SAVORING MUTT CITY
Why Houston is becoming a top-tier destination to eat and drink.
“The Slick and the Dead” (2009) by Dorothy Netherland. Courtesy of If ART Gallery.
We’re boating the high-top cloverleaf in a kandy-kolored streamline baby, if you know what I mean. A 1967 LeMans ragtop, stardust blue, with red-lined fatties and cigarettes-and-whiskey mufflers.
It’s a summer night, circa right now. I’m in the backseat, leaching liquor and perspiration onto the vinyl. Chris Shepherd, who spent the afternoon at a Vietnamese nail salon here in Houston, is digging his shellacked toes into the front passenger-side pile, while Bryan Caswell palms the steering wheel and blasts Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears through a removable-face Blaupunkt that would have gotten him laid in tenth grade.
Earlier that night, at an exurban Korean restaurant called Da Da Mi, we ate live octopus. Squirming octopus. Octopus that, even when chopped into serving-size pieces, writhed and wriggled and employed its suckers to grab hold of the platter on which it was presented and prevent chopstick carriage to our mouths.
While we fought that cephalopod, we plotted future runs to every sort of restaurant that the outer bands of Houston can yield. Pakistani, Szechuan, Cambodian, Laotian, Sinaloense: In this Texas megalopolis, all latitudes and longitudes are accessible by way of a concrete Hot Wheels track and a four-barrel Pontiac.
Courage for our feed came during a stint at Anvil Bar & Refuge, Bobby Heugel’s den of iniquity and house-crafted bitters. While Shepherd, who owns the restaurant Underbelly in the Montrose district, and Caswell, who owns a number of restaurants including across-the-street neighbor, El Real Tex-Mex, debated the ways in which the gay-pride parade, which Houston had recently staged, has evolved and devolved over time, I drank a Whistle Stop made with gin, lemon, salt tincture, seltzer, and green tomatoes, garnished with a dill sprig.
They talked about the good old days—when boa constrictor-shawled drag queens high-heeled through the Montrose, and straight men like Shepherd and Caswell took their transgressions any way they could get them. As they reminisced, I finished my Whistle Stop and moved on to a punch made with cognac and rum and cocked an ear when the conversation shifted to the past decade, when this mutt of a port city, which is arguably the most ethnically diverse municipality in the U.S., began to emerge as the South’s twenty-first century Creole capitol, where Vietnamese pho is as beloved as Cajun gumbo and tandoor-cooked naan smeared with chutney rivals skillet-cooked corn bread smeared with butter.
Houston has identity issues. It’s less shiny and slick than Dallas. Less self-consciously Texan than Alamo-worshipping San Antonio. I would say it’s less weird than Austin, which likes to style itself as famously weird, but there’s evidence—the Beer Can House museum, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, that runaway octopus meal—to the contrary.
It’s an ungainly place, the largest unzoned city in the U.S. Here strip joints and strip malls bracket Craftsman bungalows. And concrete culverts are called bayous. It’s not exactly a tourist mecca. Or a nexus of media collection and dissemination. In Houston, chefs like Shepherd and Caswell and barkeeps like Heugel work outside the glare.
Food wonks have recently fallen hard for the antebellum revivalist cooking of Charleston—home base of impish chef Sean Brock, recently profiled lovingly in Vogue (Jeffrey Steingarten) and The New Yorker (Burkhard Bilger). But the new immigrant + city-proud chef algebra that makes Houston the most vital place to eat in the South right now hasn’t garnered much magic-hour photography and breathless glossy magazine prose (until now).
That’s a passable summation of what Shepherd, Caswell, and I shout back and forth as we bank a six-lane interstate curve, bound for dinner at Oxheart—a relatively new restaurant, where a couple of the dishes turn out like they were tweezered in place in imitation of a terrarium floorscape—set in a downtown neighborhood that Caswell recalls as the site of a shot house that served bullets of absinthe, back when the stuff was illegal and, by extension, coveted.
I’ve visited Houston eight times over the past decade. Every time I partake of this city’s strip-mall bounty—usually in the company of Robb Walsh, who, before he became a partner in El Real, earned a national rep as the scribe of Texas foodways—I fall hard and come back up hungry.
And then I forget it. Because Charleston in early spring is lovely, especially when the young women begin to don sundresses. Because New Orleans in late fall is a pleasant place to get sotted on Sazeracs.
