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A Restaurant Renaissance in Houston

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The city’s best chefs find inspiration in their own increasingly diverse backyard.

After a first breakfast of stone-ground grits scattered with peanuts and cilantro at the swish Houston café Pondicheri (2800 Kirby, Ste. B132; 713-522-2022; pondichericafe.com), I savor a second breakfast at Blacksmith (1018 Westheimer Rd.; 832-360-7470), a mod barista parlor that serves Vietnamese steak and eggs tucked in a skillet of soy-blackened onions with a toasted baguette and a ramekin of chicken-liver pâté.

Between sips of a cane-sugar-cut cortado, I stack free-form steak sandwiches with pâté-smeared baguette, dragging each through a puddle of yolks, and flash ahead 20 years. Surely by then the rest of America will catch up with Houston.

I’m a small-town boy, smitten with big-city life. I like Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, for all the reasons you may think you don’t. In this American moment, when walkable neighborhoods are vogue and historically grounded restaurants are au courant, Houston flouts conventions.

An octopus of second-story toll roads, 12-lane loopty-loops and five-continent strip malls, this postmodern Gulf Coast Babel is a dizzying place, where Guatemalan cooks work in Hong Kong–style dim sum kitchens and Pakistani cooks crank out Tex-Mex-inspired fajitas, while white-tablecloth chefs forge a new Creole cuisine that channels the various peoples who now call this port city home.

Ninety-plus languages are spoken in Houston. Based on my recent time at table, I’d bet a hundred-plus cuisines are cooked here. One thing is sure: Spend a day motoring the beltways that engird this megalopolis and you will reach the same conclusion I have—Houston boasts the most dynamic and diverse food and drink scene in the nation.

I began eating my way through Houston a decade ago. Early on, Robb Walsh, the foodways researcher and writer, taught me to sift through taco-shell shrapnel for truths. By way of her reviews, Alison Cook, the reigning Houston restaurant critic, showed me how new immigrants like Anita Jaisinghani of Pondicheri have transformed local fine dining. More recently, Bryan Caswell, chef and co-owner of the seafood restaurant Reef (2600 Travis; 713-526-8282; reefhouston.com), taught me how to summon the whiskey-fueled courage to mount a Thai karaoke stage and sing a country song.

Chris Shepherd, chef and co-owner of the restaurant Underbelly (1100 Westheimer Rd.; 713-528-9800; underbellyhouston.com), has emerged as my newest Houston shaman. A slab of a man with spiked hair, shellacked toenails and a sidelong grin, Shepherd studies and champions Houston’s multicultural present with an aplomb that earned him a 2013 James Beard nomination for Best Chef: Southwest. Lest you miss the point, he tags Underbelly with a subtitle: the Story of Houston Food.

Shepherd learned his Houston shtick through kitchen “stages.” Born of French haute cuisine, the term refers to short and informal apprenticeship programs in which chefs work with colleagues to learn new skills. Today, stages are in vogue. Chefs in San Francisco travel to Japan to stage in Tokyo izakayas and learn chicken-skin yakitori technique. Brooklyn artisans book three-day Korean stages to learn the craft of kimchi. Shepherd took a different tack. Instead of traveling the globe, he traveled the beltways of Houston on stages designed to leverage the knowledge and talent of his neighbors.

To give me an idea of how he developed that approach, Shepherd plops me in an SUV and drives us toward the exurbs. Before the day is over, we’ll deconstruct tubes of Vietnamese salumi perfumed with nuoc mam. And we’ll sample fish-shaped Korean pancakes gorged with red bean paste. We’ll even fork into chocolate-sauce-smothered Little Debbie snack cakes presented on a sizzling fajita platter by an Indian restaurateur—all in the name of tracking the swift evolution of the Houston restaurant scene.

Shepherd’s initial plan was simple. “I just started showing up here every week,” he tells me as we cross the threshold of Vieng Thai (6929 Long Point Rd.; 713-688-9910), a restaurant that shares the Long Point Center with a television repair service and El Hidalguense, a Mexican canteen where the owners roast goats in a pit installed at the prow of the dining room.

