30 Essential Texas Restaurants

For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.John Steinbeck, 1962

Texas is defined in many ways by many different people. But there are at least three things anyone can agree on when it comes to the Lone Star State: barbecue, Tex-Mex and steaks. This is the holy trinity of Texas cuisine — foods that comprise our most firmly entrenched food heritage. These are the foods we invented or perfected. They are our exports to the world, our richly flavored history and although we may agree on them in broad strokes, they are also our favorite things to fight over.

In tiny Lockhart, Texas — a town long known as the Barbecue Capital of Texas — a decade-long family feud was sparked in 1999 at Kreuz Market, just shy of the barbecue joint’s 100th anniversary, after patriarch Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt‘s death. The squabble led to the creation of a brand-new Kreuz Market just down the street, where its brand-new pits were christened with hot coals from Schmidt’s timeworn pits after being carried there in a ceremonial display of reverence.

The old Kreuz was renamed Smitty’s, and although the feud wasn’t particularly fierce, it wasn’t uncommon to hear Lockhart residents align themselves with either Smitty’s or “The Church of Kreuz,” as though barbecue was their one true religion. The dispute ended this past year when the family came together once again…to open yet another barbecue joint, this one in Bee Cave. Food is what can separate us — whether along cultural lines or not — but it’s also what brings us together.

For as much as we may love to squabble over food, we love to eat it even more. And every Texan worth his boots has his own personal list of restaurants that represent Texas at its best. These are the places we recommend to visitors and the places where we take long road trips to visit ourselves. These are the places where every Texan should eat at least once before they die (preferably with those boots still on) and the restaurants that define the essential Texas dining experience.

But does that holy trinity of barbecue, Tex-Mex and steak still define Texas? Or is it our state food, chili? Maybe seafood from the Gulf Coast, or the ultramodern blending of local Texan products and international cuisines as seen at restaurants like Tyson Cole‘s Uchi or Chris Shepherd‘s Underbelly?

“Texas restaurants have come a long way since myopic New York editors thought it was strictly barbecue and chili,” says John Mariani, longtime food writer for Esquire. “Texas, and Houston in particular, is rich in every kind of cuisine and many express it with a Texas ­swagger.”

Mariani is one of 20 food writers we polled to determine once and for all what foods — and, just as importantly, what restaurants — define Texas. What are the 30 seminal Texas restaurants that everyone should visit at least once? we asked them. Not the best, per se. But the essential restaurants that have shaped our culinary landscape and continue to shape it to this day. The restaurants that, as Daniel Vaughn, a barbecue writer and author of the upcoming Texas barbecue book The Prophets of Smoked Meat, puts it, “help to tell the story of Texas cuisine.”

“These are the restaurants where I’d send Texas newcomers who wanted to understand the state,” saidHanna Raskin, a former Dallas Observer food critic who still reflects fondly on the state although she’s now helming Seattle Weekly‘s food section. “Or at least the state I like,” she added jokingly.

We could have asked chefs or restaurant owners, but we asked food writers for a reason: Their lives and careers revolve around traveling and eating, comparing and contrasting and — most importantly — documenting Texas food history one column at a time.

2121 McKinney, Dallas

Kentucky-born Dean Fearing is credited as the Father of Southwestern Cuisine thanks to his 20-year tenure at the glitzy Mansion on Turtle Creek, a Dallas institution. In 2007, however, Fearing moved away from his signature cuisine and the Mansion to open the equally glamorous Fearing’s inside the imposingRitz-Carlton hotel. The lavish eight-roomed restaurant quickly secured itself a spot in the Dallas culinary firmament with Fearing’s upscale Texan fare and earned plenty of national accolades along the way. Want to splash out like a modern-day oil baron? Fearing’s is the place to do it.

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