Best bets for a nice meal closest to the conference…
XOCHI: James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega’s Oaxacan restaurant is a jewel in the city’s crown. Elemental mole sauces form the backbone of the menu; to taste them all, scooping with the house-ground corn tortillas, is to grasp Xochi’s singular greatness — and the power of the interior Mexican cuisine that has helped shape the Houston palate. There’s more, of course: fresh handmade cheeses; subtly textured masa snacks; a skillful bar specializing in agave spirits; Ruben Ortega’s surprising desserts; a piquant dried insect or two. Plus stirring applications of those fundamental moles to meats, fowl, shellfish and vegetables. 1777 Walker (inside the Marriott Marquis), 713-400-3330; xochihouston.com
KULTURE: Chef Dawn Burrell rethinks foods of the African diaspora in this dramatic, glass-walled space on a prime corner of Avenida Houston. Kulture is the brainchild of Marcus Davis, owner of the much-loved Midtown soul food hangout, The Breakfast Klub (if you fancy the fried chicken and waffles there, be prepared to wait in line). But downtown, with vintage Michael Jackson on the sound system, soulful turns delicate and detailed in the hands of former Olympic long-jumper Burrell. Her fried okra pods are as fluffed and airy as tempura. Her creamy collard dip seems made for the little rice fritters known as calas. And her blackened cabbage wedge with bacon vinaigrette and onion soubise is pure genius. To go along: strong and sweet cocktails and South African wines. 701 Avenida de las Americas; 713-357-9697; facebook.com/KultureHouston
For cheap and cheerful Vietnamese…
HUYNH: A beloved, homespun Vietnamese spot in a strip mall a few blocks east of the convention center. Major bang for buck – must orders include stunning chargrilled pork soft rolls; piquant yellow coconut curry with tofu, hot chiles and lemongrass (Dau Hu Xào Xa Ót); pulled duck and cabbage salad (seriously, do not miss this); and flash-fried Phoenix chicken with rice and a frizzly fried egg. Note: It’s BYOB. 912 St. Emanuel, 713-224-8964; huynhrestauranthouston.com
For classic Houston Tex-Mex…
ORIGINAL NINFA’S ON NAVIGATION: As the name implies, this is where it all started. If you believe the legend, Mama Ninfa was (is) the patron saint of Tex-Mex. In her once tiny kitchen, she helped popularize fajitas. The margaritas here have life giving powers. Overall, this Ninfa’s is the gold standard for our many temples of Tex-Mex; expect a crowd, and groups should call ahead. 2704 Navigation; 713-228-1175; ninfas.com
EL TIEMPO CANTINA: The expensive chow at El Tiempo, founded by the descendants of Mama Ninfa, is outstanding — deliciously charred fajitas, pillowy flour tacos, amazing salsas. The margaritas are strong and tasty, a rare combination. 2814 Navigation; 713-222-6800; eltiempocantina.com
IRMA’S ORIGINAL: Owner Irma Galvan’s original customers were courthouse employees, judges, attorneys and sheriff’s department — all have remained loyal to her homespun comida: enchiladas, chile rellenos, carnitas, carne guisada and tamales. As downtown grew, so did Irma’s reputation, solidified by a James Beard Foundation award as an America’s Classic restaurant. Her son’s restaurant, Irma’s Southwest (1475 Texas), is also quite good. 22 N. Chenevert; 713-222-0767; irmasoriginal.com
PAPPASITO’S CANTINA: The Pappas family’s Tex-Mex standby still rules. Besides the best queso in town, try the high-quality fajitas or well-made fish tacos. More than a dozen Houston-area locations, including one at the Hilton downtown, which fills up fast if there’s a concert at neighboring Toyota Center. 1600 Lamar pappasitos.com
