Having lived and worked in the Heights for almost 15 years, I’ve eaten a lot of lunches in what was Houston’s first suburb. Initially, good options were limited: walk-up fast-food joint Someburger, the now-shuttered Dacapo’s and Triple A, and Tex-Mex classic Teotihuacan, which is still serving a comforting array of fajitas, enchiladas, and shrimp dishes.
Within a few years, a new wave of lunch options began opening. The family-friendly Antidote at 729 Studewood — basically my second living room — opened in 2007 and offered a small selection of sandwiches, including one of the city’s better mozzarella, tomato, pesto sandwiches, which I’ve been splitting with my daughter for years.
In 2011, Revival Market and Down House opened, upping the Heights’s full-service lunch game by offering entrées, sandwiches and salads, often made with local ingredients. Eight years later, each is still at it.
With the solid groundwork laid by these pioneers, the Heights’ restaurant scene exploded. Now, there are too many good lunch spots to list. Below are my current favorites (a list that could look much different in a month or two).
But before we dive into that list, I’d better define what I mean by “the Heights,” which can sometimes be a contentious affair. To me, the Heights is the cluster of four neighborhoods — Houston Heights, Norhill Heights, Woodland Heights, and Sunset Heights — bordered by the Shepherd-Durham corridor on the west, I-45 on the east, 610 on the north, and I-10 on the south. So, that means nearby neighborhoods with equally worthy restaurants, such as Shady Acres, Timbergrove and the Washington Corridor, are outside the realm of this discussion.
Bernie’s Burger Bus, 2200 Yale: Appropriately, I first met Bernie’s Burger Bus owner Justin Turner on, well, a bus. It was a bus full of chefs headed to Waller County to help feed evacuees and first responders during the devastating 2011 wildfires. I was already a fan of his lush burgers served from a yellow school bus, which was usually parked at a coffee shops or bar, but I was even more enthusiastic about his success after the support he showed his new hometown. Since then, he’s opened four brick-and-mortar locations in the Houston area, including one in the Heights. This location has become a semi-regular, after-school stop for my daughter and I. She’ll usually orders The First Grader, a kid-friendly burger with cheese, pickles and ketchup and I’ll usually get The Principal, a classic burger with cheese, mayo, mustard, ketchup, onions, lettuce and piquant garlic tomatoes. Sometimes, one of us strays from the beef-en path and indulges in The Hall Pass, a ground chicken patty topped with goat cheese, sun-dried tomato guacamole, bacon, lettuce, those garlic tomatoes and crispy fried onions. And we always split an order of sweet potato fries that are so good she prefers them to French fries.
La Fondita Michoacán, 1010 N. Shepherd: While researching another, hipper taqueria, I stumbled on a Facebook post recommending the tacos at La Fondita Michoacán. It turns out that the recommender was right. This modest restaurant in the low-slung strip center (much of Houston’s best food is in strip centers) across from the Kroger at 11th and Shepherd is serving some of Houston’s best tacos. The lengua is melt-in-your mouth tender, the barbacoa is succulent and juicy, and the beef fajita is sensual yet homey. Then there are the housemade tortillas. The corn tortillas are good but the flour tortilla — well, the flour tortilla is excellent. Somehow, it is both translucent yet pillowy and substantial enough to carry the weight of the beefy fillings — a candidate for the best flour tortilla in town.
