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Houston 2015: A food odyssey

Houston’s expansive restaurant scene mirrors city’s diversity, innovative spirit


Interstate 10 curves just outside of Katy and bends toward Houston. The freeway widens. Space City’s gravitational pull ensnares you. Thousands of cars charge at precarious speeds on a stretch of road wider than some Texas towns. The magnificent skyline appears in miniature on the horizon.

The pace, the enormity, the glistening monoliths … you don’t so much enter Houston as you get drawn into it. Like the Death Star locking a high-speed tractor beam onto your car. Whenever I visit Houston, I feel like I’m entering a world of science fiction, a sensation that makes sense as you peel back the concrete layers of the city and tap into Houston’s humanity and cultural diversity.

After several years of phenomenal economic and population growth, Houston’s evolving multicultural tapestry hints at the future of major American metropolitan areas. According to a study published by Rice University in 2012, Houston is the most ethnically and culturally diverse large metropolitan area in the United States. Nowhere is that diversity more evident than in Houston’s exceptional food scene.

Not only can you find almost any international cuisine imaginable in the city where more than 90 different languages are spoken, you can also find cross-pollination, with Indian restaurants serving fried chicken and Gulf seafood restaurants nodding to Vietnam.

Seasoned veterans and classically trained young chefs with impressive résumés are synthesizing Houston’s multitudinous influences with their own styles and points of view, and they are finding a receptive audience hungry for innovation and creativity.

One of the ascendant stars of the Houston culinary scene is native Houstonian Justin Yu, a 30-year-old graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and son of immigrant parents from Hong Kong.

Yu’s imaginative cooking at his cozy and hip Oxheart defies classification, but he acknowledges that the herbaciousness, high acidity and umami in his dishes reflect his love for Asian food.

Yu serves a veggie-centric tasting menu at the restaurant he opened in March 2012, with the majority of the dishes highlighting one ingredient. That style was informed by Yu’s time working at Ubuntu in Napa (the first veggie-focused restaurant to receive a Michelin star) and his time interning at restaurants in Belgium and Copenhagen.

“I like cooking in a way where it’s a little more austere and stark to make a point with the ingredients,” Yu said. “When you’re doing an a la carte setting, you kind of have to put together a complete thought all the time, whereas with tasting menus you can do one ingredient cooked very well or very strongly one way with a simple sauce.”

He jokes that if he served a recent sunchoke and salted cream dish a la carte, people might revolt. I disagree. It was the best preparation I’ve had of the increasingly popular tuber. Knobby twirls of roasted and charred sunchokes took on a glazed, candied exterior, the light nuttiness of the root elevated by a fragrant sunchoke puree made with jasmine tea.

Yu didn’t intend to forge a career that focused so heavily on vegetables, but he found inspiration at veggie-centric places like Green Zebra in Chicago.

“I found it so much more interesting than cooking with meat. There are things you have to consider like ripeness and underripeness and seasonality and how things are grown and be very, very flexible,” Yu said. “I find it much more challenging to cook with vegetables. It’s pretty easy to cook a piece of meat and make it taste good, whereas with vegetables I think you have to have really solid basic techniques and you have to be a little more creative in creating flavors people care about.”

He displays his technique and appreciation for the alchemy of flavor layering with a beautiful dish of winter beets marinated in Japanese citrus, sliced thin and layered like rose petals atop the vegetal tingle of shiso peppers and the polite pucker of pickled ume.

The brick-walled Oxheart, located in a slowly developing neighborhood that sits in the shadow of a major freeway, seats about 30 people, with the centerpiece bar offering an excellent view of the wide-open kitchen. From that perch you can watch Yu and his team curl kohlrabi into tubes and lay them like organ pipes across velvety tumbles of smoked Red Wattle pork and a bed of sweet and salty crumbled Thai pork. You can also catch a glimpse of Gulf snapper poached in grapeseed oil just before it gets cloaked by a ripple of warmed lettuce, a rare now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t sleight of hand from the thoughtful chef.

There’s a decent chance chef Bryan Caswell knows the fisherman who hauled in that red snapper at Oxheart. When you walk into Reef, the restaurant Caswell owns with longtime Houston restaurant veteran Bill Floyd, you’re greeted by a chalkboard listing the marine report and bounty of locally sourced seafood, from American red snapper to yellowfin tuna.