For (arguably) the city’s best breakfast tacos…
VILLA ARCOS: This small, scarlet-painted shack serves stupendous breakfast tacos on house-made flour tortillas. Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook day dreams about the sprawling Bacon Super Taco, or the simple and sublime Veila's Burrito, with its cargo of chile and refried beans. (Yes, you want onions on that.) The rich sense of East End history, politics and community animates the modest dining room, founded by the late Yolanda Black Navarro in 1977. Order at the window, grab a Mexican Coke, and survey the memorabilia while you wait for your food — and remember that the lesser-known lunch plates are a primal Tex-Mex experience, too. 3009 Navigation; 713-826-1099; originalvillaarcos.com
For a great hamburger…
HUBCAP GRILL: Consistently one of the city’s best burgers. The patties are shaped by hand from fresh beef. The condiments are neither skimpy nor overloaded. The ambience is trailerlicious. 1111 Prairie, 713-223-5885; hubcapgrill.com
For reasonably priced South American food…
ANDES CAFÉ: Talented Ecuadoran chef David Guerrero’s scrappy restaurant in the near East End is a favorite for its raffish, charming décor and its lively, reasonably priced pan-South American menu. From lush, tropical smoothies to finely etched ceviches to deep-fried guinea pig, this kitchen shows remarkable range. 2311 Canal, Suite 104; 832-659-0063; andescafe.com
Where the cool kids eat…
NANCY’S HUSTLE: This unassuming, critically-acclaimed, hip neighborhood bistro feels exactly right, from the vintage R&B on its reel-to-reel tape system to the warmth of the staff to the tightly edited menu of rustic Franco-American fare, goosed with a Mediterranean tingle. Even the salads sparkle with their laser-cut herbs and bright dressings. So does the sourdough bread service. (It’s worth the 5 bucks.) You can graze happily, tackle a serious dinner or sneak in late for a bite at the long, hospitable counter. Reservations recommended. 2704 Polk; 346-571-7931; nancyshustle.com
For grab-and-go grub…
PHOENECIA: This easily walkable, two-level Mediterranean grocer/market has delicious grab-and-go food, a salad bar, and makes pita fresh daily. There’s a café/bar on-site, too. 1001 Austin; 832-360-2222; phoeneciafoods.com
For a wide array of options in one fell swoop…
FOOD HALLS: The food hall trend has finally hit Houston, and there are a two to try downtown with more on the way. Finn Hall, built out in a stunning art deco building, has 10 different vendors (including acclaimed Mala Sichuan Bistro) and an upstairs cocktail bar. The below-ground Conservatory has a beer bar, barbecue, pizza and sushi options, and it’s open till the wee hours on weekends. Be warned that both get super busy with office workers during peak lunch hours. Finn Hall, 710 Main; finnhallhtx.com. Conservatory, 1010 Prairie; conservatoryhtx.com
If you’re feeling fancy and flush…
POTENTE: Astros owner Jim Crane’s luxe Italian spot next to the ballpark could have been just another vanity restaurant. Instead, under chef Danny Trace, it’s home to some very personal Creole Italian food that draws on Trace’s Louisiana and Italian family roots. The pastas are thoughtful, and even such basics as veal and lamb chops are beautifully done. A serious Italian-skewed wine list adds to the fun, as does the chance to spot local and visiting sports stars. The relaxed dress code relaxes even further before an Astros home game. (Next door, Osso & Kristalla, the casual sister restaurant, offers similarly kicky flavors at less cost.) 1515 Texas, 713-237-1515; potentehouston.com
And you want a Texas-size steak….
