This is my list of favorites from the road. The best way to describe it might be “hidden gems.” They are almost all places that we happened upon, the restaurant that looked best in whatever town we happened to be in. These are the ones that turned out to be great. There may be other decent places nearby, but these are the ones I want to make a note of so that I can get off the highway there on purpose next time.
A few things you may want to know about me and how I like to eat: I love fresh ingredients, innovative flavor combinations, and careful preparation. I eat mainly vegetarian (a little fish), but I prefer dishes that just happen to be that way (and are eaten by everyone), I’m not into tofurky, etc. Bryan is truly omnivorous, he will try basically anything. I have a serious sweet tooth, which I attempt to keep in check by eating only the best and most interesting desserts. Both of us would rather camp out of the truck and eat at the best restaurant in town than spend the same money on a hotel and a cheap dinner.
Since we all need exercise to balance our food intake (and occasional non-food diversions like craft supplies) I’ll put a few outstanding non-eating destinations here as well.
The names of establishments are linked to their own sites for more information. Sometimes I won’t visit a town for a couple of years, so if you have updates or know of a place you think I should try, let me know!
By state in the US:
My favorite restaurant in my hometown. Exquisite European-influenced, locally sourced dinners with full service. Great breads, amazing soups, croissant sandwiches, homemade gelato, and espresso drinks are available at the counter for a more affordable lunch or afternoon option.
Bryan used to live in St Louis, so he knows a lot of good restaurants here, this is one of my very favorites. Old fashioned Chinese restaurant atmosphere, reasonable prices, exceptional food. Order the crispy eggplant. The only trouble is you may, like me, never order anything else!
Italian classics done extremely well, plus twists with a Mediterranean influence, and unique dishes. Amazing desserts. Lunch is more affordable and just as tasty.
An STL institution, selling super creamy frozen custard (and Christmas trees in winter) since 1929. Old-school add-ins like salty pistachios, syrupy fruits, and chocolate sauce here (no wild-honey-and-lavender etc.) but authentic and still delicious. The last time we were there, there were also two buses’ worth of tourists (literally, the buses had to turn around in the bank across the street) but it lives up to the hype, and the line moves pretty fast.
Burn off all that fried eggplant and custard by climbing all over and through a found-object wonderland of artist-created sculpture/playground housed in a 600,000 square foot former shoe factory. Every bit as good as it sounds, just as fun for adults as for kids. Wear sturdy pants. Watch out for giant school groups in the spring.
One of Bryan’s favorite restaurants on Earth. Not for vegans or those who won’t eat eggs with runny yolks, but very highly recommended to everyone else. Heavily French-influenced with innovative dishes, there may only be a couple of vegetarian offerings on the small menu, but since you can’t go wrong here they are sure to be delicious. Pricey but well worth it. Make a reservation or be prepared to wait a while for space at the bar or a walk-in table.
By far my favorite of the food carts near 9th and Washington. Authentic liège style waffles with sweet and savory toppings like goat cheese mousse, honey roasted pistachios, and balsamic caramel sauce.
I’m in love with the whole Alberta Street neighborhood, blocks and blocks of lovely quirky craft businesses and restaurants I’m dying to try. So far I can recommend: Al Forno Ferruzza (simple but well made Sicilian pizza featuring seasonal ingredients), Bollywood Theater (Indian street food and delicious veggie sides, like beets with coconut milk and curry leaves), and Random Order (Pie!).
And Bolt fabric shop—a bunch of lovely cotton voiles and knits, some unusual weaves, a few silks and wools are all scattered amongst a large selection of quilting fabric. Lots of organic fabrics, lovely ribbon and notions.
Gourmet farm-to-cone ice cream. Since it’s Portland, the flavors are extra weird; when we were there they had a mint ice cream with (I am not making this up) sea urchin meringues. The strawberry balsamic is worth whatever time you wait in line.
If I could make tofu like what they put on top of the bún here, I most certainly would! Authentic and interesting Vietnamese food that had us going back multiple times in the same week to try new dishes and drinks, including avocado shakes.
On the road:
Ok, so it’s basically a tourist trap, but they also have really good, really fresh, really local pecans in several varieties at very reasonable prices.
Without having tried much else in the vicinity, I would venture to call this the best place to eat between Houston and Austin. Texas roasted coffee, house-made pastries, lunch with fresh takes on Texas favorites and big tasty salads using local ingredients.
