The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants: Plus Some That Nearly Made It

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
La Gloria in San Antonio

If you've read this week's feature -- The 30 Essential Texas Restaurants to Visit Before You Die -- by food critic Katharine Shilcutt at our sister paper the Houston Press, then you've no doubt already asked why X, Y or Z restaurant didn't make the list. Maybe you've asked this question angrily to your computer, or rhetorically to a coworker who actually tried to answer the question. Neither of these situations will provide a satisfactory answers, of course, so maybe this will help.

Below are the 13 restaurants that kept getting mentioned again and again by our food writers and nearly made it, but just didn't get that final vote or two to push them over the top. These are the Dan Marinos of our list -- the Superbowl shut-outs that almost had a taste of sweet, sweet Astroturf.

Alternately, you could think of these 13 restaurants as an extension to the top 30 list, in case 30 just wasn't enough to satiate you. They're arguably as important as some of the others that made the top 30 list and represent an even broader swath of Texas. Tack these 13 on to the end of the top 30 and play the whole list on "expert" level.

Restaurants are listed alphabetically and, as with our 30 list, are not ranked:

Barley Swine, Austin
Notable for: Being a restaurant. Chef Bryce Gilmore once ran the Odd Duck Farm to Trailer -- probably Austin's most popular food truck for a long while -- and eventually opened this brick-and-mortar gastropub to serve his food full-time in a small plate format that features locally-grown produce. Barley Swine takes its beer as seriously as its wine, too.

Brennan's, Houston
Notable for: Serving Creole classics in a refined, dignified setting that's remained virtually the same for many decades despite a devastating fire that burned Brennan's to the ground in 2008. Brennan's has retained its reputation as a "special occasion" spot that's warm and welcoming yet still serious, a quality found in increasingly fewer dining rooms. The restaurant has also trained up generations of young, successful chefs over the years -- Randy Evans of Haven and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, just to name a couple -- in its mammoth, old-school kitchen.

Congress, Austin
Notable for: Chef David Bull's so-called "Natural American" cuisine that's available only in nightly tasting menus -- three or seven courses -- and prepared with as many locally-obtained ingredients as possible, with beverage pairings from sommelier Paula Rester. The pricey meals are served in an appropriately sleek, elegant downtown dining room that's next door to Bull's other concepts: Bar Congress and Second Bar & Kitchen.

Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
La Gloria, San Antonio
Notable for: Being an upscale icehouse near the old Pearl Brewery in the newest hip part of San Antonio, serving a huge variety of Mexican street food from sopes to panuchos and a terrific selection of cocktails. La Gloria's fare is slightly more expensive Mexican street food, to be certain, but the atmosphere and the view onto the river make the price worth it.

The Lonesome Dove, Fort Worth
Notable for: Chef Tim Love's modern Texana cuisine, a love letter to the state, which runs the gamut from traditional steaks to wild boar and rattlesnake. Open for more than a dozen years, Lonesome Dove is in the heart of the Stockyard District -- just like Joe T. Garcia's and Cattlemen's Steakhouse -- but is by far more upscale than its fellow Fort Worth companions on the list.

Mary's Cafe, Strawn
Notable for: Chicken fried steak, which has been universally deemed "road trip-worthy." The West Texas-style chicken fried steak in this tiny town comes in three sizes, but the small is large enough to cover a dinner plate -- so order wisely -- and comes with all the fixings, including gravy on the side (the right way). Get the "Bubba"-sized tea to wash it all down. Trust us.

Oxheart, Houston
Notable for: Chef Justin Yu's Nordic-inspired minimalist cuisine, featuring Gulf Coast products and a predominance of repurposed vegetables. The nightly tasting menus -- four or seven courses -- are served in an itty bitty spot in Houston's Warehouse District with baked goods from Yu's wife -- pastry chef Karen Man -- and an unusual wine program from sommelier Justin Vann.


Smoke, Dallas
Notable for: Offering amazing barbecue in the middle of the Big D. Chef/owner Tim Byres goes beyond just barbecue, however, and crafts everything at Smoke in-house, including -- as Leslie Brenner noted in her Dallas Morning News review of Smoke in 2011 -- "baking breads, putting up pickles and jams, curing sausages, making his own ricotta cheese, growing many of the vegetables and herbs for the restaurant in a garden behind the restaurant."

Snow's, Lexington
Notable for: Having its own Wikipedia entry, and generally being accepted as some of the best barbecue in Texas despite being open for roughly four hours one day a week. This was perhaps the most surprising omission from the 30 list, along with the fact that no burger joints made the top 30.

Stagecoach Inn, Salado
Notable for: Surviving as the oldest continually operating hotel in the state, open since 1861. It's got plenty of other claims to fame, too, aside from being located in beautiful, historic Salado: Famous visitors over the years include General George A. Custer, Robert E. Lee and Jesse James.

Stingaree, Crystal Beach
Notable for: Being "a survivor and a great sunset destination," said contributor Syd Kearney of the Houston Chronicle. "And the barbecue crab is the real deal." Despite Stingaree and all of Crystal Beach suffering badly during Hurricane Ike in 2008, the restaurant stands as a symbol of the Gulf Coast's resilience.

the breakfast klub, Houston
Notable for: Long lines leading to the most perfect plate of chicken and waffles you've ever tasted. (Also: grits.) the breakfast klub has been called one of the "best breakfast restaurants in the nation" by everyone from Good Morning America and USA Today to Esquire and Forbes.

Tolbert's Chili, Grapevine
Notable for: Serving the state's official food in a restaurant opened by Terlingua Chili Cook-Off founder and chili expert Frank X. Tolbert himself. As Hanna Raskin put it in a 2010 article from the Dallas Observer: "[T]he restaurant functions today not just as a hometown honky-tonk and Texas foodways defender, but also as a sort of link to the state's first well-known food writer."

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Katharine Shilcutt