“It’s got to be better if it was caught this morning,” Floyd says about Reef’s commitment to local sourcing.

The partners, who met while working at French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Bank in Houston, opened Reef in 2007.

“We felt Houston at that time was totally devoid of a great seafood restaurant,” Floyd said. “You really weren’t tasting the fish. We wanted to let the ingredients speak for themselves.”

Seafoam-colored paint, a bank of floor-to-ceiling windows, a rippled white accent wall and chandeliers made with capiz shells give the sensation you’re eating inside a fish bowl, or, given the spaciousness of the 8,000-square-foot restaurant, the middle of the ocean.

Caswell, a Louisiana native who grew up in Houston, has crafted a menu that celebrates Texas (mussels soaked in a toasty broth of Shiner Bock and ancho peppers) while taking global cues (tempura-fried rock shrimp served with a Chinese XO sauce and kimchee remoulade).

The sport fisherman prone to wearing baseball caps owns an impressive globe-hopping résumé, but his Gulf coast sensibilities are at the heart of his cooking. Caswell’s redfish on a half-shell may be his signature dish. He seasons the fish with a mixture that leans heavily on cayenne, paprika and mace, and then grills the redfish scales-down. He bastes and covers the fish repeatedly, leading to a technique that blends grilling, baking and smoking. The result is one of the most buttery and flavorful pieces of Gulf fish you’ll find.

Reef’s Asian influences reappear at dessert with an excellent Vietnamese coffee tart served with condensed milk ice cream and mint syrup. It shines as a culinary example of cross-cultural influence while nodding to the history of the building that once served as a Vietnamese mini-mall and pho shop.

Houston is home to one of the largest Vietnamese populations in the country, and Vietnamese cuisine can be found in iterations across the city. Vietnamese crawfish houses are a cross-cultural culinary phenomenon that started in Chinatown and now proliferate throughout the city. Restaurants like Cajun Kitchen, LA Crawfish, Crawfish House and Crawfish & Noodles take a traditional Cajun crawfish boil, add garlic and butter (and often secret blends of other aromatics and spices) to the steaming mix, and provide intense, rich and sometimes fiery dipping sauces like sweet and sour, Cajun, garlic butter and Thai seasoning. The result is a tangy, spicy, buttery, sweet, hot, flavorful and messy ordeal.

Some of the restaurants also serve more traditional Vietnamese dishes like pho, but for my pho fix in Houston, I headed down south toward Hobby Airport to Pho Binh Trailer. One of several locations around the city, this sit-down restaurant, which is actually a reconstituted trailer, opened in 1983. The menu is small and limited to pho, but you need look no further than the first of the dozen or so items on the menu. The aromatic beef noodle soup has a silky consistency and comes packed with the bristled edges of tripe, gelatinous ripples of beef tendon, pink steak and brisket that absorbs the soup’s fragrant juices. Layer the top of the soup with basil, mint, cilantro, bean sprouts and jalapeño slivers to elevate and enliven the deeply flavored broth. And make sure to get to Pho Binh Trailer early; it was at capacity by the time I arrived before noon on a recent Saturday.

Moving northwest from the southern edge of Houston to the Montrose area in the center of town, you also trek from Vietnam to India. At the white-tablecloth Indika, chef Anita Jaisinghani delivers pan-Indian flavors inspired by her Sindhi and Indian roots, her time in Texas and her travels through Europe. She arrived in the States in the ’90s and, after a couple of years working as a pastry chef at the esteemed Café Annie, helped change the face of Indian food in Houston when she opened Indika in 2001. The restaurant moved to its current location a few years ago.

A fried okra salad battered with chickpeas and a juicy tandoori quail, slightly charred, stuffed with the sweet pop of caramelized onions and pine nuts and slathered with a breathy cumin yogurt and electric cilantro chutney, wed Texas ingredients with Indian flavors. A mild vindaloo and floral saffron raita hummed their Indian notes across a cowboy campfire song of grilled lamb crusted with black pepper and cumin in another dish that straddled worlds.

Jaisinghani opened Pondicheri in a tony development on Kirby Drive a few miles away in March 2011. Indika’s sleek, modern and more casual sister serves a variety of popular street foods from around India and earned Jaisinghani two James Beard Award nominations in 2012. The restaurant’s bake shop also gives room for the former pastry chef to exhibit her considerable skill with morning pastries, cookies, cakes and pies. (Try the chai-spiced custard pie.)