When he began coming to Vieng Thai, Shepherd would order something and the waiter, assuming that a Western palate couldn’t handle authentic Thai food, would try to talk him out of it. The big man recalls this as he runs his finger down the menu until he finds his breakthrough dish, yum nheam, a salad made with something that translates as “slick sausage.”

Now a regular, Shepherd walks in the door and says, “Give me the thing I’m not supposed to have,” and then spends the night puzzling over the ingredients and techniques required to reproduce it. And he’ll drop by after shifts at Underbelly to join the staff for Tsingtao beers and bouts of karaoke performed beneath the disco ball that hangs in the corner.

Shepherd also dotes on the cooking at Asia Market ($ 1010 W. Cavalcade, Ste. D; 713-863-7074; asiamarkethouston.com). A bunker restaurant with a six-by-eight-foot kitchen, it’s run by a swarm of Thai women. A diminutive cook with ropy forearms pounds the sauce for a papaya salad with a mortar and pestle. “Why do I need to travel to Thailand when Thailand has come to Houston?” Shepherd asks, passing a platter of deep-fried preserved duck eggs my way while eyeing that papaya salad, a dish he keeps trying and failing to master on his own menu.

Through the eyes of Shepherd, I glimpse one future of American cookery. Not just the one on display at Underbelly but also a future evident in the strip malls that punctuate the artery roads now ringing Houston and other American cities.

To draw a bead on that horizon, Shepherd and I, along with his sous-chef Ryan Lachaine, suck the heads and eat the tails at Crawfish and Noodles (11360 Bellaire Blvd., Ste. 990; 281-988-8098; crawfishandnoodle.com), a Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant where the creatures in question get soaked in garlic butter, and rice vermicelli bobs with crescents of shrimp and slabs of pork.

“Butter makes crawfish gleam,” owner Trong Nguyen tells us as we pull tail meat from bright red carapaces, swill beers and wonder aloud how soon Nguyen, a keen businessman with a keen palate, will convince every Cajun cook in America to follow his lead.

Shepherd is a visionary. That becomes clear during our freeway peregrinations. Few chefs look their cities square in the eye like he does. Back at Underbelly, that gaze translates on my plate as pan-fried rice sticks swamped with a gochujang-spiked braise of goat meat and finished with a hit of lager, a sprinkle of sesame seeds and a confetti of chervil.

In the hands of Shepherd, pork meatballs get the General Tso treatment one week, lamb meatballs earn a pool of vindaloo the next, and beef meatballs often get a dash of fish sauce before they’re tucked in a taper of bread. Some dishes—like Peking-style Cornish hen and fried oysters with kimchi—call to mind fusion cookery. But Shepherd can plot the points on the Houston street map where those dishes were born, too.

Not every Shepherd dish is polyphonic. He serves cat-head biscuits smothered in chicken gravy, which conjure east Texas. And he dishes up debris po’ boys that taste like they were airlifted from a corner grocery in New Orleans. Both illustrate a larger point: Shepherd knows how to telegraph place through his cooking, whether that place is reached by a path that’s well-traveled or newly blazed.

While my time in Houston makes it clear that Shepherd is at the forefront of the chefs now interpreting American regional food culture, I also learn that in Houston, he’s not alone. When I ask Randy Evans, of the New American restaurant Haven (2502 Algerian Way; 713-581-6101; havenhouston.com), where he got the idea for his peanut-crusted softshell crabs, he says an inspiration was Saigon Pagolac, one of the first Vietnamese restaurants to open in the city.

Bryan Caswell, my karaoke companion, shares the same palate as Shepherd. And his menus speak the same tongue. When I ask him to define the food of Houston, he names his favorite pho shops and hands me that night’s roster of dishes. At Reef, pan-fried snapper fillet comes with a seafood hot pot lifted from a Southeast Asian playbook. Brussels sprouts get a ponzu glaze; grilled tuna comes with a plantain and long-bean sauté.

