Where to Find the Best Gumbo in Houston
Gumbo is a child with many mothers. The West African Bantu word “ki ngombo” means okra, and the Choctaw, who hailed from present-day Mississippi, used the term “kombo” to mean ground up sassafras leaves (aka filé). As it turns out, okra and filé — often just one or the other — are considered essential thickeners for gumbo.
Like seashells and snowflakes, no gumbo is the same, as the dish has evolved in countless ways over time. Some versions resemble stewed tomatoes and okra with protein thrown in for good luck, while others appear as brown gravy soup. Those may be fine and dandy versions, but a New Orleans-style gumbo involves a third type of thickener: roux, cooked until it is dark chocolate in color, a practice not as well known elsewhere. The result is a nutty and mildly bitter base that’s rich like coffee and with a sweet finish.The French Bouillabaisse is thought to be responsible for the roux-ification of New Orleans-style gumbo, but there is no telling who originally took that blonde thickener of fat and flour and burned the heck out of it, leading to the distinctive, complex flavor.
Another trait of the New Orleans gumbo is additional broth, making it somewhat thin. The bitter taste of the roux is paramount, but too much can cause a bitter stew. Balance comes from the additions of sweet peppers, onions, garlic and spices stewed together with large portions of seafood, sausage, poultry or game. Beware of cheap gumbos; a good bowl will have substantial chunks of meat that are too big to hide.
One other type, gumbo z’herbes, should be mentioned. It is stewed sausage and greens —the more varieties the better — but it has no okra. In Houston, Lucille’s offers this dish fairly often, presumably in the winter when greens are in season. Likewise, a vegan gumbo made with jackfruit in place of meat occasionally makes an appearance at Hive Vegan Eatery.
Most prevalent in Houston, though, is the New Orleans style of gumbo, and below are several outstanding examples.
Bayou City Seafood & Pasta, 4712 Richmond: Visit this recently renovated, modern and inviting 32-year-old restaurant for its award-winning gumbo. There is a seafood version chock full of crawfish and shrimp and the equally meaty chicken and sausage. Garlic bread and rice are served alongside. A cup is $8.99 and a bowl is $14.50. Additional selections include colorful pastas and smothered seafood dishes served in oversized portions. Try the boiled crawfish and the crabmeat au gratin.
Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith Street: The iconic sister restaurant of Commander’s Palace in New Orleans keeps Gumbo du Jour on the menu year-round by including whatever tasso, fish or fowl are in season. It is topped with toasted garlic rice from Jazzmen, a Louisiana company, and a sprinkle of file and scallions. It is $12 per bowl. Don’t stop at the gumbo. Brennan’s is an ideal spot for lip-smacking grub in elegant surroundings and there is plenty more to enjoy, including Shrimp Chippewa (shrimp and stone ground grits made tableside) and the legendary bananas Foster.
Eunice, 3737 Buffalo Speedway: Chef Drake Leonards presents plenty of hearty fare at this locale named for a town in Louisiana. Try Drew’s Smoked Chicken & Sausage Gumbo, which is served alongside authentic long-grain popcorn rice, potato salad and crackling. It costs $11 for a bowl. Additional must-try dishes include Cast Iron Cornbread and Chicken Liver Mousse with Fig Jam.
Harold’s, 350 West 19th: Stop in at this Heights locale for modern Southern fare and a cool Heights vibe. The Chicken & Sausage Gumbo is a must-try filled with tender chicken and juicy sausage, and accompanied by white rice. It is $10 for a cup and $14 for a bowl.
Le Pam’s House of Creole, 1644 Farm to Market 1960: The menu at this modest strip center shop is small and rotates with the whims of owner and chef Pamela Graham, but the gumbo is an essential mainstay. (In fact, Graham is so serious about her gumbo that Le Pam’s homepage declares it the Best Gumbo in Houston.) This homestyle version is abundant with seafood, sausage and poultry, and the staff are fond of passing out small samples of gumbo while telling you what else is cooking. The roux is dark and the chunks of protein include shrimp as big as your pinkie, half a crab with claws attached, huge chunks of andouille, chicken gizzards and more. Gumbo starts at $8.95 for a cup of Chicken and Sausage and go up to $19.95 for the large-size Seafood Gumbo. We can’t resist the banana pudding for dessert.
Rainbow Lodge, 2001 Ella: This historic and elegant log cabin restaurant specializes in game and seafood, which is a natural fit for any gumbo. The earthy smoked duck gumbo has andouille sausage and rice pilaf, and the smoke permeates the soup with its own flavorful depth. The gumbo is $9 for a bowl, but you can take home a quart for $16. Other Creole dishes to try include blackened gulf red snapper or Wild Game Mixed Grill with grilled venison, elk, Texas quail and wild boar chop.
Segari’s,1503 Shepherd: The gumbo at this tiny restaurant is consistently rated among the best in town. The restaurant, also renowned for its low key ambiance and homestyle cuisine, produces a dark shrimp and sausage gumbo with crabmeat. Seafood also features prominently in other dishes, such as Angela’s Crab Cakes with wasabi and tartar sauce. Since life is short, Segari’s lists desserts like the house favorite, key lime pie, first on the menu.
Viola and Agnes, 3651 NASA Road One: This colorful gem is worth a trip to Seabrook. The chicken, sausage, blue crab,and boiled egg gumbo is modeled after recipes from chef Aaron Davis’ grandmothers, the namesakes of the restaurant. It is $7.50 for a cup and $14.50 a bowl. The rest of the menu is decidedly Creole and includes family dishes from all over Louisiana. Other fan favorites include pork rinds and braised cheeks and gravy.
Zydeco Louisiana Diner, 1119 Pease: Look no further than downtown Houston for a good, dark gumbo. Don’t let the dated exterior throw you off. Zydeco’s laid-back vibe yields old-school favorites such as smothered pork chops and seafood courtbullion. Gumbo is $8 for a cup and $10 for a bowl.