Houston is arguably one of the nation’s top food cities. Don’t take it from me, a lowly Hub-City dweller, take it from David Chang, in his new Netflix series, Ugly Delicious (episode 4), or his 2016 GQ article titled, “The Next Global Food Mecca Is In… Texas?” And it’s not just Chang with the H-town love. Washington Post ranked Houston 5th in the “The 10 Best Food Cities in America, Ranked” in December of 2015. Food and restaurant guide old-guard, Zagat, ranked Houston 15th in December of 2017 in their “30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America” Most recently Bill Simmons and Joe House ranked HTX second in their Best NBA-Finals Food Cities on The Ringer network food podcast, “House of Carbs: Episode 40”. Actually, you should take my word because I’m a Lubbockite who has equal affections for such unassuming staples as chicken fried steak and enchiladas as highfalutin bone marrows and foie gras. Houston has it all and it is where I want my last meal… Meals.
Unfortunately I know the scoop on Houston’s amazing food scene because I’ve spent the last two years traveling there every four months to treat my papillary thyroid cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Of the people I’ve talked to who’ve been there, either for personal treatment or to attend with loved ones, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the Houston food scene. This is understandable because as many of you know, MD Anderson is like its own city and it can overshadow the entire Houston experience if that’s why you go. Within the hospital there’s public transport, miles of halls, sidewalks, and campus pavement. There are countless restaurants, dining halls (read a review here), and “convenience stores”. All this makes it difficult to ever leave once you’re there for an appointment. You’ll have to park your car, pay for parking, and make it to your clinic waiting room which usually takes about 20 minutes once you arrive on campus. Most people are also shell-shocked into staying very close after their first experience.
It’s all overwhelming because of the cancer, and the bills, and the where do I park?
Which one of these 20 buildings do I go into?
Oh, no I’m late for an appointment that it took three months to get.
When should I call my family? Where do I go? Where do I go? Where do I go!?
It’s like the people who work there can just see it on your face, too. That first time everyone was so helpful and so sweet and encouraging. It’s like each time I was about to crawl into a corner crying someone would come up and smile and say, “Need some help finding anything?” And the answer was always yes. I’m pretty sure that’s everyone’s first experience there. So of course you’re not worried about how you’ll get to choose taste some of Houston’s resplendent culinary options, many lying mere blocks away from your quarantine. If you’re like I was, you’re terrified you may have just stumbled out of the gate in a race that swallows its participants. But if you’re like me, each time you return, you’ll want to experience some new fold of the place that’s become a major setting in what is unfortunately a major chapter in your life now. Take it from me, you can experience the edible adventure of Texas’ most diverse city from within the fortress walls. And I’m not talking about Cat Cora’s popup kitchen either. Thanks to an often overlooked (especially in Lubbock) piece of modern technology, you can have your appointment and eat in Houston, too.
I’ve eaten close to 75 meals, most of which were selected through hive-mind download (Yelp, Facebook, asking hipsters) or painstaking (ask my wife) research of breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots throughout Houston’s various affluent and blue-collar neighborhoods. While each meal has been incredible in its own way, it took me until a week ago, on my ninth trip, to stumble upon the H-Town, and in particular, the MD Anderson, food hack I’m going to let you in on. But first, I want to spend some time telling you what this Houston food hack is not.
This Hack Is Not The Houston Food Stuff You Already Know, Like…
The Breakfast Klub: 3.4 Miles from MD Anderson
Close enough (map) to hit on the way to your appointment, but not worth the $20+ you’ll spend if you have to re-park at MD Anderson.
It’s not a reminder that you must order the “Wings & Waffle” plate from The Breakfast Klub (Yelp), no matter how much you like croissants and thus want to order “The Kroissant”. Your wife will do the right thing even if you don’t. She always does.
When In Galveston…
You’ll have to hit Galveston on an off-day from appointments, and you’ll want to see it in the daylight.
It is also not a heads-up to check out Mod Coffeehouse (Yelp) in Galveston if you end up going to the beach to clear your head for a day between appointments. You will be crying out on the Strand for one stinking shop that isn’t selling tourist garbage, but you’ll find Mod because there isn’t much to see on the Strand anyway. It’s also not a hack of where to find really simple, delicious shrimp po boys at Shrimp ’N Stuff Downtown (Yelp).
Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar: 8.9 Miles from MD Anderson
Forget it. You’ll never make it between appointments. Eight miles in Houston is like 36 miles in Lubbock. It’s like dog years vs. human years. We’re all livin’ in a different reality, you know man?
This food hack has nothing to do with Houston Heights Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar’s (Facebook) southern metrocool atmosphere. It’s good enough that we’ve been here on multiple occasions and it’s all been good. Don’t go if you want to hear your table mates talk.
Local Foods Is Crave Worthy: 3.4 Miles From MD Anderson
If there was a place that maybe, just maybe, would be worth a $24 park and re-park accumulation of fees on your next oncological-lay-over, it could be Local Foods. There’s one in Rice Village (map).
It’s no secret, anyone who’s been to the spot-on branded and local ingredient champion, Local Foods (website), knows it is a place you could eat every day and not grow weary. I could live there… in a dark corner scavenging hand-cut and fried tater chips should any fall by the wayside en route to paying mouths.
Ninfa, Inventor Of The Fajita: 5.8 Miles From MD Anderson
Forget it. You’ll never make it (map) and this place is always packed.
I don’t have some special knowledge to pass on to you about The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation (Facebook). Nor do I have a good reason for not ordering the fajitas from the woman who invented them. Order the fajitas.
