I'll admit that while I have a personal goal to see all of the major urban cities in the States (of which I've seen 16 thus far) Houston had not made it to my list. No offense to Texas, but none of their cities were ever a top priority. I've seen bits of Dallas, haven't quite hipster'd enough for Austin, and well, Houston was a mystery. After asking around I was met with a lot of hesitation and crinkled noses at the mention of Houston as a voluntary destination. "Why aren't you going to Austin" was the repeated question.
I took the leap with a friend for a four day trip and I must say I was delightfully surprised at how much I enjoyed myself.
We were staying with a friend in the Galleria Mall area so we flew into George Bush International (IAH) direct on United (without legging or dragging incidents). While Uber is available in the city, we opted to rent a car because of the sheer expansiveness of the city, and for fear some corners of the city may have been harder to get a car to come pick us up (after learning the hard way in San Francisco). The rental car ended up being invaluable to navigating the city and covering a lot of ground. It's a worthy expense.
WHERE TO STAY
Since I crashed with a friend, I can't recommend places to stay, but I can give you a few tips when it comes to location. In Houston, remember west is best. The east side of the city (most everything east of interstate 69) is not as developed as the west side is. When it comes to mapping out where you eat, shop, and enjoy local attractions everything is on the west side within Interstate 610, a literal loop that circles the city. I feel you stay anywhere around midtown it gives you a central location for a homebase.
I ate more places than are listed here, but these were the standouts.
Lee's was our first stop right off the plane located in the Houston Heights neighborhood, which is an area you should definitely check out.
I loved the bright pops of yellow and branding of this spot, with it's simple counter service and a handful of booths. I ordered a few strips of chicken, creamed corn and mash potatoes with a variety of sauces. The chicken was juicy and perfectly fried and the large variety of sauces allow you to create your own tastes for each bite. A major bonus is that their chicken is free of antibiotics, growth stimulants or hormones.
Of course I wasn't going to stop at just chicken. I went right back for a donut double-scooped ice cream sandwich. It was perfect because their donuts are pretty perfect themselves. The classic glazed from Krispy Kreme cannot compete.
The service was incredibly hospitable and friendly. I watched them hand out samples to patrons who were already dining, and they gave me my ice cream sandwich for free for some reason. When I fought them on it they said "just come back and see us". We got some true Southern hospitality right off the bat.
Located in the Museum District we found Dak & Bop, an Asian Fusion restaurant known for their Korean Fried Chicken. The plan was to just get some small bites to pace ourselves before heading to the art museum, but once we saw the menu that plan went out the door. Bring on the Bao's, the truffle fries, and the KFC!
More perfectly crispy fried chicken was found here. Houston really seems to know how to fry their chicken. The Bao's were light and fluffy, and the fries were delicious. Truly no complaints here. The restaurant started filling up for lunch, and the tables are quite close to one another so be comfortable with close encounters with your neighbors.
Shout out to the bar for playing episodes of Parks & Recreation while we were there. I didn't want to leave.
We had an accidental brunch here back over in Houston Heights after a coffee shop we went to was closed for renovations. No reservation, we walked in on a busy Saturday morning (box of donuts from Lee's in hand) and we got sat right away.
It's a beautiful restaurant with a lot of charm and most importantly a coffee menu. I got a latte and my friend and I decided to split the Pork Guisada & Grits bowl. Our server, who loved that we brought our own donuts to brunch, had the kitchen split our meal into separate servings that honestly didn't feel like we were sharing it at all. Slow braised pork, tomatillo sauce, grits, tortilla strips, onion, cilantro and an added poached egg. I'm still thinking about that bowl fondly.
Before I go to any city I do a lot of research so I can find all the goodies that I currently can't get in Orlando, because let's face it, Orlando is "2000 and late" as Fergi would say, to all food trends. That is how I found the DoughCone. My only concern was tracking the truck down. Amazingly they have a working phone number in my experience rare for food trucks) and when I called, someone actually answered and told me their location for the day. They were set up in Rice Village, over near Rice University, which is another good area for shopping.