Good Dog Houston, 903 Studewood: Eight years ago, sitting at colorful French bistro tables as my daughter and her friends played on Antidote’s patio, I learned to love hot dogs again. It was a warm Friday night and Amalia Pferd and Daniel Caballero were serving franks from their white-and-sky-blue food truck that was once a bus. These were not those limp, tepid torpedoes of meat by-product served to kids at backyard cookouts, but Texas-style, made-to-specification franks (85% beef and 15% pork) served in perfectly toasted, locally made buns and topped with a constellation of housemade condiments. I’ve been a fan ever since. A couple of years later, Pferd and Caballero opened their first brick-and-mortar location in a Heights bungalow. There, you can pull a yellow stool up to the bar and enjoy an Ol’ Zapata — a Good Dog Houston’s frank topped with bacon, caramelized onion, and jalapeño relish (still my favorite). It’s perfect with the potato chips fried to impeccable crispness and a craft beer from a rotating selection by Texas breweries. Surprisingly, Good Dog Houston also makes some of the best fish and chips in town. For vegetarians, tofu dogs are available and are particularly good as the base of the Sloppy Slaw Dog, which is topped with grain mustard, apple-horseradish slaw, and melted Swiss cheese.
Harold’s Restaurant 350 West 19th: Can you recommend a restaurant based on its Brussels sprouts? In Harold’s case, I’d say, “Yes.” They were that good, and even more importantly, my daughter loved them. While many Brussels sprouts dishes are drowned in bonito flakes, bacon, some creamy sauce or all three, Harold’s were simply roasted until the outside layers were crispy and the inside tender. The only seasoning was salt. We ate them all and could have indulged in more. Harold’s minimalist approach to the sprouts reflects an overall approach to Southern-inflected cooking. The crab cake was packed with crab, not filler. The chicken salad was light on mayo and heavy on tender chunks of chicken. The fried chicken is moist and crunchy. The mashed potatoes are so creamy that gravy is unneeded. With traditional lunch establishments like Dacapo’s and Triple A closed, Harold’s fills that gap with simple-yet-elevated takes on American classics that my daughter and I heartily recommend.
Mastrantos 927 Studewood: This inviting new Heights haven recently launched its first lunch menu. Inspired by owners Xavier and Mari Godoy’s Venezuelan upbringing and international travels, lunch features dishes representing Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela, Mexico, Italy and the Middle East. It’s like a virtual drive through southwest Houston. I highly recommend the pozole verde. Based on a recipe from executive chef Tony Castillo’s wife, the rich, warming broth steeped with charred poblanos and roasted tomatillos is laced with a generous helping of tender shredded chicken and soft hominy, cooked just enough that they retain a satisfying hint of chewiness.
Melange Creperie 711 Heights: Several years ago, standing on the sidewalk outside Hello-Lucky, I watched steam waft from a large cast-iron griddle as “Buffalo” Sean Carroll spread a thin layer of crêpe batter across it and listened to him patter like a carnival barker. It was performance art combined with deft cooking. After winning fans at multiple Houston street corners and in the Conservatory food hall, Melange Creperie, operated by both Carroll and his wife, Tish, finally found a permanent home in the Heights Mercantile development. To this day, Carroll still creates perfect, thin crepes with A note to parents: Melange Creperie’s pink bungalow across from Donovan Park is the perfect place to lunch with kids after a morning at the playground.
Pinkerton’s Texas Pit Barbecue, 1504 Airline: Pinkerton’s helped launch Houston’s barbecue renaissance. Months after opening in 2016, Texas Monthly hailed them as one of “The Top 50 Barbecue Joints in Texas.” Pitmaster Grant Pinkerton and staff haven’t rested on their mesquite — they are still smoking some mighty fine barbecue. The brisket is smoky and tender. The beef and pork ribs are top notch (and the bones make some of the best stock you’ll ever have, so don’t leave them behind). Remember, they charge by the pound so don’t let your stomach get ahead of your budget, or order one of their sandwiches and a side of Jalapeño Cheese Rice. Or indulge in the decadent-yet-heavenly Duck Jambalaya.
Puebla’s Mexican Kitchen, 6320 North Main: Puebla’s Mexican Kitchen is an unassuming, neighborhood restaurant with good breakfast tacos, even better breakfast tortas and a Friday lunch special that you don’t want to miss. On select Fridays (check ahead), they serve cemita: a Pueblan-style torta that layers a brioche-like, sesame seed-studded bun with a thin, crispy milanesa — that is bigger than the bun and almost hangs over the plate — sliced avocado, white cheese and more. It’s one of the best sandwiches in town.