Toward the close of my trip, Hugo Ortega, the chef and co-owner of Hugo’s restaurant (1600 Westheimer Rd.; 713-524-7744; hugosrestaurant.com), helps me define Houston food by taking me to his favorite restaurant. I expect a down-market version of his upscale Mexican flagship. What I get is the story of his three failed boyhood attempts to cross the border at Laredo, followed by lunch at Himalaya Restaurant & Catering ($ 6652 Southwest Fwy.; 713-532-2837; himalayarestauranthouston.com), a Pakistani and Indian canteen run by Kaiser Lashkari.

We eat hunter beef, which Lashkari serves with mustard and naan and calls Indian-style pastrami. We drink mango lassi from a coffee mug that looks like it was stolen from an IHOP. And we eat steak tikka, a dish from the Bihar region of India seasoned with chile powder, cumin, garlic and other spices that comprise a kind of Tex-Mex masala. “Food doesn’t need a passport,” Ortega tells me as we step to the cash register. “Just like I didn’t need a passport when I crossed with the coyote.”

Three months have now passed since Shepherd and I circumnavigated the globe by circumnavigating Houston. Each time I take a seat in a restaurant in another city and peruse a menu that broadcasts provincial restraint, I return to the last meal we ate on our one-day world tour.

We are seated in the back corner at London Sizzler (6690 Southwest Fwy.; 713-783-2754; londonsizzler.com), where the food channels the Desi culture in London. We have eaten goat biryani pocked with lengths of bone marrow. We have eaten Bombay nachos topped with chicken tikka, Thai chiles, cheddar and picante sauce. Ajay Patel, the gregarious proprietor, is ready to lead us to the sweets and chat shop his family runs next door.

As we exit through the kitchen, Patel introduces me to Raymundo Chuc, the Guatemalan man who stirs the curries, and Roberto Gonzalez, the Mexican man who works the tandoor ovens. And Shepherd confesses that London Sizzler’s rosewater-soaked gulab jaman bests the version he dishes up at Underbelly. “We’re trying,” he says, looking down at his feet. “But we can’t get the texture quite right. We need to try harder.”

By some measures, Houston is the largest un-zoned city on earth. Here churches abut junkyards. And villas share blocks with buck-a-burger drive-throughs. By other measures, it’s the most ethnically diverse city in the nation. Out of that chaos has come beauty. And serendipity. Out of that cauldron, Houston has emerged as a nonpareil restaurant city, where chefs are telling an honest story of their place, its foods and its people by looking closer and trying harder.

Twenty years from now, the rest of the nation will know the pleasures of Vietnamese steak-and-egg breakfasts, slick-sausage salads and Indian nacho dinners. For now, if you want to taste the future of American cookery, you have to make a Hajj to Houston.

A Cure for the Common Tonic

Brooks Reitz earned his fearsome reputation as a barman first in Louisville and now at Charleston’s The Ordinary, a completely extraordinary oyster bar. In 2010 he began handcrafting a line of drinking accoutrements, which he named Jack Rudy Cocktail Company in honor of his great-grandfather—a pilot, inventor and man who loved a well-made drink. A tonic concentrate perfumed with quinine and lemongrass came first (just add gin and soda water for a sprightly G&T). And earlier this year, Reitz introduced a grenadine made with pomegranate and orange flower water and sweetened with cane sugar instead of industrial corn syrup. Bollocks the bitters: Jack Rudy is the new hail-fellow-well-met of the cocktail demimonde. From $30 for two 17-ounce bottles; jackrudycocktailco.com.

Eat, Drink and…Sleep in Style

Set in a neighborhood chockablock with museums, fountains and public art, the Hotel ZaZa brings an appropriate dose of glamour. Select rooms are spangled with crystal-draped chandeliers. Black SUVs mounted with bull-horn racks jockey guests about town. Service is crisp and intuitive. And everyone seems to have a sense of humor. When I ask the front desk clerk for directions, she gestures toward an art installation and says, “Head toward the oil derrick and take a left for the elevators.” The ZaZa is just a five-minute drive from the intersection of Montrose and Westheimer, where Underbelly and Blacksmith cluster. Rooms start at $240; 5701 Main St.; 713-526-1991; hotelzaza.com.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.

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