Because that species of fetishists known as foodies, for whom magazines are conceived and television shows cast, seems to enjoy pelt-hunting for bragging-rights dishes, not relishing meals wherein they learn—as I did with Walsh in the lead at a taqueria lunch on trip number one—that tacos al pastor, a thoroughly Mexican dish, has thoroughly Lebanese roots.
Lunch the next day is at Underbelly, in a low-slung building that also houses The Hay Merchant, a bar where Heugel stocks eighty beers you may have never heard of, including Buffalo Bayou Hibiscus Wit and Clown Shoes Tramp Stamp. If El Real serves vintage Tex-Mex that casts a fond eye to the chili gravy- and performance-cheese-smothered enchiladas of the past, then Underbelly interprets Houston’s present and looks toward the future.
Shepherd, who was raised and corn-fed in Oklahoma, loves his adopted city like only an immigrant can. And he telegraphs that devotion with a photo collage, mounted in the hall that connects the front door with the airy dining room, which is, in turn, anchored by a glass-fronted curing room, where, in the style of the moment, haunches of pig and cow dangle.
As I walk that hall with Shepherd, he sweeps his ham of a hand across those fifty color-saturated photos, each of which is tagged to a Houston zip code, and tells me stories.
Farmers get their due: Wendy, who raises bees. Rita, who raises tomatoes. So do fishermen, like P.J. Stoops, who pioneered the bycatch movement, and Frixos Zhrifinis, whose first name, coming out of Shepherd’s mouth, sounds like “freak show.”
But in this American moment, every chef with aspirations folds farmers, fishermen, and artisans into their script. Who, on the other hand, claims as inspiration a restaurant in the 77055 zip code called El Hidalguense, where they specialize in whole-roasted goat barbacoa?
Who touts a Vietnamese restaurant, also in the 77055, where the bun bo, a noodle and broth dish served in the Hue style, arrives with fresh herbs and blood cake? Where else are you likely to drop your car with a valet and, while you’re waiting for a table, peruse printed materials that suggest you might also enjoy the London Sizzler (77074), an Indian restaurant where A.J. is the proprietor and guests should tell him to feed them like he feeds the chef?
Who suggests you try the crispy duck wings at Lucky Pot (77036), before you return to his own restaurant for the pulled chicken with cabbage, carrot, and nuoc mam? sure, we’d love to have you back at underbelly, Shepherd writes on the check presenter that accompanies the bill and also serves as a key to the photos, but we politely request that you visit at least one of these folks first.
A chef in love with his city—that’s who curates those tastes and tips his toque with such aplomb. At Underbelly, Shepherd cooks with heart. And he cooks for Houston. In the process, he’s forging a restaurant that reflects the city’s status as the new Creole capitol.
That means he stirs a textbook chicken fricassee, lifted from the recipe files of somebody’s East Texas grandmother, and serves it in a cast-iron skillet, atop butter-soaked biscuits. And he stews goat with Korean chili paste, which he serves with tubular noodles, sourced from a Chinatown noodle factory—noodles that, when submerged in the sauce made from that chili paste, look like puffy Cheetos. And he says, without a smidge of pretension, that those dishes belong on the same menu.
Houston deserves all Shepherd can give. And I’ll eat most anything that he says I should order. Even squirming octopus.
Eight Sizzling-Hot Trends
in Southern Food.
1) Korea is the new Louisiana.
Most noteworthy developments in Southern food once emerged from New Orleans and Cajun Country, on the state’s southwestern fringe. Crawfish crawled out of there. So did jambalaya and gumbo, two dishes that have become pan-Southern rather than rigidly provincial.
That state is now done. Henceforth, all good ideas in Southern food will emerge from Korea. If you doubt my words, you’ve obviously never eaten Korean barbecue at that place on the northern fringe of Atlanta, where the décor and tin-cup service ware were inspired by a North Korean labor camp and the beef ribs collapse beneath the pressure of a butter knife.
2) Mush is the word.
I’ve been eating a lot of cornmeal mush lately. Fried corn sticks, made with extruded mush, served alongside a mound of hacked pork butt in Farmville, North Carolina. Flat, unleavened corn bread, served atop a stack of chopped whole hog and slaw in Ayden, North Carolina.