Ok, so this is probably not the absolute best Indian food you will ever eat. But it feels like an absolute oasis in the desert, complete with Bollywood-style music videos playing. Lunch buffet or order from the menu at dinner. When we first stopped there it was housed in an abandoned truck stop (across from—really—the “Jesus is Lord Truck Stop”), but my research suggests they have moved into town.
The more affordable and casual Enoteca side is the first place I ever had a macaron— I was obsessed at first bite, and their version is probably still the best one I’ve had. The rest of the fresh Italian-inspired food is terrific too. Austin is one of those cities where I am rapidly accumulating more places I would like to eat than will fit in one trip, but if I had only one meal there I would unquestionably eat it at Vespaio.
Taco joints: I am divided. Overall, I think the more innovative ingredients and flavor combos at Tacodeli make it my favorite. However, Torchy’s Tacos is open later, has bigger tacos in more of the classic Tex-Mex-with-fried-toppings genre (although with several good veggie options) and has better salsa roja. Tacodeli has that really good green sauce though … you decide!
24 hour restaurants: maybe it’s because of all the music & late night happenings, but Austin has more good food open all night than any other place I know of. I prefer Magnolia to Kerbey Lane Cafe, although both have gingerbread pancakes all night long. Magnolia has more crazy hippie veggie fare. Kerbey Lane is more uneven, but if you’re into meat you may find your favorite dish there. Newer 24 Diner is a step up in both quality and price from either of these classic Austin hangouts, with more farm-to-table fare and a hipster indie-rock soundtrack which I loved. I can’t end this paragraph without a word of sorrow that Katz’s is closed—if there ever was the absolute perfect place to eat late after packing down an art show, it was Katz’s Deli.
Above-average Thai food at normal (fairly cheap) Thai food prices. Be prepared to wait for a table.
Keeping Austin sushi weird with all kinds of fusion choices. Although the veggie options were slimmer, they were good. My favorite was called A Green Thai Affair, and Bryan was impressed with several carnivore options he tried.
An old-fashioned hamburger stand using natural ingredients, with a few locations around Austin. They make their own veggie burgers too. Nothing fancy, but solidly good, everyone can pretend it’s the 50’s and burgers are wholesome again. Good fries.
Holds its own in the very top tier of American ice cream with bold fresh flavors. I loved the Sweet Pea & Sorrel at our springtime visit.
If you are at the Saturday downtown Farmers’ Market, or happen to see this trailer somewhere else, stop and eat! By far the best Kolaches we had on our TX travels, and a whole bunch of other really delicious Austin-meets-Czech brunch.
A gem of a place to swim, fed by a natural spring and inhabited by endangered salamanders! It’s chilly, about 70°F year round, but the fast-moving water is wonderfully un-chemically-treated, so just keep swimming, and look out for large pieces of seaweed. Although the surrounding Zilker Park has lots of other fun options for exercise, I always choose swimming here.
Houston, I owe you an apology for how short this list is—I hope to work on that on our next visit!
Amazing destination for imported and homemade groceries, cheese and dessert cases of dreams. You can also sit down and order pizza and lighter fare in a casual atmosphere at the MKT BAR downtown, or get pita sandwiches at the deli while you watch fresh pitas come down the conveyor belt.
Um, we just came here to eat crawfish. I love crawfish. They were good. Lots of other seafood choices, and craft & local beers too.
Small-batch-roasted artisan coffee. These guys make an iced coffee with chicory that was my three-day afternoon addiction at the Bayou City Art Show—so delicious.
A step above average Mediterranean food, really good veggies, sides and pickles.
Hipster hangout where we ate the best Brussels sprouts I’ve ever had in my life. These folks aren’t afraid of strange cuts of meat, or putting things together that you would never think of, but everything I tried was really good. Not a lot of veggie options, but fun to put several unusual small plates together for a meal. Extensive, well-curated selections of beer and wine.
A long-time favorite with my TX family. “Healthy” Tex-Mex with lots of veggie options. Puffy tacos and crazy colorful homemade decor.
Italian quality gelato with American flavors like peanut butter and maple, as well as some classics. If they have lemon gelato the day you go, you should get it—creamy and delicious with a great depth of flavor.