurant's chile rellenos and fajitas. In 1998, an America's Classics award from the prestigious James Beard Foundation all but solidified its standing as one of Texas' truest institutions — even if it still doesn't accept credit cards. "Bring cash, reverence," notes Kearney. "It's considered a holy place by many."
Blue Bonnet Cafe
211 Highway 281, Marble Falls
This precious diner only a few blocks away from a limestone cliff that tumbles into the Colorado River below (or, as it's called in these parts, Lake Marble Falls) is the epitome of a small-town restaurant. This means you can't leave without ordering a piece of pie, which has been Blue Bonnet's claim to fame — along with breakfasts that will keep you full for days — since 1929. There's even a daily happy hour that features pie and a drink during the week. Breakfast is served all day, which means you can have a piece of German chocolate or peanut butter pie for dessert. Just remember to bring cash.
Fonda San Miguel
2330 N. Loop BLVd. West, Austin
Since Fonda San Miguel opened in 1975, no other restaurant in the United States has been more important in shaping the often-nebulous definition of Mexican food. "Diana Kennedy consulted on this," notes Tijerina, "and it has played a crucial role in shaping the growth of interior Mexican food in the state and in the United States." The riotously colorful Austin hacienda from Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago was "seminal in that it completely changed the conversation about what constitutes 'Mexican food' in Texas," agrees Virginia Wood of the Austin Chronicle. Despite moving to Spain in 2008, chef Ravago returns to his Austin kitchen every month (although it's in the capable hands of Oscar Alvarez, who — like many Fonda staff — has been there for decades).
900 E. 11th St., Austin
This is the stuff that changed Anthony Bourdain's mind about Texas barbecue, which the chef and author had formerly maligned. After being brought to Franklin by barbecue evangelist Daniel Vaughn, Bourdain had to admit that the brisket Aaron Franklin smokes in low heat over post-oak wood for 18 hours was "the finest brisket" he'd ever had. "I can't imagine anyone could surpass this," Bourdain told the Huffington Post last year. Bon Appétit agreed, naming Franklin the best barbecue in the country in 2010, calling the young Aaron Franklin himself "a prizefighter in the prime of his career." And it's a young career — Franklin has been open only since 2009, but seems destined to become a Texas legacy.
811 W. Live Oak St., Austin
Mary Faulk Koock was a famous cookbook author whose Austin restaurant was a bit like an early version of The French Laundry. Koock lived at Green Pastures before eventually turning the sprawling estate — her ancestral home — into what is now known as the "grande dame of Austin restaurants." Koock was the state's premier hostess for three decades in the mid-20th century, and James Beard himself was sent from New York City to help her publish the Lone Star State's "definitive" cookbook in 1965, The Texas Cookbook. "Koock entertained presidents and ordinary folk," says Wood, who also notes that Green Pastures was important for another reason: It was one of the first integrated fine dining restaurants in the United States.
619 N. Colorado St., Lockhart
Known as the "Church of Kreuz" both for its massive, cathedral-like structure and for the devotion with which its supplicants line up outside on Saturdays as if for church service, Kreuz Market may not be the oldest barbecue joint in Lockhart, but it's our food writers' top pick in the Barbecue Capital of Texas — although Virginia Wood is quick to note that both Smitty's and Kreuz should make the list, "in recognition of both sides of the family feud that erupted in the '90s." You get no sauce or even utensils here, all the better to appreciate the obsessively smoked and richly scented meats that derive all of their flavor from the oak chips that seal in the ribs' and pork chops' juices and softly rendered fat with a wonderfully thick, black smoke ring.
Matt's El Rancho
2613 S. Lamar BLVd., Austin
Former prizefighter Matt Martinez opened the first Matt's El Rancho in 1952 and moved it to its current South Lamar location three decades later — complete with a not-so-humble, blazing red sign that proclaims Matt's the "King of Mexican Food" in blaring neon. People pack the dining rooms every night to order old-school Tex-Mex favorites like El Rancho's own Bob Armstrong dip — named for former Texas Land Commissioner and El Rancho regular Bob Armstrong — that layers queso, taco meat, sour cream and guacamole in one delightfully over-the-top dish.
208 South Commerce St., Lockhart
The once and former Kreuz Market underwent a name change in 1999 when Nina Schmidt Sells — daughter of Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt — allowed her brother Rick to take the original Kreuz name (and some of its coals, from a fire which is said to never die) and open a "new" Kreuz Market down the street. Smitty's still occupies the same century-old store in which Charles Kreuz first began smoking meat in 1900. What began as Kreuz's way of preserving meat prior to refrigeration is now a bona fide legacy. And although Smitty's has made it unscathed into the 21st century, you still share communal tables under smoke-stained pressed-tin ceilings and you still have to pay with cash (or a check).
801 S. Lamar BLVd., Austin
In the 1980s, chefs like Robert Del Grande and Stephan Pyles were busy transforming the way the rest of the nation viewed Texas cuisine. Today it's Tyson Cole who's at the helm of a new movement that started with seminal Austin restaurant Uchi in 2003. In the intervening decade, Cole won a coveted James Beard award (after being nominated for three consecutive years prior) for his "Japanese farmhouse" cuisine that combines Texan ingredients with the Japanese ideals and techniques he acquired while training for 10 years in Japan. And in the meantime, Cole's cooking — and expansion of Uchi into smaller concepts and new markets — has once again changed the way the nation casts an eye on modern Texas cuisine. Addie Broyles of the Austin-American Statesman notes that although the 10-year-old Uchi is "baby seminal," when viewed within the context of this list, it "likely will be [seminal] in another 10 or 15 years."
Biga on the Banks
203 S. Saint Mary's St., San Antonio
Tijerina jokingly refers to chef/owner Bruce Auden as "the Susan Lucci of Beard nominations." With seven under his belt, Auden is clearly doing something right here at Biga on the Banks, which is by far the best spot to dine along San Antonio's touristy River Walk. That's because the stunning multistory restaurant serves legitimately dazzling food instead of overpriced tourist-trappy dishes. Auden's "blend of South Texas and Asian influences was groundbreaking at Charlie's 517 in Houston," recalls Tijerina, and "even after all these years, he still produces an excellent vision of South Texas on a plate."
218 Produce Row, San Antonio
Even if the market surrounding Mi Tierra is "a little sad," Kearney says, "once inside the doors, this 24-hour margarita-fueled spot is a merry place." Tijerina agrees, asking of the festive restaurant that's served patrons for over six decades: "Where else can you get huevos rancheros 24 hours a day?" Between the strolling bands of mariachis, Christmas lights blooming across the walls like creeping ivy, an aesthetic that can best be described as a piñata-and-papel-picado explosion and a full-service panadería in front, Tijernia says: "This is the best example of the more-is-more ethos that is San Antonio."
Ray's Drive Inn
822 Southwest 19th St., San Antonio
"If you want to start an argument in San Antonio," Tijerina says, "just ask who does the best puffy tacos." Our food writers agreed that Ray's Drive Inn does the best turn on San Antonio's most popular native food — narrowly edging out Henry's Puffy Tacos — something sure to fan the flames of the ongoing feud between the two restaurants' followings. With its scruffy West Side setting in a deliciously retro drive-in and its neon-lit claim as the original home of the puffy taco — on the menu since 1966 — Ray's is "a piece of puro San Antonio," Tijerina says.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch
7701 Interstate 40 East, Amarillo
The Big Texan is one of those terrifically larger-than-life restaurants that — like Mi Tierra — wave their "everything is bigger in Texas" flag with emphatic zeal. The yellow and blue exterior — fronted by a giant bull advertising its notorious 72-ounce steak — looks almost circus-like under the wide-open skies of Amarillo off the famous Route 66, and the atmosphere inside isn't all that different. If you can eat that steak — nicknamed "The Texas King" — and its sides in less than an hour, the $72 meal is free. This decades-old challenge is why Kearney calls it "the spot where competition eating was born." If you're into voyeurism, you can even watch competitors take on the challenge daily on webcams via The Big Texan's website.
3002 FM 89 #A, Buffalo Gap
There's something reassuring about a restaurant whose address is simply a bunch of numbers before and after a Farm Road designation. Perini Ranch is classic country at its best, as the rural address would indicate. And as its location on the cattle-dotted West Texas plains would suggest, Perini Ranch is best known for its beef. Its mesquite-smoked peppered beef tenderloin combines two of the state's best ingredients — Texas beef and mesquite wood — and the impressively authentic ranch setting in tiny Buffalo Gap gives the impression that dusty cowboys fresh off the trail will wander in for some fried catfish or chicken at any moment.