“Culinary hot spot” isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind for most people at the mention of Houston. But it should be. Believe it or not, Houston always ranks high in national magazines’ top lists in dining and restaurants. Pull out a Wall Street Journal or The New York Times and see for yourself. The city was voted one of the top 10 cities in the world to visit by The New York Times in “The 46 Places to Go in 2013,” simply because of its food scene. The Wall Street Journal also published “Take Monday Off: Houston” on the front page of its travel section in February 2013, a feature in which the writer sets the record straight on why our city is one to truly appreciate.
With more than 11,000 different restaurants in the city, Houstonians eat out more than residents of any other city in the United States, according to Zagat. So, it’s no surprise that our city’s chefs know a thing or two about pleasing a crowd. They also know that, whether it’s fusion concepts like Korean barbecue, chef-driven dining experiences or sweet and savory flavor combinations like the bacon jam found on almost everything at BRC Gastropub, innovation is king in this town. Houston does it well and does it first.
It’s in the Diversity
So, why is the city’s food so great? As a native Houstonian, restaurateur Lee Ellis, who owns a few different concepts like Petite Sweets, Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar and BRC Gastropub, says it’s because of the area’s makeup. “I don’t think there are very many cities that are as diverse as this one," he said. "I guess you could say New York and Chicago are, and L.A., but I mean this one really is. And it’s pretty well concentrated. ... There’s some great ethnic food here. Everything’s represented here and being close to the Gulf, it’s just an added bonus point.”
He also points out that Houston’s ethnic density equals more authentic cuisine. “I think the Mexican food in this city is better than any other city that I’ve been to. On the Asian side, Vietnamese food, we have it hands-down over anywhere else. Vietnamese is a good cross here … they’ve opened the eyes of local Houstonians when they opened up and I think what’s followed behind it is pretty amazing,” he says.
As Chris Shepherd, chef of much-buzzed-about restaurant Underbelly, puts it, “You’ve got all of the culture and diversity of the city and you’ve got chefs that have left and trained at different places, chefs that are coming back … . You’ve got a bunch of new, young talent coming in and just kind of doing what they do.” Shepherd was nominated for Best Chef of the Southwest and Best New Restaurant of 2013 in the James Beard Foundation Awards. While Shepherd and his breakout restaurant have certainly been making headlines, Houston also grabbed the most nominations of any city in Texas on this year’s nomination list.
Probably one of Houston’s largest advocates is native Houstonian Chef Monica Pope. You may have seen her on “Top Chef Masters: Season Two,” but she can also be found in the international “My Houston” campaigns that also include celebs like Beyoncé and Lyle Lovett. She’s also a tour guide through the Where the Chefs Eat culinary tours; teaches kids about food through her foundation Recipe for Success; and leads her restaurants Sparrow Bar + Cookshop and Beaver’s. She’s been in the food business for more than 20 years and has no plans to move elsewhere. “Yeah, it’s a great town and it’s a great place to grow up. It’s a great place to be an entrepreneur and to also change things. That was always my intention,” says Pope. “I know a lot of chefs that come here even if they weren’t from here because they will get noticed. We’re starting to demand to be noticed.”
Innovation Certainly Helps
One of Houston’s many success stories, Lee Ellis, got diners’ attention by taking what people love to eat and elevating it. From roasting a whole pig head to tail, to serving Gulf seafood and Southern comfort food, in nearly every one of his restaurants Ellis brings down-home concepts to life beautifully. His restaurants are a result of taking trendy food concepts and making them instant classics. Currently he has three restaurants in Houston—Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, BRC Gastropub and Petite Sweets, not just a typical cupcake shop—and four more concepts in the works as of this writing.
Ellis is also experimenting with a new sweet tooth. “I wanted frozen custard because nobody inside the loop had frozen custard.” Ellis blends a whole piece of pie or cake in a shake with frozen custard and serves it to his customers at Liberty Kitchen. BRC Gastropub is known for its signature appetizer: bacon jam and cheddar biscuits. With a lot of sweet and a little spice, this combo puts BRC on the must-visit list. Ellis is a bacon enthusiast to the core; bacon jam is found on the asparagus at Liberty Kitchen and on the bacon jam cupcake pancake at Petite Sweets. “Bacon jam is on all our menus,” says Ellis.
For Chef Pope, innovation is about challenging the diner. “Some of the guys out there—Oxheart, The Pass & Provisions— they’re forcing people to eat a different way … pushing it in a different way,” says Pope. Both The Pass & Provisions and Oxheart offer a choice of three different menus nightly, consisting of seasonal, local food with flair. Underbelly is no different in that regard. Its most popular dish is the Korean-braised goat and dumplings, which was voted Best Dish of 2012 by the Houston Press. It definitely doesn’t sound like an average entrée found on an average menu—and that’s exactly why it works so well.
Pope says Houston has come to be about more than strictly business. “If you are at all interested in art, you knew this was a great town. If you had business in oil and gas and in the Medical Center, yeah, this is the place. But [people] are starting to understand that there’s a whole lot more to the town,” she says. Which means it’s time for visitors to take a bite.