"It is the gold standard." -Ali Khan

If I can have homemade link barbecue sausage, folded with a piece of bread, I know I'm home. - George Foreman

It was the first thing I tried and I loved it so much there was no need to order anything else." - Jodi Thomas

"Licking your fingers with each bite is the best part." - Chet Garner

The tonkotsu original at Ramen Tatsu-ya in Austin

"It is the gold standard." -Ali Khan

The tonkotsu original at Ramen Tatsu-ya in Austin

The Best Thing I Ever Ate in Texas

Photographs by Eric W. Pohl | Illustrations by Samuel Kerr

Times have been tough

Times have been tough for restaurants. For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a gauntlet of challenges for businesses small and large whose primary passion is pleasing their customers with satisfying grub and service. Instead, restaurateurs have had to reckon with shuttered dining rooms, safety measures, weather disasters, supply-chain interruptions, rising food prices, changing business models, staffing shortages, nervous employees, and a tentative public. There’s no manual for navigating times like these.

“We love throwing a great dinner party every night in the restaurant—being around people, working for people, making people happy,” says Jon Bonnell, the chef and owner of four Fort Worth restaurants, including the popular Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine. “It was so hard to see an industry that I’ve loved for over 20 years falling apart when nobody did anything wrong. I think it’s worth fighting for and worth saving.”

We couldn’t agree more. At their best, restaurant experiences are like mini-vacations. We go out to eat not only for a break from cooking at home, but also for a sensory escape from our day-to-day routines. And we’re lucky to have great options, too: Numerous Texas chefs and eateries have been honored with James Beard Foundation awards, the Oscars of the restaurant world.

To celebrate the state’s acclaimed dining scene, we reached out to noteworthy Texans and asked them to share their favorite restaurant meals. The responses ran the gamut. Hank the Cowdog author John R. Erickson, who lives on a Panhandle ranch, told us about the gargantuan carne asada burrito at Chihua’s in Perryton. Businessman and former Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen said grilled spring rolls are his barometer of a good Vietnamese restaurant—and his favorites are at his sister’s restaurant, Hu-Dat Noodle House in Corpus Christi. You’ll find something for pretty much every taste here.

We hope this story will inspire you to support your favorite restaurants, but we also urge patience. Restaurants face continued struggles prioritizing health policies, maintaining a labor force, and keeping their kitchens stocked. “We can’t predict what the next problem is going to be, but we know there will be problems,” says Bonnell, who chronicled his pandemic experience in the book Carry Out, Carry On: A Year in the Life of a Texas Chef. “On the positive side, people want to go out. Business is booming and restaurants are full.” —Matt Joyce

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A black and white illustration of a smiling woman

Jodi Thomas Amarillo-based bestselling romance author

“A favorite of the students of West Texas A&M University, Sayakomarn’s Restaurant opened on the square in Canyon in 2007. My favorite dish is their lemon chicken with fried rice and a diet Coke. It was the first thing I tried, and I loved it so much there was no need to order anything else.” sayakomarns.com

Small Town Favorites

The calabreze with shrimp and artichokes in pink sauce at Bella Italia in Lampasas. 512-564-5202
-Brittany Pozzi Tonozzi, Lampasas, champion barrel racer

The Spanish octopus aguachile at Los Olivos Market in Buda. losolivosmarkets.com
- Ali Khan

The chicken-fried steak with eggs at The Café in Graford. facebook.com/thecafegraford
- Erin Rahr

The grilled spring rolls at Hu-Dat Noodle House in Corpus Christi. hudatnoodlehouse.com
- Dat Nguyen, Grapevine, former Dallas Cowboy

An overhead view of a slection of barbecue, including brisket, chicken, sausage, and sides on a wooden tray
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George Foreman Houston-based heavyweight boxing champ, pitchman, and preacher

“When I’m in Marshall, I like to eat my barbecue at Porky’s Smokehouse, especially the barbecue ribs and sausage.” porkysmokehouse.com

Top Tex-Mex

The milanesa tortas with fresh avocado and the paletas (frozen pops) at Flautas y Paleteria Tepalca in El Paso. flautastepalca.com
-Alejandra Chavez, owner-chef of Thyme Matters in El Paso

The queso with spiced beef and a Mexican martini at either Trudy’s Texas Star or Matt’s El Rancho in Austin. trudys.com, mattselrancho.com.
- Sarah Jarosz

Pork chicharrones and salsa macha at Chicharrones El Güero in Palmview. facebook.com/chicharroneselguero
- Macarena Hernández, Edinburg-based journalist and educator

Sour cream chicken enchiladas at Leal’s in Muleshoe. myleals.com
- Jodi Thomas

The carne asada burrito and ceviche at Chihua’s in Perryton. facebook.com/chihuasmexicanrestaurant
-John R. Erickson, author of Hank the Cowdog