Quesadillas y Mas Los Parado, 3930 North Main: When out-of-towners want to experience the Bayou City, I often take them to the corner of North Main and Temple. There, across from a Shipley’s and parked in front of Ely’s Beauty Salon (a bright green building with mannequins on the porch and its own interesting, very-Houston story), they’ll find Quesadillas y Mas Los Parados, a taco truck that serves some of my favorite food in Houston. I highly recommend the flor de calabaza and the huitlacoche quesadillas on their truck-made blue corn tortillas.
Revival Market, 550 Heights: Before Agricole Hospitality became a mini-food-and-beverage empire featuring seven establishments, including the highly-regarded Coltivare, co-owner Morgan Weber was selling Mangalitsa pork, raised on his family’s farm in Yoakum, from the back of his pickup. After several years selling hogs to restaurants and at area farmers markets, Weber teamed up with chef Ryan Pera to open Revival Market. Featuring locally raised meat and produce, Revival soon became a Heights staple for breakfast and lunch. The menu has evolved over the years, changing not only with the seasons but also with the demands and tastes of diners. However, one thing has remained consistent: a selection of high-quality, high-taste sandwiches (try the crispy chicken or roast beef), salads, and breakfast items (you can’t go wrong with the buttermilk biscuit sandwich or the Sicilian breakfast sandwich with housemade n’duja — both available all day). The food is set to get even better now that Steve Lambron, former executive sous chef at the now-closed The Pass & Provisions, is helming Revival’s kitchen.
Street Food Thai Market, 1010 West Cavalcade: Despite the Houston area having a plethora of good Asian restaurants, the Heights has long had a shortage of quality Asian eateries. There are a couple of good neighborhood Vietnamese establishments, such as Nam Eatery, and then there is Street Food Thai Market. Tucked into one of Houston’s ubiquitous strip centers, they serve some of the city’s best Thai food, from a well-executed version of American-Thai-restaurant staple, pad thai to lesser-known Esarn (or Issan) delicacies from northern Thailand, such as larb, various styles of sum tum (green papaya salad) and fermented sausages.
La Vibra Tacos 506 Yale: Who would have thought that the Heights’s newest taco joint would serve light, airy, perfectly fried potato puffs? But La Vibra Tacos does just that. I could eat them all day, every day. Inspired by Mexico City’s taco culture, they also serve sumptuous costra: shredded cheese — at La Vibra, a slightly smoky gouda — melted and crisped on a griddle until it transforms into a beautiful rich, chocolate brown “tortilla.” They fold in your choice of filling (I recommend the bistec — thinly sliced 1855 angus sirloin) and serve the mutli-layered goodness on a flour tortilla. Be sure to add one the four complimentary housemade salsas. I’d lean toward the oniony asasda or the creamy jalapeño. They also offer classic tacos on housemade corn tortillas and volcán-style tacos — your choice of topping and melted Oaxaca cheese on a toasted corn tortilla that resembles a wavy tostada. Also order a side of nopales and an aqua fresca and you may find yourself returning to this strip center for dinner.
Even by slipping in an 11th and 12th choice to the requested 10, I’ve left a lot of good lunch options on the proverbial cutting-room floor. So here are a few outtakes that almost made it (and could have made it last month or next): the cheeseburger, smoked pork taco, and jamaica aqua fresca at Cantina Barba; biting into the rich Rueben bagel sandwich at Golden Bagel; lunch stalwart Local Foods; the shaken beef salad and matcha sua da at Morningstar; enjoying General Tso’s chicken, a nitro Thai iced tea, and the Blade Runner vibes at Rice Box; picking up the Cuban taco, a side of plantains, and a cantaloupe juice from El Rey drive-thru, a lifesaver when you have a sleeping kid in the car; Taco Stop, the Heights outpost of Houston classic, Tacos Tierra Caliente; and the vegan delights at Verdine.
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