Taco Truck + Live Music + Beer Patio Combo: 9 Miles From MD Anderson
This action here starts swinging long after the last Main Bldg. to Mays Clinic shuttle powers down for the evening. The driver hangs their keys up, polishes that bronze statue by Elevator A, and hits the lights for the night. You’ll have plenty of time to make it here to blow off some steam before your favorite band starts.
This blog is not about the surprisingly located and authentically delicious La Macro (website) food truck. It brightly beckons from the a corner of the chilled-out Raven Tower (Facebook) yard both just a stone’s throw from Houston’s best live music venue, White Oak Music Hall (website).
Hugo Ortega, there, I mentioned him. That’s for anyone who says you can’t talk about Houston food without paying homage.
You may make it here during a lull in your appointment schedule, but you won’t make it back in time. This place is all about slooooow, luxurious eating. No one is in a hurry here and if the food weren’t so good it may bother you.
I also have nothing to say of Houston’s Mexican-cuisine golden boy, Hugo Ortega (just Google this James Beard Award winner if you don’t know). You’ve already heard of Hugo’s (map, 3.5 miles) chips-and-salsa-stand-in spiced peanuts. And you no doubt expect the queso flameado to have steak and be neatly loaded into four fresh tortillas at your table-that crap is on Yelp. Including talk of carnitas and barbacoa being some of the best you ever had. So it’s only logical that you’d stumble upon the Malinche Margarita and be so smitten by it that you pick up a bottle of peach brandy and pineapple juice on your way home from Preston Smith Airport, just so you could recreate it to sip on as you unpack your bags. This is not the Houston food hack I want to tell you about.
Rodeo Goat For The Win: 4.7 Miles From MD Anderson
Again, this is a place best experienced after the sun sets. It’s near Minute Maid Park, too (map).
I don’t want to mention Rodeo Goat (Facebook), either. They opened their first “Icehouse / Patio Bar” location outside of DFW in Houston recently and all I can really say is HopDoddy who?
The El Real: 3.5 Miles From MD Anderson
We actually hit this place between appointments one time. It’s real good and it’s a Houston tradition for Tex-Mex. Try the Tin-Can Tacos and the Margs are Eater-ranked, Houston great.
I do have a hot tip about El Real (Yelp), although it’s not the main point of this article. When at El Real, do not mistake the sweet tang of salsa gone bad with flavors which may naturally occur in atomic level spicy salsas. Back story here. Just follow your wife’s lead and quit eating it. She will do the right thing; she always does.
Snoooooooooze, ahem?: 3 Miles From MD Anderson
You could easily make it here (Facebook) between appointments (map). The hard part is tryna park your car some place around all these bougie-ass hipsters. You’ll definitely wait in line a good 20-30 mins. and you’ll probably walk a couple of blocks from your car, too. *Bring yoga pants
What can I say—it’s really for people who want to make the most boring meal of the day their biggest. There, I said it. Breakfast is a snoozer of a meal. To be clear, Snooze, An AM Eatery (website) is really good, and not boring, but unless you’re running a marathon you’re going to waste a day’s appetite on eggs, gravy, potatoes, and pancakes. And I want so much more for you in life.
Here’s Your Houston/MD Anderson Food Hack: Uber Eats
Maybe a lot of you have already figured this one out, but I wept when the idea occurred to me. No more cafeteria food or overpriced salad bars with tan tongs that barely open wide enough to grab the cherry tomatoes you’re dreading forking because you know they’re going to squirt your clothes. No more completely counterintuitively unhealthy chow to choose from a stainless steel steam table. No more mess hall meals during those long stretches between appointments. No more early morning coffee lines 10 deep at the single Starbucks in the Main Building. No more Starbucks always being closed at the Mays Clinic. Uber Eats can bring it all to you from a variety of 4 and 5 star options. Best of all, you can see the car getting closer and closer—something that brings immense satisfaction. You thought the Domino’s pizza tracker was badass… wait until you see your delivery driver make a left at the light 4 blocks from you.
There’s bubble tea, Hobbit Cafe, the Halal Guys, burgers, 3rd wave coffee, shawarma, Ethiopian, fish, Mediterranean, pizza, Amy’s Ice Cream, sorting by gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan. You can even select options by delivery time. Best of all you can take your food to one of the many open spaces and parks outside. I found that the best way to wait on appointments, last minute test scheduling, and paperwork processing is by sitting at a picnic table waiting for sushi. Sushi is a particularly excellent option for Uber Eats because you don’t have to worry about it getting cold or soggy—we had the best sushi of our lives at MD Anderson. It came from The Fish and was just a short elevator ride away. We didn’t even have to fork over $12 to get our car.
This place is worth a try. It was fresh and expertly constructed. I didn’t break a single piece and I have all the dexterity of Edward Scissorhands with some chopsticks. I never eat the ginger that comes with sushi. But this ginger had an addictively fresh taste to it, like it was dug up, straight from the dirt seconds before slicing and serving. Another reason I’ll go back is their menu. They have some pretty inventive offerings, not to mention some traditional fare. They have ramen, poke, sous vide Akaushi beef, a Kobe burger, truffle fries, buffalo chicken wontons, and more stuff I can’t wait to try. Obviously I’m hoping to try it under different circumstances, but you walk this road for long enough and you begin to realize – you better take it however it comes. Because the idea of being swallowed in this race against one’s own biology makes life’s simple pleasures all the more exquisite.