PAPPAS BROS. STEAKHOUSE: In dining rooms as plush and gleaming as a vintage railway car, big men partake of big dry-aged steaks and big-ticket wines that include interesting premium choices by the glass. The Pappas family is based in Houston, and most everything they do is tip-top notch. 1200 McKinney, 713-658-1995; pappasbros.com
VIC & ANTHONY’S: Steaks, sides that could feed a family and the best calamari on the planet are served at Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s Astros ballpark-adjacent steakhouse. Also on the menu: seafood towers, caviar, lobsters, chophouse classics and Prime and Wagyu steaks. No hats, shorts or flip flops allowed. 1510 Texas, 713-228-1111; vicandanthonys.com
If you’re craving great Texas barbecue … you’ll have to take an Uber. Here are a few of the closest spots we recommend:
TRUTH BBQ: The cult favorite from Brenham – about 90 minutes away, Texas Monthly ranked it as the No. 10 best barbecue joint in the entire state – opened a second location in Houston this past January. A line starts forming before the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. Stellar ‘cue, including jaw-droppingly good pork ribs, subtly smoky brisket, tater tot casserole and perfect three-layer cakes, is available till 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday or until they sell out. 110 S. Heights Blvd.; 832-835-0001; truthbbq.com
PINKERTON’S BARBECUE: Grant Pinkerton is making a splash in the Heights with his emphatically Central Texas style ’cue — colossal beef ribs, almost 2 pounds per bone, have a deliciously charred and crusty bark seasoned with salt and coarse ground pepper. Sides, including smoked duck jambalaya and a crisp coleslaw, are all made in-house. Also on offer: craft cocktails and a list of wines meant to be paired with barbecue. 1504 Airline; 713-802-2000; pinkertonsbarbecue.com
THE PIT ROOM: The three types of handmade sausage at this Montrose joint may be the best in Houston: all-beef sausage loaded with mustard seeds and other spices; pork sausage with chunks of fresh jalapeño and melty cheese; and dense, smoky and peppery venison sausage. Thoughtful sides and condiments, as well as tacos with flour tortillas made in-house using fat collected from brisket trimmings. 1201 Richmond, 281-888-1929; thepitroombbq.com
RAY’S BBQ SHACK: The Third Ward barbecue staple has moved from its gas-station digs to sleek new quarters. There’s a tap wall, a convenient counter for solo diners and plenty of shiny galvanized aluminum. Plenty of Southeast Texas-style barbecue, too, including meaty little old-school rib tips in a sandwich (all of the sandwiches are good!); spicy, house-ground beef links; smoked boudin; fried corn on the cob; and glorious pit-smoked mac and cheese. It’s a lively community center where the food has an admirable sense of place, right down to the superior fried catfish, Friday gumbo specials or Thursday’s mighty smoked oxtails. 3929 Old Spanish Trail; 713-748-4227; raysbbqshack.com
Looking for more restaurant recommendations? Check out Houston Chronicle critic Alison Cook’s 2018 Top 100 Restaurants list at houstonchronicle.com/top100, and her list of the city’s best new restaurants at bit.ly/2YELOz5.
THE PASTRY WAR: Named for a three-month skirmish in 1838 between Mexico and France, this bar specializes in mezcal, tequila and sotol. Fun décor, impeccable margaritas and delicious tamales further the appeal. 310 Main, 713-226-7770; thepastrywar.com
TONGUE-CUT SPARROW: This 25-seat formal cocktail bar, hidden in a clubby lair above the Pastry War, might be the city’s most intimate place for well-crafted classic cocktails. Reservations accepted. 310 Main, 713-321-8242; tonguecutsparrow.com
DEAN’S DOWNTOWN: Housed in a former clothing store (the remnants of which remain in the windows), this lounge-y watering hole has a cool vibe with eclectic vintage furniture and unfussy cocktails. Live or DJ music often. 316 Main; 832-564-0918; deansdowntown.com
LA CARAFE: One of the oldest bars in one of Houston’s oldest buildings (rumored to be haunted) on historic Market Square. It’s an atmospheric, narrow, candle-lit lair with a classic juke box. On offer: wine by the glass and bottle, and beer in icy mugs. Cash only, but there’s an ATM in the corner. 813 Congress; 713-229-9399
TRUCK YARD: Every day’s a carnival at this Dallas import in EaDo. A huge, rambling indoor/outdoor playground where food trucks park and young things work their way through a smart beer menu as well as craft draft cocktails, frozen cocktails and wine on tap. 2118 Lamar, 713-855-9666; truckyardhouston.com
