Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Comfort food across Texas

Every area has specialties, takes on regional favorites

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Bean burgers are a bit of San Antonio, with a ground beef patty covered in refried beans, Fritos, cheese, onions and jalapeños.

The comfort foods of Texas are as varied as the state. A bowl of red may be the state dish, but regional favorites range from Cajun-Asian fusion in the Vietnamese crawfish boils that pop up every spring in Houston to breakfast tacos in San Antonio and a super-spicy burger in Fort Worth. And that bowl of red? A Dallas restaurant claims to have perfected it.

You no doubt have your favorite comfort foods and spots to enjoy them in Austin. Food writers in other Texas cities offer up these ideas of the signature dishes that define their food scene, and the places you ought to go for the best.

San Antonio

Breakfast tacos. San Antonio may be gaining more attention for its up-and-coming food scene sophistication, but when visitors come to the Alamo City, they want one thing: Tex-Mex.

And here, breakfast tacos are the star. One of the best places to get them is Torres Taco Haven, where flaky flour tortillas feature fillings including scrambled eggs, Mexican chorizo, diced potatoes, refried beans and yellow cheese.

Its breakfast tacos are a symphony of simplicity — and they're as comfortable in the most humble home kitchen as they are in corporate board meetings. $1.25 each. 210-533-2171 (1032 S. Presa St.); 210-532-3049 (3119 S. Gevers St.). www.tacohaven.info.

Bean burgers. Messy, cheesy, runny and oh-so-good, this San Antonio creation begins with a thick patty of ground beef topped with refried beans, crushed Fritos, Cheez Whiz or cheese, chopped onions and sliced pickled jalapeños. Some add guacamole and/or salsa for good measure. At Chris Madrid's, where it's known as the tostada burger, it's raised to an art form. $5.95-$7.25. 1900 Blanco Road. 210-735-3552. www.chrismadrids.com.

Puffy tacos. Iconic enough to be featured on "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay" and the inspiration for the mascot of the San Antonio Missions minor league baseball team, this shatteringly good taco hinges on correctly frying the fresh corn masa and letting it puff up without becoming greasy. Find some of the best at Henry's Puffy Tacos. $1.95-$8.99. 210-647-8339 (6030 Bandera Road); 210-433-7833 (3202 Woodlawn Ave.). www.henrys puffytacos.com.

— Edmund Tijerina, San Antonio Express-News

Houston

Vietnamese crawfish boil.If any one thing defines contemporary Houston dining, it is the way disparate strains of the city's culinary heritage recombine rapidly, shaping a cuisine that feels exciting and new. Our crawfish season, which runs December through June, offers a vivid taste of that phenomenon in the form of Vietnamese crawfish boils, a new civic ritual in which Cajun and Asian traditions meet at the same rollicking, messy table.

Crawfish & Noodles has become the favorite of many a local crawfish connoisseur. Its by-the-pound buckets of boiled crawfish come steeped in a savory red-peppered broth, rife with the garlic and butter that distinguishes Vietnamese crawfish from Louisiana renditions. There's a little caramelized-oniony undertow, too, that is all the restaurant's own.

Once you've tried crawfish this way, you may never dip them in cocktail sauce again. $6.99 a pound (in season). 10613 Bellaire Blvd. 281-988-8098. www.crawfish andnoodle.com.

Fajita burger.Houston is a town with a fierce, longstanding burger culture that just lately has entered a renaissance period, with wonderful examples of the form popping up almost monthly. There is no better place to get a taste of what our citizenry holds dear than at The Original Ninfa's, where Ninfa Laurenzo popularized char-grilled skirt steak during the 1970s.

Chef Alex Padilla's inspired fajita burger — on the restaurant's bar menu — uses ground skirt steak to encase a trove of grilled fajita meat inside. It's draped in melty white cheese and finished with avocado, grilled red onion, a subtle spark of chipotle mayonnaise and a bang-up garnish of carrots en escabeche. $9.99. 2704 Navigation Blvd. 713-228-1175. www.mamaninfas.com.

Ceviche. Ever since an enterprising young fishmonger named P.J. Stoops started showing up at chefs' back doors four years ago with unusual fish species, Houston has been ground zero for the growing Gulf Coast bycatch movement.