Just last week, someone sent me a Tallulah Bankhead recipe for fried chicken. Originally published in 1940, that recipe, presumably from Alabama where she was born in 1902, called for the cook to “Make a pot of mush; let it get cold, cut it, fry, and serve with chicken.” As you read these words, fried mush is trending on Twitter.
3) Charcoal and smoke is the new salt and pepper.
Just ask Sean Brock, the South Carolina-based chef who, justifiably, scores press like a six-foot-tall eighth-grader in a JV game. To conjure fire and smoke for a grilled lamb dish, he makes charcoal from the bones of beasts raised at Border Springs Farm in Virginia. Ditto the carbonized cow bones, sourced from White Oak Pastures, down in Bluffton, Georgia, over which he roasts haunches of grass-fed beef.
When I said something along those lines to David Norman, who owns Easy Tiger bakery in Austin—which features a downstairs beer hall and ping-pong stadium—he told me that he had begun, long ago, experimenting with smoked flours. It took us less than a minute to conjure a smoked Wonder Bread-style white loaf for slicing and sopping barbecue sauce.
4) Low-rent caviar is what’s next.
Back in March, I dipped a plastic spoon in a tin of salted fish eggs, labeled siberian sturgeon and emblazoned with the muscular g that serves as the mark of the Georgia Bulldogs football team. It was good. Really good. And it came from our Georgia, not theirs.
Three years back, I bought a one-pound tub of paddlefish caviar—packaged in a used sour-cream container—from a roadside fish market near Hazen, Arkansas. The market also sold buffalo fish, a kind of carp that some call trash fish. It struck me then, and still reverberates now, that salted roe, served on hoecakes, just might be a dish of the people.
5) Bacon is dead.
Five years ago, John Currence—the Oxford, Mississippi-based restaurateur who brought the Big Bad Breakfast concept to the masses—got a tattoo of a pig on his left forearm. Earlier this year, he gave a drunken interview in which he denounced the bacon obsessions of foodie folk.
Currence suggested that vegetables are where it’s at. He’s right, of course. To prove his point, a new generation of chefs, including Jesse Houston of Parlor Market in Jackson, Mississippi, is getting vegetables inked on their arms. Just the other night, as I was sitting at the bar in his restaurant spooning paddlefish caviar from the upended lid of a Mason jar onto corn bread hoecakes, I caught a glimpse of the radish on his forearm.
6) Sock sausage is the new bacon.
Doug Freeman of Cadiz, Kentucky, was the king of sock sausage, which is another name for a loose grind of pork and sage and red pepper packed into muslin bags and hung over a smoldering fire of sassafras and hickory. When he quit making it a few years back, Tyler Brown, chef at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, took up the cause.
We eaters are in his debt for that good reclamation work. Lucky for us, Brown also knows how to showcase sock sausage. At the Capitol Grille, he serves it tucked between the heel and crown of a downy biscuit, on square white china, with a diminutive pitcher of yellow mustard and a saucer of tomato gravy. Just one bite and you’ll know what I know—that bacon, no matter the provenance, pales in comparison.
7) Kolaches are the future.
Donuts were the cupcakes of the twenty-first century. Or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, they’re now passé. I should know. I once wrote a book on donuts that sold like they were already passé.
Kolaches, on the other hand—Czech-inspired pastries that look like countrified croissants and have long been popular in the Hill Country of Texas and are now widely beloved throughout that state—are ascendant. At Revival Market in Houston, they’ve been known to bake fig- and goat-cheese-stuffed versions. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, I once ravished a boudin-stuffed version. You should too.
8) The Midwest is the new South.
The cuisines are similarly farm driven. The places are similarly perplexing to New York-based media types. Problem is—if a recent, admittedly short, trip through Minnesota and Wisconsin is an accurate indicator—folks in the Midwest are too busy riffing on the South to nurture their own pork and potatoes shtick.
Witness the bourbon sausage with benne seed, the catfish boudin, and the cheese grits I ate at Butcher & the Boar, a new restaurant in Minneapolis. Savor the fried and smoked game hen with grits and smoked ham-hock broth, the andouille-crusted redfish, and the pork belly with mustard greens and barbecue sauce served at Hinterland in Milwaukee. Hey, Midwest, quit poaching and learn to riff on scrapple.