With a population of about 30 million people spread across major cities, suburbs, small towns and rural communities, Texas is a diverse state offering a little something for everyone. That extends to the food. Because while Texas is best associated with meat and….more meat, there’s an entire menu of homegrown dishes and adopted imports, from brisket and breakfast tacos to kolaches and a strangely famous sheet cake.
We’ve compiled a list of 13 essential foods (and two drinks) that are synonymous with Texas, plus details on where to find each. Whether you’re a lifelong resident or a newcomer, work your way through the list for a true taste of Texas.
Texas has the best barbecue in the country and therefore the world. Central Texas’s preference for dry rubs and slow-cooking meat over hardwood has become the state’s signature style, and those efforts are evident each time you bite into a perfect hunk of brisket, with its peppery bark surrounding succulent, fatty meat.
Where to find it: Good brisket can be found at excellent barbecue joints in each big city, and many places between. For a crash course in Texas barbecue, swing through Austin, where you can eat your way through a dozen great examples, including Franklin Barbecue, LeRoy and Lewis and InterStellar.
There are few life experiences more satisfying than when a hulking beef rib, often weighing up to two pounds, slams onto your tray. The rich and decadent rib has become a worthy competitor to brisket, but there’s never a need to choose one over the other when you can just get both.
Something magical happens when you melt cheese, mix it with chiles and serve it with chips. And the fact that queso pairs so perfectly with beer and margaritas only adds to its pre-meal dominance.
Where to find it: Every Tex-Mex restaurant in every town in Texas.
Breakfast tacos are enjoyed on both sides of the border, and though their origin is hotly contested, conventional wisdom tracks the breakfast taco’s migration from northern Mexico into South Texas, where it gained a foothold first in San Antonio and then in Austin. It’s an egalitarian food found at streetside stands, diners and Tex-Mex restaurants, and it may be loaded with eggs, potatoes or meat, so eaters can choose their own adventure.
Where to find it: Literally hundreds of places throughout the state, with a high concentration of options in San Antonio and Austin, but plenty more in DFW, Houston and elsewhere.
To make puffy tacos, tortillas are deep-fried until they begin to puff up, at which point they’re crimped into the familiar taco shell shape. The outside is light and crispy, the inside is soft and chewy, and everyone is happy. Top with chicken or beef, tomatoes and lettuce, and eat quickly before the structural integrity begins to fade.
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Austria has its wiener schnitzel, Italy has veal Milanese, and Texas has chicken-fried steak. The latter involves breading a steak in seasoned flour and then deep frying or pan frying it until the steak is cooked and the outside develops a pleasant crunch. All good examples come with a peppery white gravy that, if used to excess, is used correctly.
Where to find it: Mary’s Cafe in Strawn is famous for its chicken-fried steak, but you can find the dish at restaurants, bars and roadhouses all over Texas.
Kolaches and Klobasniky
The wave of Czech immigrants to Central Texas in the 19th century resulted in some great baked goods: first kolaches and then klobasniky (“klobasnek” if singular). The former term is often applied universally, but kolaches are sweet pastries filled with fruits and/or cheeses, while klobasniky are typically filled with little sausages. Both have become popular Texas breakfasts and snacks, available at Czech bakeries, diners and roadside stands.
Texas Red Chili
Heads up: Texas chili doesn’t contain beans. It’s best to just accept that fact lest you come to blows with a diehard Texas chili aficionado.
Texas caviar has as much in common with actual caviar as Rocky Mountain oysters have with actual oysters. The popular dish starts with black-eyed peas, typically adds chopped peppers and onions and sometimes herbs or other accoutrements, and is dressed with a vinaigrette. It can be eaten as a side or as a dip if served with chips. (You may see it listed on certain menus as cowboy caviar or black-eyed pea salad.)
Where to find it: Grocery stores, southern restaurants and backyard gatherings.
Pecan trees dot the Texas landscape, so it’s no surprise that bakers began using pecans in their desserts. The pecan pie is a staple at holidays and other gatherings, and to codify its importance, the Texas House of Representatives named the pecan pie as the state’s official pie in 2013.
Where to find it: Bakeries and grocery stores across the state.
Here’s a very different kind of pie. Fritos are topped with chili, cheese, onion and jalapeños, and the combo is often served straight in the bag.
Where to find it: High school football concession stands, the state fair, dive bars and barbecue joints.
Texas Sheet Cake
This simple dessert is a staple at picnics, church gatherings and, in an interesting twist, funerals. Chocolate cake is topped with fudgy icing and pecans and baked on a sheet pan until you get a cake that resembles a massive brownie.
Where to find it: Bakeries, diners, grocery stores, your grandma’s house.
Blue Bell Ice Cream
Blue Bell dates back to 1907, when the creamery was founded in Brenham, Texas, and for about 80 years it was only available within state borders. It’s since expanded to other markets, but it’s still Texas’s favorite ice cream. Scoops of vanilla adorn holiday pie plates, half gallons of Pecan Pralines ‘n Cream fill up family freezers and pints of assorted flavors are handed out like candy at kids’ birthday parties.
Where to find it: Every grocery store in Texas.
The frozen margarita machine was invented in Dallas in 1971, and you can’t step into a Tex-Mex restaurant without encountering the icy, refreshing drink.
Where to find it: Tex-Mex joints and patio bars all over the state.
OK, this one’s technically from Mexico, but Topo Chico is ubiquitous at Texas bars, restaurants and convenience stores. The aggressively bubbly mineral water is also a vital component of the Ranch Water cocktail.
Where to find it: Almost anywhere that sells water.
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