The mole poblano on chicken enchiladas at Hugo’s in Houston. myleals.com
-Adán Medrano, Houston-based chef and food writer

A hand holds a small dish of creamy sauce being poured over a grilled fillet mignon steak over asparagus with a side of French fries
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Erin Rahr co-founder and president of Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons Brewing Company

“My all-time favorite meal in Fort Worth is the pepper-crusted bison tenderloin, which has a whiskey-spiked cream sauce and truffled french fries with it, at Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine. This seriously Texan food feels exactly right for any occasion.” bonnellstexas.com

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Sarah Jarosz Nashville via Wimberley Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter

“The enchiladas or tamales at Mi Tierra Café y Panadería in San Antonio. My family and I have a tradition of making a trip to Mi Tierra around Christmas. All the decorations and music set such a vibrant, joyful scene. Basically everything on the menu is delicious.” mitierracafe.com

An overhead view of enchiladas on a blue plate, chips and salsa
An overhead view of chopsticks dipping into a bowl of ramen, surrounded by various toppings and sides on a dark wood background
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Ali Khan Austin-based host of Cheap Eats on the Cooking Channel

“I love the tonkotsu original at Ramen Tatsu-ya because it single-handedly started my entire interest in ramen. It is the gold standard. It has the classic style tonkotsu broth—that rich pork fatty broth. And it comes with everything I need—the pork belly, the egg, some mushroom, and scallions.” ramen-tatsuya.com

Seconds, please!

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Adán Medrano Houston-based chef, food writer, and executive producer of the food documentary Truly Texas Mexican

“The carne guisada at El Puesto No. 2 in San Antonio. This stove-top beef stew is one of the iconic dishes of comida casera, Texas Mexican home cooking. Every time I order it, El Puesto hits it out of the ballpark with the trinity of spices unique to Texas Mexican cuisine: garlic, black pepper, and cumin. It’s served with mashed pinto beans, rice, and salad. So delicious, I mop up the plate with the soft and pillowy flour tortillas.”

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Tiffany Derry veteran of TV’s Top Chef competitions, owner-chef at Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch, and Roots Chicken Shak in Plano and Austin

“Just outside of Beaumont, where I grew up, Lumberton is home to Catfish Cabin, a place that’s been around since the 1990s and is still going strong. It’s some of the best seafood you can find. Best is the combination fried catfish and oysters with hush puppies.409-755-6800

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George Foreman

Pappas Bar-B-Q in Houston reigns supreme as far as I’m concerned. When I eat barbecue, that’s how I know I’m in Texas. I like the ribs, of course, but if I can have homemade link barbecue sausage, folded with a piece of bread, I know I’m home.” pappasbbq.com

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Ray Benson Austin-based leader of the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel

“Anything at The Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood. They have the most unique barbecue sauce ever. Owner Scott Roberts’ mother is from Hawaii, and her sauce is not like any other in America. It makes the barbecue experience more exotic. I love their pork ribs and the sauce, but it goes on brisket or sausages or anything.” saltlickbbq.com

An overhead view of a light wood table with a waffle and berries on a plate, and another plate with an omlette and potatoes
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Mikaila Ulmer Austin-based founder of Me & the Bees Lemonade

“I went to Galveston earlier this summer, and I ordered the Belgian waffles with berries and the crab meat omelet at the Sunflower Bakery and Cafe. Both were so wonderful and so fresh. The waffle was perfectly crisp on the outside and pillowy on the inside. Having two dishes to share with my mom gave us the perfect balance of savory and sweet.” thesunflowerbakeryandcafe.com

Big City Bites

Vietnamese chicken wings at Vietnam Gardens in San Antonio. vietnamgardens.com
-Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, San Antonio poet

Blue crab carbonara at Rosie Cannonball in Houston. rosiecannonball.com
- Alba Huerta, owner of Julep cocktail bar in Houston

Mi Quang,special yellow rice noodles with pork, shrimp, fish cake, shredded cabbage, and banana blossom, tossed with a lightly spicy broth, at Huynh in Houston. huynhrestauranthouston.com
- Manabu “Hori” Horiuchi, owner-chef at Kata Robata in Houston

The chicken hara masala from Himalaya Restaurant in Houston. himalayarestauranthouston.com/
- Chet Garner

The chicken pho with grilled lemongrass skewers at Elizabeth Street Café in Austin . elizabethstreetcafe.com
- Mikaila Ulmer

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Chet Garner Georgetown-based host of The Daytripper TV show

Barbecue crabs from The Schooner. I was raised in Port Neches and technically this restaurant belongs to our bitter cross-town rivals in Nederland, but even I'm willing to cross city lines to eat these crabs. These deep-fried crabs are dredged in zesty flour and seasoning, and licking your fingers with each bite is the best part.” theschoonerrestaurant.com

A pile of reddish-brown roasted crabs on a platter in front of a black background

From the November 2021 issue

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