Pondicheri serves familiar curries (butter chicken in tomato sauce), dosas (curried potatoes), and samosas (goat masala), and puts an Indian spin on sandwiches with their Frankies, roti wraps filled with items like coarse lamb patties and ginger-garlic chicken. The familiar flavors of Texas get an Indian twist on a spicy shrimp chaat mellowed slightly with hunks of avocado, and Tuesdays feature a quintessential intercontinental mash-up, with a spiced-yogurt-marinated fried chicken breaded with chickpea flour.

A couple of miles away, chef Adam Dorris creates his own version of fried chicken at the boisterous and festive Pax Americana. The New American restaurant takes a more familiar approach to the dish, serving the moist, crunchy and tawny bird with creamy polenta, the snap of cabbage slaw and tang of pickled peppers. If there was an international influence, I would compare the cream-zagged chicken to versions I’ve had from Colombian food trailers.

Even a bistro like this one, opened last summer by Dorris, restaurateur Shepard Ross and partners Dan and Mark Zimmerman, that looks traditional from the outside delivers unexpected surprises (and I don’t just mean the original Andy Warhol painting of Mao Zedong in the main dining room).

Roasted acorn squash sweetened with golden raisin puree whispers with Indian spices. An American breakfast staple of toast and eggs takes on new multicultural dimensions at dinner with funky kimchee aioli piercing the viscous minerality of fluffy cast-iron eggs in a dish brightened by holy basil and stung with Thai chilies. And a nine-spice rub gives an Eastern accent to a Texas brisket.

Other highlights of the meal included tender octopus tentacles served with the savory iron snap of bacon-braised kale and a dessert of orange ice cream with clementine granita and kumquat and mandarin marmalade that ended a rich dinner on a refreshingly light note.

The Houston restaurant scene has proven itself a dynamic, forward-facing, inclusive force. But the city’s celebrated and eclectic scene will always have room for Mexican food. Nobody in Houston has received more acclaim for cultivating and spotlighting that country’s cuisine in recent years than three-time James Beard Award finalist Hugo Ortega.

The chef and his wife, Tracy Vaught, opened Hugo’s in the Montrose area in 2002 and the Puebla native has consistently drawn raves for his takes on Mexican classics like duck in mole poblano and cochinita pibil.

The couple, who also own the stalwart Backstreet Café, opened the seafood-inspired Mexican restaurant Caracol in December 2013 in the Galleria area. I stopped into the massive, bright space for a Sunday brunch buffet that resembled the kind of spread you’d expect from a four-star Mexican beachside resort. Tables snaked through the room stacked with rejuvenating shrimp cocktail, vibrant ceviche, roasted oysters and fish, an assortment of tamales, pliant chili rellenos stuffed with meat, smoky brisket, crunchy taquitos and a giant bowl of chilaquiles draped with sunny eggs. With freshness, execution and flavoring at such a high level for what can often be a mundane meal, I’m excited to return to Caracol for lunch or dinner.

Chef Ortega’s successes with Hugo’s and Caracol are not just proof of Houstonians’ love of great Mexican food (and food in general); they are a testament to the chef’s personal resilience and the city’s wealth of opportunity. The former factory worker immigrated to Houston 31 years ago and took a job working as a dishwasher and bus boy at Backstreet Café. Over the next two decades, he worked as a cook, trained at Houston Community College, married Backstreet owner Vaught, became a United States citizen and opened one of the city’s most popular restaurants.

The chef’s inspiring story is one of what must be thousands spread across the sprawling metropolis. I want to go back for more food, and more stories. To travel to west Houston to find the Cuban restaurant my Vietnamese friend raves about, to test my fortitude at the lustily praised Mala Sichuan Bistro, and to stroll down memory lane with a cheese Coney from James Coney Island.

In a city of more than 600 square miles — large enough to encompass Manhattan, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami combined — one could spend years on an anthropological mission of culinary discovery.

Fortunately, as chef Yu told me, “People in Houston have no trouble driving for great food.”

Restaurant critic Matthew Odam takes his culinary adventures on the road in his occasional travel series, The Feed To Go.



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