Frito pie goes by many names -- Walking taco, Texas straw hat, Frito boat, jailhouse taco, tostiloco, or as Anthony Bourdain once described it... “warm crap in a bag.” More officially, under Frito-Lay North America, Inc.’s trademarked Fritos Chili Pie® -- which is defined as “packaged meal combinations consisting primarily of chili or snack food dips containing meat or cheese for corn-based snack foods, namely, corn chips”.
Whatever you call it, the simple dish, at its most basic, consists of Fritos smothered with chili, coated in cheese and sprinkled with raw onion. It’s the sort of nostalgia-inducing food you crave despite your better judgment, a bad breath-heartburn combo without an ounce of visual appeal. It’s cheap, it’s greasy, it’s unwieldy and it’s darn good.
Yes, the dish is often found at concession stands, county fairs and convenience stores, but it’s also found its way onto plenty of Houston restaurant menus. We took it upon ourselves to seek out and try different iterations of the dish. We visited four wildly different, though equally beloved, Houston restaurants serving the humble fare. Scroll below for our insights.
Spoiler: Though not every version was created equal, each was tasty in its own way. Frito Pie is simply so simple, we surmise it would take an incredibly egregious error to screw it up.
Whenever a craving for this concession-stand staple comes a-knocking, skedaddle over to one of these longstanding Houston establishments for a quick Fritos fix.
James Coney Island (1923)
The establishment: Brothers Tom and James Papadakis opened their first restaurant in 1923 on the ground floor of the Beatty-West Building on Walker and Main in downtown Houston. A flip of the coin decided which brother’s name would grace the sign. Obviously, James won. Following the success of its original location, several additional stores followed and a hot dog empire was born. There are currently 17 locations operating in and around Houston. View the menu here.
The pie: You’re in a hurry, you’re famished and you’re craving Frito pie. James Coney Island’s got you covered. JCI’s take on the humble fare is classic, composed and convenient -- Fritos with chili ladled on top, garnished with shredded cheddar cheese and chopped raw onion. Oh, and it’s served with saltines for whatever reason.
Location: Multiple locations
Pizzitola’s Bar-B-Cue (1935)
The establishment: Texas barbecue legend John Davis and his wife Leila opened the historic Houston restaurant in 1935 as Shepherd Drive Bar-B-Q. After the couple passed away, longtime customer Jerry Pizzitola bought the business, renamed it and got to work restoring it to its former glory. Upon his retirement in 2019, Pizzitola sold the barbecue joint to veteran restaurateur Willie Madden. The Houston institution continues to smoke its meat on the brick pits John used back in the day. Nationally acclaimed for its spareribs, Pizzitola’s also serves brisket, sausage, pulled pork, link sausage, loaded pit-baked potatoes, fajitas, brisket enchiladas and Frito pie. View the menu here.
The pie: Dubbed the Shepherd Drive Frito Pie, Pizitola’s take on the jailhouse taco is much less conventional, comprised of chips, block chopped brisket, pinto beans and BBQ sauce. If you like your Fritos crisp, eat this pie quick -- though the pinto beans and BBQ sauce are a welcome addition, the corn chips soak up all the liquid and turn mushy in no time at all. We didn’t mind much. Even with soggy chips, this dish was good as all get-out.
Location: 1703 Shepherd Drive, Houston
Cream Burger (1961)
The establishment: This family-run stand began slinging burgers in Houston’s Third Ward back in 1961. Aside from its burgers, other menu standouts at this bare-bones establishment include chili dogs, and yup, you guessed it, Frito Pie. Cream Burger is old-fashioned in more way then on -- It’s a cash-only establishment. Come cashless and you won’t get very far. Venmo, PayPal, Apple Pay and plastic are no good at this longstanding establishment. View the menu here.
The pie: Purists, you’ll be pleased. It doesn’t get much more basic than this -- A red and white striped boat, a heaping mound of Fritos, a ladleful of chili, a blanket of gooey cheese and a smattering of raw, chopped onion. It’s cheap, it’s unwieldy, it’s greasy and it’s tasty. Ask for extra napkins, grab a fork and go to town.
Price: $1.60 to $2.40
Location: 3481 Elgin Street, Houston
The Pit Room (2016)
The establishment: Though in its relative infancy when compared with the other longstanding stalwarts featured on this list, The Pit Room (established in 2016) is already a much-beloved institution among the city’s barbecue enthusiasts. Powered by two, custom-made, barrel-style offset smokers, the cafeteria-style concept offers three kinds of house-made sausage, brisket, beef and pork ribs, pulled pork, sandwiches, tacos, Frito pie, chili and a slew of sides. The Montrose eatery routinely appears on “best of” lists and has been featured in several publications both locally and nationally. Overwhelmed? No clue what to order? If you’re not sure where to start, take on a brisket taco while you think on it. View the menu here.
The pie: Chef/pitmaster Bramwell Tripp’s somewhat “cheffed up” version of the walking taco is all that and a bag of chips -- A hearty, Texas-sized heap comprised of a dense layer of chips, hearty smoked brisket chili, your choice of chopped beef or pulled pork, chopped raw onion, and a generous serving of sour cream. Grab a few pickled onions, carrots and jalapenos from the The Pit Room’s well-stocked condiment bar and *chef’s kiss* baby, you’re in business. Simply stated, it’s wicked good.
Price: $9.75 to $12.25
Location: 1201 Richmond Avenue, Houston
Even more options: Avalon Diner, D&T Drive Inn, Bubba’s Texas Burger Shack, Good Dog Houston, Onion Creek Coffee House
What would you add to this list? Where do you go to get great Frito pie? Share your recommendations in the comments below!