I got my DoughCone filled with cookie butter organic vanilla ice cream and topped with oreos and strawberries. My only wish would be that the dough was just a little softer, but overall it was quite awesome.
Benjy's has two locations, and we visited the one on Washington for our Sunday brunch with local friends. The decor is comfy art deco with large booths perfect for large parties. While they had traditional breakfast options I had to get one last KFC experience under my belt before I went home, so I dined on the KFC black pepper biscuit with honey and breakfast sausage. It was a beast, but I split it with a friend and was still stuffed. Mimosas with chicken and biscuits was the perfect last gut buster of our trip.
Houston has many, many coffee shops but I was traveling with someone who doesn't drink coffee! I tried to keep my coffee stops to a respectful minimum, but I was happy to have 35+ local spots at my fingertips.
Just west of Midtown you'll find Inversion Coffee. This was a quick stop for us, but the space was full of laptoppers working away in a bright, inviting space. I grabbed an iced Matcha to continue to fuel our explorations.
North of Museum Park is Siphon Coffee. Only one place in Orlando (that I know of) offers Siphon coffee but I've never tried it, so now was the time. I was expecting to get a hipster eye-roll when I told the barista I had never tried it before, but to my surprise he kindly and excitedly explained the process to me, and even checked up on me later to see how I liked it.
That type of service was experienced everywhere I went in Houston. No matter how young or old the people I dealt with were at every establishment were kind and attentive. That is honestly what blew me away the most during my time in the city. It's sad that is so rare.
P.S. the coffee was awesome, so good I drank it black.
Right down the street from the Downhouse, on 19th Street in Houston Heights, is Retropolis. You walk into a very narrow, somewhat cramped area of vintage goods and as you make your way you realize it opens into a huge two-story space that you need hours to thoroughly conquer. Decade after decade on rack after rack.
It's vintage overload, and it's almost too much to process, but it's perfect in it's chaos. Somehow I left empty-handed, but if I'm ever back in Houston I'll give it the 3 hours of hand-sanitized attention it deserves.
Southeast of Retropolis near 11th street you will find another local shop, Hello Lucky. It's less vintage and more local as they work with local artists and makers not just in Houston but all over the country. This is a great spot to pick up some Houston-centric swag and accessories or locally made items to take back home.
A few blocks north of Hello Lucky is El Bambi which may have won for my favorite shopping spot of the whole trip. It's not often you walk into a vintage shop and immediately find about twelve items that you love and that fit you. Sadly I was running out of room in my luggage that had already been packed, as this was our last spot we hit before heading to the airport, but I still got a few must have items.
This is a must see place if you love searching for unique items when you travel.
Over on Westheimer Road just west of Midtown you'll find another area, this time with more of an alternative feel for shopping, coffee, and food. It reminded me of a more spaced out Little Five Points in Atlanta; maybe a little cleaner.
There we found Pavement & Lo-Fi Vintage both excellent places for resale finds. The selection is larger at Pavement, but Lo-Fi had some really awesome finds as well. Don't be confused when you walk into Lo-Fi and you see mostly men's outwear and sneakers, walk into the next room and you will find stuff for the ladies.
Houston had a lot of street art to explore. One great resource for finding spots is local Houston blogger Wear + Where + Well. She's far fancier than me when it comes to great street art pictures, but her blog is a wonderful guide to Houston including her street art guide. I hope one day Orlando embraces local art and we have more beautiful pieces around town.
While searching for one wall in particular I found the Silos on Sawyer, a renovation of one of Houston's most iconic silo buildings and home to some really beautiful art. It houses 55+ creative workspaces along with expansive coming for galleries, restaurants and more. If more cities can follow in the footsteps of Miami, Asheville and Houston and turn these types of areas into hubs of art and retail it can bring positive impacts for all.
More random street art around the city.
While we pounded the pavement pretty hard and saw a lot, we still barely made a dent in their museums, local sights, and especially their food scene. Dont listen to people. Just live your life. Houston is definitely worthy of a trip.