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8 of the best small-town restaurants in Texas

With “tide-to-table” cooking, Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House specializes in fresh seafood. Photo by Becca Wright

Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio boast award-winning dining scenes. But over the past 2 years, an increasing number of restaurants in Texas’ smaller cities have been recognized for excellence, too. Several have drawn attention from the James Beard Foundation, whose awards are akin to the Oscars in the culinary world.

These smaller-market standouts have been considered for Beard awards in national and Texas-only categories. They include these 8 not-to-miss hot spots, from a taco-ramen hybrid to a tried-and-true barbecue joint.

1. Ana Liz Taqueria, Mission

Beard nod: Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas (2023)

Ana Liz Taqueria is set in a nondescript Rio Grande Valley shopping center that houses an insurance office and a hair salon. Owned by Chef Ana Liz Pulido, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in San Antonio, the tiny restaurant has just 4 tables, a checkout counter, and a few folding chairs for customers waiting on to-go orders.

Look beyond the no-frills dining room and into the scratch kitchen where corn tortillas (churned out on a press) and flour tortillas (rolled out by hand) are made from Pulido’s mother’s recipes. Delivered on simple silver trays, à la carte street tacos are filled to the brim with fresh ingredients and perfectly seasoned carnitas and fajita steak (or make them vegan with cactus). Wash it all down with an agua fresca.

Don’t miss: The vampiro taco, a traditional nixtamal tortilla with guacamole, crispy cheese, pico de gallo, and your choice of protein.

You may also like: Where to find authentic Texas tacos

2. Burnt Bean Company, Seguin

Dave Kirkland and Ernest Servantes

Burnt Bean Company co-owners Dave Kirkland and Ernest Servantes serve up tasty barbecue smoked over post oak. Photo by Robert Lerma

Beard nods: Finalist for Best Chef: Texas (2023) and semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas (2022)

Pitmasters Dave Kirkland and Ernest Servantes were once rivals in the state’s hottest barbecue competitions. They joined forces to open Burnt Bean Company during the pandemic, confident their offerings would stand out while so many other restaurants were shuttering. Their bet paid off, and now everyone wins at this barbecue joint housed in an 1800s building that Servantes describes as “barn-house industrial.”

Take a seat on the patio and dig into brisket and house-made sausages smoked over post oak, an indigenous wood to the surrounding Central Texas landscape. Don’t skimp on the sides—favorites include bacon ranch taters and street corn pudding.
“​​We don’t serve anything fancy,” Servantes says. “We just make good food.”

Don’t miss: The Big Red tres leches dessert: layers of sponge cake with 3 types of milk and a hint of Big Red soda.

You may also like: 8 next-generation Texas barbecue places you have to try

3. Chez Sami, Wolfforth

Tables inside Chez Sami

Chez Sami’s decor gives off Parisian café vibes. Photo courtesy Chez Sami

Beard nod: Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas (2023)

Who knew you could find a bit of Paris in a Lubbock suburb? French restaurant Chez Sami, named for chef Jon Walter’s 10-year-old daughter, started as a pop-up and transitioned to a brick-and-mortar space this year in Wolfforth.

The well-traveled Walter (he was a private chef on yachts in Europe) evokes a Parisian café with art nouveau murals, checkered tablecloths, and a prix fixe menu that changes weekly. The short rib bourguignon and crème brûlée are favorites. 

Don’t miss: The beef Wellington, a real crowd-pleaser when offered.

You may also like: 6 great food trucks in Texas

4. El Charlatan, Socorro

El Charalatan short ribs

El Charlatan’s menu includes marinated short ribs served with white rice, charro beans, and banchan. Photo courtesy El Charlatan

Beard nod: Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas (2023)

It’s an unlikely pairing: tacos and noodles. Yet it works at El Charlatan, which opened in 2021 in the El Paso suburb of Socorro. It’s the brainchild of chef Enrique Lozano, a Socorro native who worked at the ever-evolving Michelin-starred restaurant Next in Chicago before opening a ramen restaurant in El Paso in 2017.

Now, Lozano combines his Mexican heritage and his love of Asian cuisine to delight diners with a multicourse fusion tasting menu in addition to a regular menu. Make a reservation to snag one of the 10 tables inside the 160-year-old hacienda-style home. Then, brace yourself for the flavor explosion that is a buttermilk togarashi fried chicken taco paired with a hearty bowl of ramen.

“My love for ramen comes from eating ramen,” Lozano says. “I fell in love with crafting a bowl from homemade noodles in 24- to 48-hour broths and I never looked back.”

Don’t miss: The Bourdain Bowl, a rich tonkotsu-style broth with pork belly and soft-boiled egg.

You may also like: 6 top Tex-Mex take-out restaurants in Texas

5. Elemi, El Paso

Emiliano Marentes

Elemi chef Emiliano Marentes holds a Molino stone, which is used in the machine that grinds maize for the restaurant’s fresh corn tortillas. Photo courtesy Elemi

Beard nods: Semifinalist for Outstanding Chef (2022) and finalist for Best Chef: Texas (2023).

