The 10 Texas Restaurants We Loved Most in 2021
In praise of a Mexican tasting menu, Lao noodles and top-tier BBQ
Over the past almost-two-years, restaurants have had to navigate mandated closures, limited capacity requirements, unruly diners, and changing regulations. Paired with the already difficult nature of the industry, staying in business was no easy feat, and survival became the new benchmark for success.
Plenty of great spots have closed, and we’ll collectively pour one out for our fallen favorites. But here we’re celebrating 10 great spots that are still with us—the places that help to define Texas’s incredibly diverse dining scene and range from high-end hotspots to old-school icons. The criteria is simple: we love them.
Now, let’s patronize all 10 to ensure they stick around for years to come.
You’re here because: Well, probably because you saw the Chef’s Table feature on Snow’s and its octogenarian pitmaster, Tootsie Tomanetz. But this Saturdays-only BBQ joint has been smoking some of the state’s best meat since 2003, and it’s still going strong, drawing crowds who camp out the night before to be first in line when the doors open at 8 a.m. If you can’t make it to Snow’s, you can order meat and sauces online. “During the pandemic, orders were probably two to three times the normal amount, and it stayed steady through the whole time we were closed from March to November,” says Snow’s owner Kerry Bexley, adding that online sales helped to prop up the business during that time.
You’re dining on: All the classics. The perfectly smoked brisket, pork spare ribs and jalapeño sausages are a must. Add some potato salad to your plate and end with banana pudding.
516 Main Street (map)
Khao Noodle Shop
You’re here because: Bon Appetit named Khao its number two restaurant of 2019 (and Dallas its restaurant city of the year), which was no surprise to local diners familiar with chef Donny Sirisavath’s handmade noodles and Lao street food. The small plates concept was always geared to dine-in customers, so the pandemic created logistical issues beyond the obvious. But after a couple stops and starts, including a temporary run as a to-go market, the restaurant is back doing what it does best.
You’re dining on: Anything and everything noodle-based, including the lauded Boat Noodles with a pork blood broth, plus crispy shrimp bites, Lao sausages and tapioca dumplings.
4812 Bryan Street, #101 (map)
You’re here because: Local favorite Lucia is one of the few restaurants that expanded its operation during the pandemic. It came at the expense of shuttering its sister spot, Macellaio, but Lucia entered its new digs and kept the quality high — the handmade pasta and housemade charcuterie taste even better with the expanded bar program.
You’re dining on: Start with a spritz or glass of vermouth before diving into fresh bread and the chef’s choice salumi board. The meat and fish are worth ordering, but don’t be afraid to go all pasta, eating your way through the rotating primi courses. A recent menu featured semolina cavatelli with duck confit and rigatoni with fennel sausage.
287 N Bishop Ave (map)
You’re here because: Mixtli shook up San Antonio’s dining scene when it opened in 2013 as a 12-seat tasting menu restaurant focused on regional Mexican cuisine. “The pandemic was the ultimate disrupter and reinventor. We had to rethink every aspect of our business,” say chefs and co-owners Rico Torres and Diego Galicia. They partnered with a local roaster and sold coffee and gift cards for future use at the restaurant, investing some of the proceeds to make food boxes for those in need, and then they pivoted into a temporary to-go taqueria. “That’s where we discovered we made really good suadero tacos.” They paid their staff throughout it all, and in mid-2021, Mixtli moved to a new, larger location, now employing four times as many people as before.
You’re dining on: A constantly evolving menu that changes every few months, with themes tied to specific Mexican states, regions or time periods. Expect about 10 courses, and relish in a dinner where you don’t have to make any decisions.
812 S Alamo Street, Suite 103 (map)
You’re here because: The restaurant began as a food truck, just like so many good Austin restaurants, before moving to a brick-and-mortar space. But the unique mix that put it on the map — casual vibes paired with well-executed food—hasn’t faltered, and they still champion snout-to-tail cooking of local hogs — a practice they helped popularize around the state.
You’re dining on: A menu that’s fiercely dedicated to local products. Texas produce and meats are turned into elegant dishes, like mushroom-chorizo tostadas and grilled quail with Carolina gold rice, cabbage and Fresno hot sauce.
1201 S Lamar Boulevard (map)
Tamale House East
You’re here because: Its roots date back to 1958, and the third-generation owners still serve many of the same dishes their grandparents and parents served. And it sports one of East Austin’s best patios. When the pandemic hit, that patio was empty, but Tamale House continued to ply locals with tamales and tacos via online orders, curbside pickup and delivery until they could safely reopen.
You’re dining on: Tamales, obviously. But also breakfast tacos, non-breakfast tacos and enchiladas, all reasonably priced, filling and comforting.
1707 E 6th Street (map)
You’re here because: Himalaya is one of the best Indo-Pak restaurants in Houston and therefore the country. Chef Kaiser Lashkari serves an extensive menu of traditional dishes from a variety of regions throughout India and Pakistan that’s delighted famous visitors like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, not to mention countless locals.
You’re dining on: Fresh-baked naan, kebabs, curries, biryani and Hunter’s Beef, a pastrami-style meat that’s served cold with spicy mustard. For a fun twist, try the Indian-Mexican partha-dilla; the chef’s homage to quesadillas skips tortillas in favor of flaky paratha flatbread.
6652 Southwest Freeway (map)
The Original Ninfa’s
You’re here because: You owe Ninfa’s a debt of gratitude for popularizing fajitas. When Ninfa “Mama” Laurenzo opened her restaurant in 1973, she served sizzling-hot skirt steak and onions in fresh tortillas, a dish that was soon emulated around the state.
You’re dining on: Those perfect fajitas, dubbed “tacos al carbon” on the menu. They’re a must, but don’t sleep on the fish tacos, enchiladas and other classic plates, like carnitas and cochinita pibil.
2704 Navigation Boulevard (map)
You’re here because: The fun-loving bistro is one of Houston’s best dining experiences. When the restaurant was forced to close, Nancy’s reconcepted as the Apocalyptic Bodega, offering a to-go menu in addition to staples like olive oil, coffee, pickled veggies and more.
You’re dining on: Nancy Cakes. They’re basically little pancakes with cultured butter, smoked trout roe, and chives, and they’re an important start to any meal here. Then move on to thoughtful vegetable dishes, wood-grilled meats and fresh pasta. Be sure to score something from the food-friendly cocktail and wine lists, too.
2704 Polk Street (map)
You’re here because: Sometimes you just want to eat great food on a ranch more than 100 miles from a major city, and you want it to feel like an elegant dinner party at the owner’s farmhouse. And then you want to stay overnight, which you can do at the on-site, five-room inn.
You’re dining on: A menu that changes often and typically features ingredients sourced right off the property or from nearby purveyors. Recent dishes included a classic French cassoulet with duck confit and rabbit sausage, and a roasted vegetable torta with feta.
2969 County Road 422 (map)
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