Get a taste of what's happening by ordering the ceviche of the day at El Xuco Xicana in the Midtown area. The day's selection might be meaty amberjack marinated in fresh lime and set off by crisp little spindles of beet and radish. Or it might involve grouper in coconut milk with a surprise of plantain and watermelon radish. $6-$12. 2416 Brazos St. 713-523-8181. www.elpatio.com/locations.

— Alison Cook, Houston Chronicle

Dallas

Cabrito. At Smoke, Tim Byres works magic with a wood grill, barbecue pit and vintage cold smoker, creating brilliantly conceived dishes, such as his signature pit-roasted cabrito with fresh masa, tamarind-goat's milk cajeta and green apple salsa. Smoked meats, including house-cured sausages, pulled North Carolina whole hog and coffee-cured beef brisket, are at the heart of Byres' concept, which earlier this year earned him Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chef nod for the Southwest. Not only that, the casual, retro Texas café is easy on the pocketbook, and its tiny, enclosed, hacienda-style patio may be the best place in town to sip house-infused spirits under the stars. $13. 901 Fort Worth Ave. 214-393-4141. www.smoke restaurant.com.

Buffalo tenderloin.Chef-owner Dean Fearing, one of the fathers of Southwestern cuisine, continues to define haute Texas dining with his glamorous, see-and-be-seen Rattlesnake Bar and eponymous Fearing's Restaurant, where maple-black-peppercorn buffalo tenderloin over jalapeño grits with a butternut squash taquito is his signature dish. $48. The Ritz-Carlton, 2121 McKinney Ave. 214-922-4848. www.fearingsrestaurant.com.

Texas red. Kathleen Tolbert Ryan, daughter of the late Texas chili legend Frank X. Tolbert, runs the namesake restaurant Tolbert's, where you can still get an authentic bowl of Texas red, the iconic state dish her father perfected. $4.99-$8.99. 423 S. Main St., Grapevine. 817-421-4888; www.tolbertsrestaurant.com.

— Kim Pierce, Special to The Dallas Morning News

Fort Worth

Diablo Burger.Eating the spiciest and, arguably, the most sought-after burger in town is about far more than hitting a burger joint and tucking into one of the most unforgettable flavor encounters in perhaps all of North Texas. Devouring a Diablo Burger at Fred's Texas Café encompasses an entire experience.

This extraordinary burger, featured on the Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," is served up by local legend Terry Chandler, who can turn a patty of ground beef into a thing of wonder. Chandler starts with a freshly formed thick patty that takes a hit from his flat-griddle seasoning. Seared at the edges and lavished with chopped chipotles, it's served on a toasty bun swept with spicy mustard. For sweetness, add a slice of grilled onion and don't forget the tomato, lettuce and pickles. If you're made of tough enough stuff, you'll also add a few drops of Sriracha hot sauce. $11.25. 915 Currie St. 817-332-0083. www.fredstexas cafe.com.

Chicken and dumplings. For 60 years, the Paris Coffee Shop has been know for its pies and has built a passionate patronage for its Thursday lunchtime special, chicken and dumplings. Café owner Mike Smith makes about 60 gallons of the Southern specialty for this weekly offering. Thick as a stew, this version packs big shreds of silken chicken with long, thin, firm strips of pastry into a creamy slurry. $7.95-$8.70 for the daily special. 704 W. Magnolia Ave. 817-335-2041. www.pariscoffeeshop.net.

Black Forest cake. Delete all memories you may hold of an icky-sweet, squishy Black Forest cake with cherries. The version Swiss Pastry Shop chef Hans Mueller created during his years running the kitchen at nearby Ridglea Country Club makes a distinctive statement like no other pastry we've found. Feather-light layers of baked almond meringue are lavished with whipped cream and dusted with dark chocolate shavings, rendering a lofty confection that's been the centerpiece of this bakery-café since Mueller opened it in the 1970s. $16.95-$99.95. 3936 W. Vickery Blvd. 817-732-5661. www.swisspastry online.com.

— June Naylor, Special to the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram