The search for America's best food cities:
The search for America's best food cities: Houston
Ninth in a monthly series.
Houston, you have a problem. Your food scene deserves more love.
News flash: Every eater who cares about creative cooking and innovative restaurants needs to make a trip to the fourth-largest city in the country and the ninth stop in my soon-to-conclude survey of the 10 best food cities in America.
The Search for America's Best Food Cities:
Part I: Charleston, S.C.
Part II: San Francisco
Part III: Chicago
Part IV: Portland, Ore.
Part V: Philadelphia
Part VI: New Orleans
Part VII: New York
Part VIII: Los Angeles
Part IX: Houston
Part X: Washington D.C.
New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago were obvious inclusions from the start, as were Philadelphia, Charleston and Portland (Oregon). But Houston? Of the dozens of reader suggestions I’ve fielded since the launch of my cross-country tour, not one has flagged Space City, best known as the home of NASA. My own vague sense of the city, where I’d touched down but once before, and eons ago, had more to do with its size — 600 square miles — than with anything I ate. But increasingly frequent and favorable reviews from food pals put me on a plane in October, the goal being to trust but verify.
Now, fresh back from a week of grazing up and down the food chain, I’m crushing on Houston, which had me at hello, specifically lunch at Helen Greek Food and Wine, a spirited new taverna that wraps its dolmades in collards and slips a mash of Greek cheese and corn bread into grilled banana peppers. I quickly learned how amenable the restaurants are to turning outside influences into distinctive meals. At the soulful Kitchen 713, braised turkey necks in cool lettuce wraps get a jolt from a dipping sauce that tastes straight out of Thailand. Meanwhile, Cuchara beckons with the cooking of seven female chefs hired from all over Mexico and dishes that stay true to the flavors of home: Expect avocado leaves on the refried beans, iguana as a protein and snapper that arrives from Veracruz via the world’s 10th-largest port. (It’s Houston.)
At Tony’s, an old-guard restaurant best appreciated for its pastas and suave service, I ask Vernon Loeb, who left The Washington Post at the end of 2013 to join the Houston Chronicle as managing editor, what surprised him most about the city he had never visited before his job interview.
“Everything you know about Texas is wrong,” he replies, sounding like the Chamber of Commerce as he rattles off statistics bolstering the city’s diversity (ironically, just days before Houston voters rejected a broad anti-discrimination ordinance). More than 100 languages are spoken in the Houston Independent School District, Loeb says, with Arabic recently overtaking Vietnamese as the third-most-used language after English and Spanish. It’s “Los Angeles with high humidity,” Loeb cracks.
Houston is nothing if not diverse. Five years ago, a study by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University put Houston at the top of a list of 10 U.S. metropolitan areas with the most equitable distribution of America’s four major racial and ethnic groups: whites, Hispanics, African Americans and Asians. “If L.A. and New Orleans had a baby, it might be Houston,” says Todd Romero, an associate history professor at the University of Houston.
When I ask one of the city’s best-known chefs, Chris Shepherd of the worldly Underbelly, about Houston’s iconic foods, the first word out of his mouth underscores both the cosmopolitan flavor of the market and the ease with which it embraces immigrant ideas: “pho” — good ol’ Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
Pride and barbecue
For all its culinary progress, Houston hasn’t ditched tradition. Barbecue remains a mainstay and has friends in high places, including the newspaper of record, which employs a columnist dedicated to the subject. His name is J.C. Reid, and his weekly column in the Chronicle, launched last year, testifies to the allure of meat cooked low and slow, and not just locally. “What fascinates me is how other cultures assimilate something I’ve known my whole life,” says the native of Beaumont, Tex,, where the barbecue style mixes Southern traditions with Cajun influences: primarily pork with tomato-based sauces ratcheted up with cayenne and garlic.
Three years ago, Reid co-founded the Houston Barbecue Festival as a way to honor a dozen (mostly) mom-and-pops, an afternoon event that brought out 1,200 attendees. Last year, 25 vendors showed up for a crowd that had swelled to 2,500.
Who better to show a visitor the ropes than Reid, and where better to stain our fingers than at Killen’s Barbecue, in the nearby city of Pearland? Launched two years ago as a pop-up within Killen’s Steakhouse, the bricks-and-mortar extension is a prime example of what has been hailed as a “barbecue renaissance” in Texas.
Behind the counter is owner Ronnie Killen, a trained chef who sees barbecue as more than smoked meat. “I try to be about the whole experience, from start to finish,” says the 1999 graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in London, who employs an unusually large staff of about 20 and is known for passing out Lone Star beer to folks waiting in line on weekends. (Texans are nothing if not generous.) The line snaking away from the door makes sense after eating here. Killen buys some of the best meat possible (purveyors include Strube Ranch in East Texas and Allen Brothers in Chicago) and insists that the sides and sweets be on par with all that they flank.
Before we eat, I ask Reid, joined by festival co-founder Michael Fulmer, to give me the skinny on how to peg a model barbecue spot from a corner-cutter.
“You want to smell the smoke,” says Fulmer. The type of wood “is a preference thing”; mesquite can be a hassle, but post oak burns well. Killen tells me he uses different wood for different meats: pecan for beef, for instance, and hickory for pork.
Next, Fulmer says, “walk in back” of the business, to look at the process. Killen’s uses four different kinds of smokers, the main one being an all-wood-burning Oyler. Reid likes to scope out a barbecue joint’s dumpster area for tossed packaging to “see where the brisket comes from” — all-natural Creekstone Farms Master Chef, the expert notes approvingly of one of Killen’s choices. When we reach the meat counter, Reid directs my attention to brisket that unfolds like an accordion after it’s sliced and held up — the all-important “jiggle factor.”
We make our way to a table where my guides spread out butcher paper and we dig into an indoor picnic of brisket, ribs, bone-in pork belly, creamed corn, smoky baked beans, bread pudding and — anyone got an extra stomach to spare? Each bite packs Texas pride. Pork sausage — punched up with pepper, garlic and mustard seeds — comes with an audible snap. Brisket benefits from a crust of Malabar peppercorns, ground fresh every week, while the gloss and savor on the beef ribs comes by way of fish sauce, lemon juice and brown sugar. Collard greens balance the tang of apple cider vinegar with pork jus; berry cobbler relies on Granny Smith apples for welcome tartness and texture.
No one eating at Killen’s could say barbecue isn’t an art.
Pulling up a chair to chat, the chef ticks off some of the variables that influence barbecue, among them “wind, temperature, wood, humidity.” Reflecting on his résumé, he says, “Fine dining is easy compared to this.”
The warm fall afternoon prompts Reid to weigh in with another indicator of a good barbecue operation, an ingredient Killen’s also claims: “AC. It’s huge!”
Oil fuels the kitchens
If Houston has a culinary ambassador, it’s Shepherd, a Nebraska native whose first job was washing dishes in a sushi joint in Tulsa. Last year, at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards gala, the Underbelly chef was among three nominees from Houston (out of five in the region) for Best Chef: Southwest. Shepherd ended up with the medal around his neck, beating out talented locals Hugo Ortega (Hugo’s) and Justin Yu (Oxheart).
PHOTOS: The dishes and places that make Houston one of the best food cities
(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
To dine at Underbelly, whose neighbors in the Arts District of Montrose include El Real, a Tex-Mex standard-bearer, and Mala Sichuan, a fiery Chinese outpost, is to tap into Houston’s distinct melting pot. Underbelly, the chef says, pays tribute to “the side of things that are never seen.”
His repertoire includes a riff on oysters Rockefeller that flavors the spinach nest with house-made curry paste, and, on weekends, spicy pork tamales made by the wife of Underbelly’s Mexican butcher. My favorite memory of Underbelly is a dish the chef added to his opening menu at the last minute, when he counted 19 items and wanted an even 20: goat braised with beer, garlic and red chili paste and served over chewy Korean rice sticks. Previously, Shepherd had made the recipe only at home. No sooner did guests taste the spicy combination than the dish became Underbelly’s bestseller and the single item he can’t take off the list.
“If you only eat at one place,” says Shepherd (meaning Underbelly, naturally),“you can get a taste of the city.” Eager for his customers to explore the full range of possibilities, however, Shepherd has his staff distribute diners’ checks in slim folders listing dozens of his favorite restaurants around town.
Houston’s 2.2 million residents can pick from more than 10,000 places to eat, a buffet sprinkled with flavors from more than 70 countries. “Lots of money tends to support restaurants,” says Romero, the associate history professor at the University of Houston. (Forty percent of the city’s economy is linked to the oil industry, says Mayor Annise Parker.)
Seven years ago, in conjunction with the Center for Public History, Romero co-founded the Gulf Coast Food Project as a way to document what he sees as an under-appreciated but vibrant food culture shaped by the South in general and by Louisiana, Mexico and Asian immigrants in particular. Together, the elements create a cuisine of their own, he says, and add up to a “renaissance” in Houston.
The Texas food that has people standing in line
At Killen’s in Pearland, Texas outside Houston, the line is down the sidewalk for a savory Southern favorite.
Anyone curious to sample one of the country’s earliest fusion cuisines need look no further than the aforementioned El Real. Set in the expanse of the former Tower Theatre, the restaurant celebrates what co-founder Robb Walsh, the author of numerous cookbooks devoted to Texas fare, calls “vintage” Tex-Mex: puffy (fried) tacos, fajitas made with premium “outside” skirt steak, and refried beans lavished with lard. El Real even bothers to make its own chili powder, from roasted ancho peppers and toasted cumin passed through an old coffee grinder.
One place to catch a rainbow of faces — and sit in on a history lesson — is at a Viet-Cajun establishment. Houston counts a fleet of them, their names — Cajun Kitchen, Crawfish & Noodles, LA Crawfish (LA being shorthand for “Louisiana”) — basically advertisements for the main event, a seafood boil.
Part of what sets a Houston version apart from a Louisiana boil is the ferociousness of the seasoning, says Walsh. “The liquid is usually old-fashioned Cajun boil, with lemon grass and other aromatics added in,” he wrote last year in Houstonia magazine. “But it’s the Vietnamese preoccupation with sauces and flavorings that really distinguishes” the trend, which Walsh traces to 2002 in Houston.
The dish as done in Houston, which includes a sauce of garlic and butter, has its origins in the fall of Saigon in 1975, after which Houston acquired a sizable Vietnamese population. The newcomers arrived in several waves of immigration, lured by the city’s job prospects, low cost of living and tropical weather, according to a story last year in the fledgling Houston-based food quarterly Sugar & Rice. “Many Vietnamese refugees who resettled along the Texas Gulf Coast near Houston once made a living by fishing their native waters and made an easy transition from fishing to shrimping,” wrote author Roy Vu. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Houston absorbed an estimated 9,000 Vietnamese from New Orleans, according to Stephen Klineberg, co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
Turns out there are plenty of parallels between Cajuns and Vietnamese: Both groups share rice, seafood, spicy accents and French influence. All manner of seafood might go into a Viet-Cajun boil — crab, lobster, shrimp — although the most prized ingredient is crawfish in season (which starts as early as January and lasts to June).
Casual and communal, the ritual is a messy affair, hence the tables dressed with rolls of paper towels and the option of plastic gloves, the latter as much a buffer to the fiery seasonings as a way to avoid the dry cleaners.
Judging by the clientele at Viet-Cajun boils, the world can get around the meal. Shepherd, for one, marvels at the power of one dish to adapt to taste preferences and build bridges: “White, black, Hispanic, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese — everyone together in one place.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the type of smoker used at Killen’s.