Everything's Bigger and Better: The Best Things to Eat in Texas

Take a trip through the Lone Star State and sample classic dishes including pecan pie, chicken-fried steak, cowboy chili and plenty of barbecue. 
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Photo By: Danny Batista

Photo By: Danny Batista

Photo By: Danny Batista ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

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Photo By: Danny Batista

Photo By: Danny Batista

Photo By: Danny Batista

Photo By: Danny Batista ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Danny Batista

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Texas-Size Appetite

With an appetite that's almost as big as its geographic footprint, the great state of Texas is home to a melting pot of culinary comforts. Three-meat barbecue plates, buffets of regional Mexican cuisine, and pecan-pie happy hours are just a few of the great eating experiences the state has to offer. Here's where to find the very best the state has to offer, from massive food epicenters to tiny coastal towns.

 

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Brisket

Warning: Franklin Barbecue’s brisket will take five hours off your life — not just because of the heavy oak-smoked rush of flavor that’s literally unlike anything else in the universe, but because scoring a bite requires arriving at the Austin institution around sunrise and waiting until its doors open at 11 a.m. It’s a rite of passage among barbecue snobs that isn’t for the weak of knees, but once you reach the front of the line, you’ll be rewarded with a bite of food you’ll never forget and that showcases the best of Texas’ barbecue traditions.

Photography courtesy of Franklin Barbecue

Go to: Franklin Barbecue

Chicken-Fried Steak

Beyond barbecue, the one dish that best exemplifies the Texas spirit is likely chicken-fried steak. It represents all the best things about Texas: It’s huge, unapologetic and undeniably delicious. For one of the very best examples, trek an hour south of Austin to the quaint historic district of Gruene, where you’ll find not only the state’s oldest dance hall but also a chicken-fried steak worth the requisite post-meal nap. Formerly the boiler room for the town’s cotton gin, the rickety three-story Gristmill, on the banks of the Guadalupe River, was transformed into a restaurant in 1977. Ever since, it’s been a beacon for chicken-fried steak fans, thanks to a fluffy-but-still-crispy buttermilk batter that barely clings to the cubed steak, which is packed loosely to maximize the juicy flavors.

Photography courtesy of Dan Gentile

Go to: Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar

Enchiladas

For many Texans, enchiladas surpass burgers and mac and cheese as the ultimate comfort food. San Antonio’s claim as the Tex-Mex capital means that most any Mexican restaurant you step into will serve a satisfying enchilada, but the undisputed local choice is Blanco Cafe. And it’s no wonder they’d know how to make a gut-busting plate of cheesy enchiladas that won’t break the bank: The founder had 10 children to feed. Today his grandsons run the original restaurant, which has expanded to a total of five glorious enchilada-slinging destinations.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: The Original Blanco Cafe

Queso

Ask most homesick Texans to name their most-missed dish and you’ll hear “queso.” A thick, creamy bowl of cheese dip is a welcome addition to any Mexican meal, and arguing over the state’s best is as pointless as protesting double dipping. Everyone has a favorite, but one bowl that’s sure to never disappoint, and is guaranteed to turn any bag of takeout tacos into a special occasion, is the green-chile queso from ever-expanding Austin chain Torchy’s, a favorite of everyone from UT students to President Obama. Pro tip: Be sure to drizzle the queso directly from the skillet onto Torchy’s fried avocado taco.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: Torchy's

Puffy Taco

When a food innovation as delicious as deep-fried tortillas comes along, it doesn't stay a secret. But even as taquerias all over the state began puffing and passing the idea around, the original remained the best in class. Created at Ray’s Drive Inn in San Antonio by Ray’s brother Arturo Lopez, this version of the puffy taco is distinctly less greasy than most and is best enjoyed with a no-frills filling of beef picadillo, tomato and lettuce. Though Lopez died in 2015, his legacy lives on in the hearts and stomachs of hungry San Antonians.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: Ray’s Drive Inn

Burger

Carpetbagging California burger chains can establish footholds in the Lone Star State. But to fast-food-loving Texans, one chain remains king: Whataburger. The orange-striped drive-thrus serve as a local-ish oasis in a sea of globalized fast-food options. The burger is fantastic, but it’s the little extras that have earned Whataburger a cult following, like its signature spicy ketchup and massive Texas toast patty melts.

