For the walking, public-transportation-riding New Yorker, Houston can be a little unnerving at first. Upon landing, we were instantly caught in a web of parking lots, freeways, and traffic jams. Where were all these cars and people going? After pulling into the parking lot of our first tasting only to spend 20 minutes searching in vain for a parking spot, it clicked—it was just a casual Monday night, and all of Houston was going out to eat.
Chefs and diners alike are well aware that outside of Houston, no one knows what their city is about. Houston’s response is something along the lines of, “their loss.” In fact, at almost every restaurant we tasted in, someone would be sure to mention the 1998 title given the city by USA Today of “Dining Out Capital of the United States,” in recognition that Houstonians eat out more per week than any other city population in the country.
“Houstonians have a lot of money,” Hotelier and Restaurateur Steve Zimmerman explains, “and when they started traveling to Europe they wanted what they saw in their own city.” During our interview with Zimmerman at Hotel La Colombe d’Or, we were intrigued by his entrepreneurial zeal and culinary expertise. Forty years ago, Zimmerman translated the Houstonian desire for international culture into chic wine bars with sidewalk seating and restaurants worthy of a date—and the city’s zealous response funded a second coming for Houston cuisine.
While diners admirably embrace dining with a sense of joie de vivre, we were equally impressed by the variety of inventive cooking styles of Houston’s chefs. Between the Asian, Mexican, and other local ethnic communities, there is a breadth of talent and a mesh of cultures that’s erupting into a “New Creole.” Brothers Hugo and Ruben Ortega at Backstreet Café and Hugo’s bring Mexican techniques, like roasting and grinding their own cacao, to southern comfort food. Their food manages to be both traditional and exciting. At Feast, Chefs Richard Knight and James Silk offer approachable British comfort food with a slant for the whimsical; Duck Neck Sausage gives a wink and a smile to their homeland cuisine in more ways than one, taking nose-to-tail to the hilt. And at Soma Sushi, Chef Jason Hauck draws from classic Asian ingredients, such as house-made ramen noodles, and modernizes them for the urban palate.
Houston’s location—between the woods, prairies, and Gulf of Mexico—provides easy access to high-quality local products that chefs are using to great effect. In the city center, chefs like Bryan Caswell of Reef, Chris Shepherd of Catalan Food and Wine, and Mike Potowski of Benjy’s, nurture their relationship with local fishermen to ensure they receive seafood at the height of freshness. Shepherd has a standing order with his purveyors—no matter the day or hour, if they’ve got fresh fish to sell, he’s going to buy it, if only to support their efforts.
That isn’t to say that local eating in Houston is purely carnivorous. Nationally acclaimed Chef Monica Pope works night and day to connect chefs with farmers. The Midtown Farmer’s Market at T’afia has revolutionized the way city chefs source their ingredients. And her vegetarian tasting menu challenges diners to rethink what constitutes a rounded-out meal. She’s making an impact. About 45 minutes north of the city, with good luck in traffic and a GPS, Chef Randy Rucker cuts out the middle man and takes straight to the land for inspiration. At Bootsie’s, paper menus are eschewed for a single chalkboard. The menu changes so frequently paper menus would be a waste: all his dishes are based on what Rucker can find on a daily foraging expedition through the woods and along the coast.
With such a vast array of resources, the competition can be fierce, yet we’ve never seen a less aggressive, more supportive community of chefs than we did in Houston. Pioneers of the Houston restaurant scene like Monica Pope, Robert Del Grande, Claire Smith, and Anita Jaisinghani never shirk their responsibilities as mentors to up-and-coming chefs. Del Grande’s restaurant dynasty is famed for treating its chefs so well that they spend their careers by his side. And at Smith’s restaurants, her young protégés are the stars: Gregg Beebe of Shade, Chef Elizabeth Brooks, and Pastry Chefs Shannon Smith and Chad Fry of Canopy clearly have bright futures ahead of them with Claire Smith in their corner.
Not to say that it takes a mentor to make it. A young chef, starting out with nothing but talent, can thrive in this booming city, well equipped to nurture a chef’s creative growth. Just a few months ago, Chef Jeramie Robison arrived at his job interview at Cinq with all of his worldly possessions packed into the back of his
pick-up truck. He was just about to give up and head back home. Today he’s Executive Chef of Cinq and Zimm’s Little Deck, where his work garners national accolades. Success stories like his are not uncommon. Chef Justin Basye of Stella Sola also came to Houston via New Orleans. He may be young, but his Tuscan-Texan cuisine has a maturity and weight that equals that of any pioneer.
Perhaps the most heartening aspect of Houston dining beyond the great community, beyond the fresh blood, the enthusiasm, and the diversity—was the plethora of chefs that achieved excellence without needing to chase trends. These chefs are doing the cuisine they know. Whether it be barbecue or classic Japanese, Texas-Tuscan, or New-American, they don’t waste time trying to be chic, they just want to be good.
But maybe that’s Houston. They don’t do pretension; they do hospitality. Take mixology: we delight in a sophisticated cocktail, but we could live without the arrogance that oftentimes comes as garnish. You can imagine just how refreshing we found Bobby Heugel’s Black Betty at Anvil Bar & Refuge; a cocktail as refined as the bar’s atmosphere was convivial. We saw the same attention to quality sans frills at Beaver’s, where Claire Sprouse makes the cocktails and lets her favorite customers do the naming, or at Grand Prize Bar where Alba Huerta keeps busy mixing Jack and Cokes as well as smart drinks of her own invention for a rowdy and contented crowd.
It’s not easy to sum up such a big-hearted city. But during our interview on Reef’s Chef Bryan Caswell’s radio show "Southbound Food," we spoke about our respect for the enthusiasm of the Houston diners and the know-how of the city’s chefs. It’s a topic we’ve just begun to tackle, so keep a lookout for upcoming Dishrags. We'll also soon be announcing the 2011 Houston Rising Stars and their Gala at The Four Seasons Hotel Houston.