From Tamales to Shawarma: Experiencing the Flavors of Downtown Houston

on May 20, 2019

Weaving our way through a stream of Astros jerseys, our hungry group strolled down the bustling Avenida de las Americas in the heart of downtown Houston. We put our appetites and our next three hours into the hands of Star Gilani, founder of Best Bites Houston, and award-winning tour guide. We were quickly ushered into our first culinary selection, representing one of the many cultures that shape the most diverse city in the United States.

The table was set, the cocktails were ordered, and casual conversation among our group commenced. Houstonians from inside and outside of the loop, tourists from Ohio, celebrators of birthdays and anniversaries were all united that evening by an interest in the unique food that our city has to offer.

“I wanted to create an experience that showcases the diversity in Houston, one bite at a time,” explains Star.

After personally sampling nearly every restaurant within a 2-mile radius of Discovery Green, Star designed a route which allows participants to enjoy not only a diversity of culture and food, but diversity in dining environment as well.

Along our journey, we sampled southern cooking, unconventional Tex-Mex, Middle Eastern, and upscale French fare. Restaurant atmospheres ranged from an outdoor bar to low-light fine dining. We were relieved from the work of scouring the menus, as Star planned a lineup of enticing bites at each venue, accompanied by drink pairings.

Looking up from our conversations with new friends, we listened as Star explained the ins and outs of the preparation of our first bites, dubbed “elevated soul food.” A beautiful meshing of flavors influenced by the African diaspora, southern cooking techniques, and a dash of Houston, produced our first meal. We savored the tastes as well as the history behind what we consumed.

But we wasted no time on the Best Bites Houston tour. With a perfect sense of timing after having guided her tours for many months, Star allowed us enough time to enjoy and finish our food, soak up the ambiance of the restaurant, before moving on to the next location – where almost miraculously our food would be served almost immediately upon arrival. This, of course, was accomplished through Star’s behind-the-scenes diligence in building relationships with her chosen restaurants, which is reflected in the “insider” feel of the tour.

The balance between walking, admiring the interesting facets of downtown, and eating was nicely achieved. At no point did we feel that we were too hungry, too full, too idle, or too rushed. The pacing made it easy to appreciate how much downtown Houston has blossomed over the past ten years.

We followed as Star blazed the trail through one of Houston’s most popular outdoor venues, Discovery Green: a green space complete with a pond for kayaking, art installations, children’s play areas, an outdoor theater, and an ice-skating rink during winter. Our tour traversed across this urban park, complete with a well-placed stop for lemonade.

Star interspersed historical anecdotes about the notable sites and the people behind their development that she picked up from local historians. Although I’ve lived in Houston for the past 14 years, these stories were new to me.

As were the brisket tamales. Tex-Mex means more than standard fajitas and guac at the second stop beyond Discovery Green: a western-style, outdoor music venue. The tamales had a creamy, polenta-like consistency, and topped with the hardwood smoked brisket, which made for a delicious fusion. Satisfied, our itinerary took us from the Texas-Mexico border to the Middle East – after a detour to a picture-perfect spot for group photos. With thousands of native Arabic speakers from all over the Middle East making Houston home, it makes sense that in the heart of our city, you’ll find great shawarma.

At this next spot, we first made our way through an Arabic-European grocery store, with specialty products imported from over 50 countries.  This grocery and restaurant were started 36 years ago by a family from Lebanon of Armenian descent, who saw the need for spices and ingredients that were not yet common in Texas. The bar was a Houston-inspired addition to the store, where we received our chicken shawarma, stuffed with potato, veggies, and garlic mayo – and the third alcoholic beverage for the bar-hoppers.

What better way to bid our food tour “au revoir” than with French crêpe bites filled with red berry preserves and apples? With a champagne toast to a successful foodie adventure, we left the Best Bites Tour with a greater appreciation for Houston’s food and culture than when we arrived.

Booking the tour through Groupon will save you 46% off a purchase of one ticket, and 52% off four tickets. Tours can be customized to fit group needs and goals, whether you’re celebrating an anniversary, or on a team-building excursion with coworkers. I believe that you’ll enjoy the Best Bites Houston experience, whether you’re one of Star’s guests from the Bayou City, Colorado, Indonesia, Ethiopia, or anywhere you call home; and you’ll come away with a little more Houston in your heart.

About the Author – 

Christina is a freelance writer and outer-loop Houstonian who can’t get enough of the  city’s international food scene. You’ll find her traveling abroad without leaving IAH by exploring our diverse hole-in-the-wall cuisines. Her writing adventures allow her to share stories of the food, businesses, and communities that make Houston great. You can read her blog here or view some of her tasty recommendations on Instagram, @HoustonsGotSpice

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