Photography courtesy of Whataburger

Go to: Whataburger

Beef Rib: Louie Mueller Barbecue

Texas barbecue is all about tradition, which doesn’t come in greater supply than it does at Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. The James Beard Foundation Award-winning smoke joint is now on its third-generation pitmaster, who still cooks meat on the same old-school smokers that were seasoned by his grandfather in the ’50s. The signature cut, aside from the brisket, is the oversized beef rib, which ripples with thin ribbons of tender meat, a thick bark of simple black pepper and salt, and a fattiness that’s unparalleled in indulgence.

Photography courtesy of Wayne Mueller

Go to: Louie Mueller Barbecue

Margarita

Fans of the frozen margarita can thank Dallas-area chain Mariano’s for its creation, and a visit to one of its six locations is certainly on the frozen-cocktail bucket list, but these days the king of Dallas margs is Mexican Sugar. Each of its 11 'ritas features fresh-squeezed juice, and the array of offerings includes a classic frozen, a spicy serrano, a watermelon and the cucumber “machete.” Add to that the selection of 140 tequilas and 40 mezcals, and agave nerds will have plenty of reasons to return.

Photography courtesy of Mexican Sugar

Go to: Mexican Sugar

Pecan Pie

Three words: pie happy hour. Pecan pie is Texas’ official state dessert, and one of the very best places and times to score a slice is from 3 to 5 p.m. at Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls. The 70-year-old cafe is a family affair that serves as both a gathering place for locals and a pit stop for drivers taking the 281 shortcut from Dallas to San Antonio. Lyndon Johnson used to hold breakfast meetings in one of the side rooms, but these days people there are much more likely to be talking about pies than politics. With 15 different varieties, there are plenty of sugar rushes to choose from, but the most-Texan choice is the pecan, which uses nuts sourced from less than two hours away.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista Photography

Go to: Blue Bonnet Cafe

Chili

In 1977, the Texas Legislature decreed the state’s official dish to be an old-fashioned “bowl of red.” Brisket has since eclipsed chili in the minds of most diners, but a humble bowl of steaming bean-free stew is still the ultimate in cowboy comforts. For the state’s best, look past the iconic Texas Chili Parlor in Austin to Houston’s Armadillo Palace, a new-school honky tonk where the patio is adorned with a Lone Star walk of fame honoring musicians like Lyle Lovett and Archie Bell. And that chili? It’s packed with hearty cubes of venison that would make the most-rugged cattle wrangler proud.

Photography courtesy of Dan Gentile

Go to: Armadillo Palace

Upscale Texan Melting Pot

Telling the story of Texas food practically requires footnotes to describe the myriad ethnic groups that call the state home. Few restaurants draw together those influences and heritages with as much grace and flavor as Underbelly. The menu has one foot in the future and the other in the past: Creative contemporary dishes like beef tendon chicharrones puffs sit alongside revived Depression-era recipes like vinegar pie. The kitchen treats simple dishes like the fish-sauced daily farmers-market vegetable with as much care as an entree, so expect the best okra, cauliflower or carrots you’ve ever tasted. And it’s good advice to save room for Underbelly’s showstopping Korean braised goat and dumplings, the only dish that’s earned a permanent place on the constantly changing menu.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: Underbelly

Topo Chico

Texas summers create a thirst unlike any other, demanding unique hydration solutions. The answer comes from south of the border: an ultra-fizzy mineral water called Topo Chico that began as a taco truck staple but has now become a coveted cult beverage. You can find the signature lanky glass bottles — filled with water sourced from a spring in Monterrey — at most restaurants, but it’s more satisfying to grab one from your own fridge. Texas’ beloved grocery chain H-E-B stocks 12-packs, typically on aisle corners, making it even easier to throw a case in your cart.

Photography courtesy of Topo Chico

Go to: Topo Chico

Gulf Oysters

Eating Texan oysters is a matter of pride. Sure, you can find plenty of imported European Flats and Blue Points in Texas, and some snobbier bivalve eaters eschew Gulf Coast oysters because of either their girthier texture or rumors of pollution. But the everyman’s oysters come from the Gulf. That said, even the proudest Texans would admit that raw isn’t the best preparation: Grilled is the way to go, and the dive-ier the oyster bar, the better. Gilhooley’s fits the bill. It’s a ramshackle neighborhood joint in Dickinson that feels like the roof could cave in at any moment. Walk past the mountain of shucked shells in the parking lot, take a seat and get ready for a plate of locally harvested oysters that might just change your life.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: Gilhooley's

Michelada

Texas’ proximity to Mexico affects enough of the culture that it even changes how people drink their beers. In Mexico the add-ins change regionally, but the constants are typically ice, lime, hot sauce and spices. In Texas, micheladas are on menus everywhere from divey taco joints to upscale cocktail bars, but one of the very best is found on the patio at Austin’s Hotel San José. A cornerstone of South Congress Avenue, this chic boutique hotel doubles as a casual drinking destination for guests and visitors. Its michelada leaves out the popular tomato juice, opting for a darker base of soy sauce and Worcestershire, plus a tart kick of fresh lime juice and a spicy punch of Tabasco. They go down easy and the San José’s patio doubles as one of the most-interesting people-watching spots in the state.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: Hotel San José

Regional Mexican Food

Perhaps more than the residents of any other state in the union, Texans are acutely aware that Mexico is a huge country. Although many Americans view Mexican cuisine through the lens of their nearby taco joint, there’s much more to Mexican food than just enchiladas. A prime place to explore all that our neighbors to the south have to offer is Fonda San Miguel, a longtime Austin institution that preceded the city’s foodie revolution and will probably be around long after it fades. Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla and the Yucatan are all represented, and the best way to take a cross-country tour is to visit the restaurant during the legendary brunch buffet, which gives the opportunity to sample dishes from each region, such as the cochinita pibil of the Yucatan and several Oaxacan moles.

Photography courtesy of Danny Batista

Go to: Fonda San Miguel

Steak

Like any good Texan, Chef John Tesar is a troublemaker. The James Beard Foundation Award nominee behind Dallas’ Knife has been called “the most hated chef in Dallas” for his public spats with food critics and disagreements with restaurant partners, giving him an iconoclastic image that matches Texas’ independent spirit. He also happens to make an incredible steak, which starts with meticulously sourced beef from 44 Farms, Niman Ranch and Heartbrand Ranch. The next step requires patience: Some of the steaks can be dry-aged for up to 240 days. Finally, each cut is finished with a simple rub of salt and pepper, since it’d be a sin to put anything else on such immaculate cuts of meat.

Photography courtesy of Knife

Go to: Knife

Peaches

Georgia may take the national spotlight for peaches, but Texas isn’t far behind. Fredericksburg and Gillespie County are the biggest producers in the state, with a wealth of roadside stands and family farms worth visiting. But since a peach always tastes better when you pick it yourself, visit Jenschke Orchards, where seven generations have stewarded the 3,000 trees. There are more than 20 varieties to pick from, whether you’re eating them out of hand, canning them or baking them into pies.

Photography courtesy of Trish Rawls

Go to: Jenschke Orchards

Vietnamese Food

A flood of Vietnamese immigrants landed in Houston after the Vietnam War, and although the population has ebbed and flowed since then, it still remains one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. That means a steaming bowl of pho isn't far away, no matter where you are in the city. For some of the best Vietnamese inside the loop, the move is Cali Sandwich. The hole-in-the-wall shop offers a full menu of pho and buns, but, most importantly, a selection of banh mi sandwiches that might just be the best lunch $3 can buy.

Photography courtesy of Dan Gentile

Go to: Cali Sandwich

Sausage

When it comes to a hefty meal of Texas barbecue, sausage is a crucial element of any three-meat plate. How the sausage is made? In Elgin, it’s made with 134 years of history. Although some locals might prefer Meyer’s, Southside Market has become synonymous across the state with beef links that were known as “hot guts” before the cayenne content was toned down in the ’70s. Luckily for spice lovers, the market still makes a jalapeno-cheddar version that pops with heat and a welcome burst of creamy dairy. The pilgrimage to Elgin is worth it just for the experience of standing in line alongside the colorful cast of locals, but if a trek to Central Texas isn’t in your plans, you can purchase Southside’s signature links through its robust wholesale business.

Photography courtesy of Dan Gentile

Go to: Southside Market & BBQ Inc

Crazy Fried Creations

They say everything’s bigger in Texas. That’s true at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, with the added caveat that everything is deep-fried, powdered with crumbled chips and wrapped in bacon. Although it runs for only three weeks in October, the fair is one of the most-traditional elements of Texas culture, and the food is a main attraction. Every year vendors fight to outdo each other with the most-gluttonous creations ever to grace a deep fryer. Recent winners include fried Jell-O, a deep-fried bacon burger dog slider on a stick (yes, all of those!) and a chicken pot pie pocket with mac ‘n’ cheese dip. Just remember to save room for dessert in the form of cookie fries.

Photography courtesy of State Fair of Texas

Go to: State Fair of Texas

Breakfast Taco

Texans will wrap almost anything in a tortilla, which has led to one of the state’s most-cherished food traditions: the breakfast taco. Corner cafes, barbecue joints and even gas stations have hopped on the breakfast taco bandwagon, but the best place to score one is at Austin’s king of taco trailers, Veracruz All Natural. Its migas taco combines egg with tortilla strips, a light crunch of jalapenos, tomatoes and melted cheese inside one of the most-savory corn tortillas in town. Just be sure to call ahead if you’re in a hurry, or order an extra to atone for showing up late to work.

Photography courtesy of Dan Gentile

Go to: Veracruz All Natural

Kolache

IH-35 isn’t exactly loved by most Texans, but the interstate does hide its share of gems. One is the Czech Stop, a must-visit highway attraction that celebrates the state’s rich legacy of Eastern European immigration. It began as an average gas station, but around 1985 the owners transformed the neighboring liquor store into a bakery that’s beloved by just about anyone who’s tried the kolaches, Eastern European filled pastries. Hungrier patrons opt for the savory kolaches, especially the red pepper sausage Hot Chubby, but the place’s claim to fame is the sweeter cream cheese variety, which Czech Stop invented in an attempt to replicate the recipe of a local Czech grandmother.

Photography courtesy of Czech Stop

Go to: Czech Stop

Beer: Jester King

Texas is home to a booming craft beer scene, with dozens of excellent breweries that could be named top of class, but the brewery with the fiercest independent spirit (and most-scenic views) is located in Dripping Springs. A visit to Jester King means trying beers you never knew existed, because most haven’t before. Expect to see traditional styles like gose supercharged with unlikely ingredients like oyster mushrooms, or limited-edition collaborations with folks like barbecue legend Aaron Franklin, in this case yielding a tart farmhouse ale featuring smoked figs. Beer geeks will scratch their heads at the unique approaches to fermentation, but those without a Ph.D. in suds will appreciate the amazing atmosphere at the ranch (including some of the best pizza in the state).

Photography courtesy of Jester King Brewery

Go to: Jester King Brewery

Whiskey

The craft distilling boom has given birth to plenty of top-shelf Texas liquor companies, from the world-conquering Tito’s Vodka to Treaty Oak’s award-winning Waterloo Gin, but the spirit with the strongest ties to the state’s roots is whiskey. It took the Lone Star State many years to develop a spirit that could compete against versions from its northern neighbors in Tennessee, but that all changed with the launch of Balcones Distilling in 2009. The first legal whiskey produced in the state since Prohibition, it immediately rocketed to the top of the wish lists of connoisseurs around the world, taking awards for timeless bottles like the Single Malt as well as more creative versions distilled using blue corn, Texas wildflower honey and Mission figs.

Photography courtesy of Balcones Distilling

Go to: Balcones Distilling

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