At the top of each week, our “My Top 5” series showcases a Houstonian who is helping to shape our city’s character and flavor. This week, we are very pleased to feature prolific Houston food and travel writer Mai Pham, who reveals her favorite things to do in Greater Houston, including many of her favorite places to dine around town.
My Top 5 Things to Do in Houston
by Mai Pham
- Vietnamese Food – I love it when people from New York come to Houston and ask for Vietnamese food. We have the third largest population of Vietnamese in the country here in Houston, so our Vietnamese food is definitely some of the best in the nation. Right now, I’m obsessed with Viet-Cajun crawfish. Places like Cajun Kitchen, Crawfish & Noodles and Crawfish Cafe take the cajun boil to another level by tossing the crawfish in Vietnamese-concocted sauces. Garlic butter is the most common, but you can also get Thai Basil, and other flavors made up of a mish mash of butter, garlic, oyster sauce, oranges and other spices. Phở (Vietnamese noodles soup) in Houston is also hard to beat. I like Pho Dien on Bellaire and Wilcrest, where I get the đặc biệt (special) with the tái ướp (marinated raw beef) on the side. But there’s so much more I enjoy, a few of which are: Bún bò Huế (Central Vietnamese pork & beef noodle soup) at Bun Bo Hue Duc Chuong in Alief; Bánh xèo (Vietnamese savory crepe) at Thien An in Midtown; vegan Vietnamese curry at Cafe TH in EaDo; cá nướng (whole grilled fish) at Jasmine Asian Cuisine.
- Killen’s Barbecue – Technically, Killen’s Barbecue is in Pearland, but there’s nowhere else I’d willingly drive — and take my friends to — than Killen’s. I was initially blown away by the quality of the barbecue when Ronnie Killen started doing popups in early 2013. The first time I went, it was a rainy day. There was mud everywhere but it didn’t keep the lines away, and when I finally got my first bite of “moist” brisket, sliced and served to me by Ronnie himself, I could see why he’d amassed a following. Charred, smoky, melt-in-your-mouth, crazy-good. Now that the restaurant is open, the food has gotten even better. It’s hard not to order too much when you visit. Not only is the brisket insanely moist and delicious, but you have to get the brontosaurus-sized beef ribs — the best I’ve ever had — his house-made sausage, his just-charred pork belly, his creamed corn, and his coleslaw. Best barbecue ever? Oh. Yeah.
- Kata Robata – For years now, when people ask me, “What is your favorite restaurant in Houston?” my answer is the same: Kata Robata. I’ve been a fan of Hori-san (Manabu Horiuchi, Kata Robata’s Executive Chef) since his days as executive chef of Kubo’s in the Village — since the early 2000s. When he opened up Kata Robata, I came in for lunch one afternoon for an omakase (chef’s tasting) lunch, and have been hooked ever since. I love Kata Robata because it’s so consistent. I recommend the omakase to friends all the time, and the feedback is always glowing and ecstatic. It’s hard to find a place that constantly wows, but when you sit down for an omakase at Kata Robata, that’s what happens. You definitely have to reserve in advance, and it’s really only good for two people sitting at the bar, but to sit down in front of Hori-san and have him select best ingredients and dishes for you to sample (sea urchin, special fish flown in from Japan, or seasonal items like matsutake mushrooms); it’s a beautiful thing.
- Spec’s Downtown – I could spend hours wandering the aisles of Spec’s Downtown. Not only does the downtown location have the largest selection of on-hand wines and liquor in Houston, but it’s also so competitively priced that I always ending up buying wines by the case. The staff is really helpful and knowledgeable, too, and they are constantly doing cool things to educate the customer. Walk in on a weekend afternoon, and you’ll find tequila vendors and rum vendors offering samples to taste. If you up sign up for their newsletter, you get access to special events, like weekly spirit and wine tastings. My favorite for the last several years — the one not to miss — is the annual “Mostly Cru Classe Bordeaux Tasting,” which is held in the Rice Ballroom at the Post Rice Lofts in January. A delegation of about 50 winemakers and wineries comes here from Bordeaux, France, and for an entrance of fee of about $80, you get to taste approximately 60 wines.
- Houston Ballet – I’ve been a season subscriber to the Houston Ballet for several years now, and it’s one of my absolute favorite things to do for a night on the town. Me and a girlfriend will get dressed up, indulge in pre-theater dinner, then go to the ballet. There are six ballets in the season, and our ballet company is so talented that I enjoy it all — from the classics like Swan Lake, to the modern shows, like the world premier of Murmuration by choreographer Edwaard Liang. It left me utterly mesmerized. As a subscriber, I got to see it a second time when the company reprised the performance in fall of 2014.
About Mai Pham
Mai Pham is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. You’ll find her byline on local publications such as Houston Press, where she also freelances as a food critic, as well as Local Houston Magazine, Houstonia, My Table Magazine, examiner.com, and Houston Chronicle. Mai’s work also appears in a a wide variety of publications at the state and national level, most notably, Forbes Travel Guide, Texas Highways Magazine, Food Republic, and chow.com. Mai is also a news correspondent for the local KRIV Fox 26 channel, where she reports on food and restaurants. Her segments appear on the Friday evening newscast, and are often re-run during the weekend. Mai’s passion for eating and travel know no bounds. She loves street food as much as fine dining, and indulges frequently in both at home and during her travels around the world. She has learned how to say “I Love You,” in more than 30 languages, including Indonesian, which she learned earlier this year: terimah kasih. Follow Mai on Twitter or Instagram @femme_foodie.