Chef Emiliano Marentes gained national visibility as a guest on Padma Lakshmi’s Hulu series Taste the Nation in 2020.

The best thing on the menu? “Honestly, anything with a tortilla,” Marentes says. “That’s our craft.” The El Paso native got his start working in the town’s tortillerias and continues to grind maize each day to make the restaurant’s fresh corn tortillas. Belly up to the bar in the small but well-appointed dining room for an agave-based cocktail, botanas (Mexican appetizers), and some of the state’s best tacos.

Don’t miss: The vegetarian Campesino taco, filled with cremini mushrooms, eggplant, Oaxaca black beans, avocado, and caramelized quesillo.

You may also like: 8 Texas food halls that celebrate the state’s diversity

6. Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House, San Leon

Oysters served over ice

From oysters to fish and shrimp, fresh seafood abounds on the menu at Pier 6 Seafood & Oyster House. Photo by Becca Wright

Beard nod: Semifinalist for Best New Restaurant (2022)

Second-generation oysterman Raz Halili wanted to share more of the bounty from his family’s sustainable fishery beyond selling it wholesale. The solution: He partnered with chef Joe Cervantez in 2020 to create “tide-to-table” cooking.

Halfway between Houston and Galveston, Pier 6 serves some of the freshest seafood around, including crudos, just-caught fish, and oversized Gulf shrimp. Arrive via car or boat (thanks to the addition of a nearby marina). The decor matches the restaurant’s “finessed but not fussy” ethos with white shiplap, a 2-story patio lounge, and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame views of Galveston Bay.

Don’t miss: Oysters on the half shell, whether dressed, grilled, or smothered in Sriracha.

You may also like: Why you should go gallivanting in Galveston, Texas

7. The Local, Abilene

The Local interior

A stylish area where guests can wait for a table while sipping a cocktail helps make diners feel welcome at The Local. Photo courtesy The Local 

Beard nod: Semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality (2023)

Owners Justin and Alex Russell and their executive chef, Cody Enriquez, understand that the key to being great hosts is making everyone feel welcome. That’s why you’re likely to see people from all walks of life at their modern Mexican restaurant inside an old jewelry store—West Texas ranchers, military families, and even the occasional drag queen.

The food also caters to a wide variety of palates. Classics like carne asada and shrimp tacos live in harmony with more adventurous creations like chimichanga egg rolls and a chicken enchilada pizza. Open until midnight Tuesday–Saturday, it’s also a good choice for a nightcap.

Don’t miss: The wonton tacos: crispy outer shells with shredded chicken, avocado ranch dressing, and Tajín.

You may also like: 9 Texas hotels and resorts with surprising amenities

8. The Nicolett, Lubbock

The Nicolett greenhouse

The Nicolett greenhouse is a good option for friends and families to celebrate special occasions under the stars. Photo by Melinda Harvey/Courtesy of The Nicolett 

Beard nod: Semifinalist for Best Chef: Texas (2022)

Chef Finn Walter lived in Paris, Austin, Santa Fe, and Napa Valley (where he worked at the Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood) before returning home to Lubbock in 2017 and opening The Nicolett in 2020. His travels have influenced his cooking style, but the menu tells the story of the High Plains.

Walter employs traditional techniques to deliver dishes like melt-in-your-mouth fry bread. He is also hyper-focused on local and underutilized ingredients: For example, he uses peaches grown a mere 20 yards from the restaurant to prepare a fruit curd dessert.

Cozy up next to the massive stone fireplace in the contemporary dining room; for a special occasion, reserve the greenhouse for a meal under the stars.

Don’t miss: The “I Love Yuzu,” a nonalcoholic aperitif with yuzu lemon and Topo Chico.

You may also like: 7 Texas brunch places you have to try this spring

Raising the bar

A Texas bar has caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, too.

Las Ramblas, Brownsville

Las Ramblas diners toast their cocktails

Take your pick from an assortment of refreshing cocktails at Las Ramblas. Photo by Daniela Loera

Beard nod: Finalist for Outstanding Bar (2023)

No need to ask the bartenders at Brownsville’s first craft-cocktail bar what to order. Instead, just check out the list of 6 one-of-a-kind cocktails that changes each month. “[It’s] the crown jewel of the entire Las Ramblas program,” says ​​Chris Galicia, cocktail and spirits director and junior partner. “It keeps the staff’s creative juices flowing, and it keeps the guests coming back.”

One month, inspiration may strike in the form of a strawberry-infused mezcal or an aloe vera liqueur. Another month, you might find mole bitters or chai-infused whip. If you’re in the mood for a classic, Las Ramblas has 50 options. And save at a late-night happy hour on Wednesdays from 9 to 11 p.m.

Don’t miss: The 5 Years Next November cocktail, made with English breakfast tea–infused bourbon, sparkling wine, lemon juice, and a house-made black tea syrup.

Tommie Ethington is a Dallas-based writer. She also contributes to Condé Nast Traveler, Rolling Stone, and Texas Monthly.

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