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.