THE COTTONMOUTH CLUB: First-rate craft cocktails without pretension set to a soundtrack grounded in New York’s downtown scene circa 1970s. Bartenders here make a mean Old Fashioned. 108 Main, cottonmouthhouston.com
RESERVE 101: Love whiskey? This bar offers more than 100, and the bartenders are well versed in the traits and histories of every bottle. Located near Discovery Green, House of Blues and Toyota Center, it draws a diverse crowd. Another great option if you love whiskey AND interesting, well-chosen wine: Public Services Wine & Whisky (202 Travis). 1201 Caroline, 713-655-7101; reserve101.com
THE RUSTIC: An enormous backyard bar and live-music venue that feels distinctly Texas with its chow (queso, deviled eggs, tamales, burgers and tacos) and hooch (bottle, can and draft beers, frozen drinks and cocktails). Live music nightly under the starry skies. 1836 Polk, 832-321-7799; therustic.com
FLYING SAUCER DRAUGHT EMPORIUM: It’s worth a visit just to see this gastropub’s lengthy tap wall — draft beers that are listed along with dozens of bottle varieties in the “fly paper” on your table. Happy hour Monday through Friday means all draft beer is a buck off. Decent pub fare, too. 705 Main; 713-228-9472; beerknurd.com
OKRA CHARITY SALOON: With every drink purchase at this not-for-profit bar with an all-Houston beer list, patrons get a vote to cast on one of the month’s spotlight charities. At the end of the month, the charity with the most votes gets that month’s profits. Cool soaring space in a former jazz club. 924 Congress, 713-237-8828; friedokra.org
8TH WONDER BREWERY: Astrodome seats in the taproom, downtown views from the patio and an evolving lineup of beers — Weisstheimer, AstroTurf and Rocket Fuel, to name a few — all pay homage to our hometown. 2202 Dallas; 8thwonderbrew.com
SAINT ARNOLD BREWING CO.: Houston’s oldest craft brewery celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. It has a new outdoor beer garden and art-filled tasting room too, in which to toast with an Art Car IPA or the new dry cider. Fun for lunch. 2000 Lyons; saintarnold.com
TRUE ANOMALY BREWING: This new spot, owned by four NASA employees with a penchant for sour beers, just popped up in the city’s East End, offering a sparkling tap room and a growing list of beers to try. 2012 Dallas; trueanomalybrewing.com
A few other food and drink options worth an Uber:
Great craft cocktails
ANVIL BAR & REFUGE: Searching for some of the best cocktails in the country? And a list of more than 100 options? James Beard finalist Anvil expertly mixes the old-school way, with fresh ingredients and a dose of history. Just know that perfection takes time. 1424 Westheimer, 713-523-1622; anvilhouston.com
Great patio scene
BOHEME: The wine list at this popular Montrose spot isn’t vast, but it’s solid, affordable and thoughtful (we like a place with an albarino, vermentino and gruner veltliner by the glass). Plus, it has one of the city’s nicest patios (with misters), refreshing frozen cocktails and a loaded platter of French fries that must be seen to be believed. 307 Fairview, 713-529-1099; barboheme.com
Great for weekend brunch
CUCHARA: What’s not to love about this Montrose restaurant? There’s the kitchen that cooks with love and Mexican authenticity, the colorful murals that decorate the dining room and an adults-only vibe after dark. Everything is made in-house, including juices for its delicious cocktails. 214 Fairview, 713-942-0000; cuchararestaurant.com
Great wine bar
13 CELSIUS: Housed in a former 1920s dry-cleaners building, this comfortable Midtown wine bar offers a wide variety of unique wines by the bottle, glass and half glass. Also: artisan cheese and salumi boards, and a pretty courtyard. 3000 Caroline, 713-529-8466; 13celsius.com
Great dining exploration if you’re willing to travel…
CHINATOWN: In southwest Houston, about 20-25 minutes’ drive or ride (with no traffic), Houston’s Chinatown is home to a seemingly endless amount of delicious Asian restaurants, most mom and pops. Although it would take you months to get through them all, a few recommendations: Cajun Kitchen or Crawfish & Noodles for the oh-so-Houston Viet-Cajun mash-up; Hai Cang Seafood for an epic live-tank seafood feed with a group; Banana Leaf for Malaysian cuisine; Golden Dim Sum for dim sum; Nam Giao for incredible (and wallet friendly!) Vietnamese; Pho Binh or Pho Ga Dong Nai for pho; FuFu Café or San Dong for dumplings; and on and on…
Note: You can catch the MetroRail red line from Main Street downtown to access some of these spots as well as a handful of other “Museum District” institutions. Check houmuse.org for more information.
THE MENIL COLLECTION: A pilgrimage site for artists from around the world, tucked into a leafy pocket of the Montrose neighborhood. Architecturally marvelous (it was Renzo Piano’s first project in America), the museum houses the permanent collection of John and Dominique de Menil, including art from antiquity, the Byzantine world, tribal cultures and the 20th century. 1533 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400; menil.org. 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Free.
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON: The permanent collection here spans 6,000 years of history. Through June 27, “Vincent van Gogh: His Life in Art” follows Van Gogh through key career stages, from early sketches to final paintings. Through Sept. 8, “Between Play and Grief: Selections From the Latino American Collection” works purchased by MFAH in the past decade. May 24-Sept. 15, “William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects,” interactive installation featuring “City of Abstracts,” “Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, No. 2” and “Towards the Diagnostic Gaze.” 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300; mfah.org. $17 adults, $14 seniors. Free general admission Thursdays.
HOUSTON MUSEUM OF NATURAL SCIENCE: Exhibits of dinosaurs, amber gems and rare fossils, Burke Baker Planetarium, IMAX, butterfly garden and more. 5555 Hermann Park Drive, 713-639-4629; hmns.org. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sun. $25 adults; $15 children, seniors and college students; free 2-5 p.m. Thurs.
CONTEMPORARY ARTS MUSEUM HOUSTON: Cutting-edge international, national and regional art. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250; camh.org. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tues.-Wed. and Fri., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thurs., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., noon-6 p.m. Sun., closed Mon. Free.
ASIA SOCIETY TEXAS CENTER: Art exhibits, performances and programs related to all Asian cultures. Through Aug. 18, “Site Lines: Artists Working in Texas.” Through July 21, “Super Sarap,” video, sculpture and photography inspired by Filipino food. 1370 Southmore; 713-496-9901, asiasociety.org/texas; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tues.-Sun.; $8; $5 seniors.
PROJECT ROW HOUSES: Historical preservation meets art and community at a cluster of Third Ward shotgun houses with rotating installations by artists. 2521 Holman, 713-526-7662; projectrowhouses.org. Noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Free.
STATION MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART: Boundary-pushing art reflecting the cultural diversity of Houston. 1502 Alabama, 713-529-6900; stationmuseum.com. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Free.
ORANGE SHOW CENTER FOR VISIONARY ART: A whimsical folk-art monument, a maze of mosaics, statues and silliness. 2402 Munger, 713-926-6368; orangeshow.org. Noon-5 p.m. Wed.-Sun. between Memorial Day and Labor Day. $5 adults.
HOUSTON MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CULTURE: Art exhibits, film screenings and educational programs. Through June 29, “3 The Hard Way: Spencer Evans, Vitus Shell and Anthony Suber.” Through July 6, “Brionya James: That’s All She Wrote.” 4807 Caroline, 713-526-1015; hmaac.org. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wed.-Sat. and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thurs.
ART CAR MUSEUM: A Houston classic merging cars and modern art. 140 Heights, 713-861-5526; artcarmuseum.com. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wed.-Sun. Free.