10 Chefs on The Past, Present, and Future of The Houston Food Scene
Where you can have it all, provided you're willing to sit in traffic to get there.
September 17, 2018 ● 6 min read
By Ian Floyd | Illustration by Kate Haberer
The chefs of Houston, Texas don’t live or die by things like the Michelin guide.
As a city of immigrants—built on a foundation of Southern hospitality, laid-back barbeque culture, and Texas pride—Houstonian chefs want to cook the kind of food they crave, the food their mothers and grandmothers made. Pretention is the last thing you'll find in this city of humidity, highways, and homegrown renown.
Navigating Houston's culinary maze is a constant struggle between one's desire for edible adventurism, ravenous hunger, and personal threshold for traffic-induced road rage. For many, Houston is the embodiment of the culinary American dream —where Oaxacan mole, aloo gosht and pork sui mai prosper peaceably. It's a concrete city with the best phở and fire crawfish, and in the shadow of other food havens, Houston cuisine has evolved unencumbered into a crossroads of cultures: a beacon for hungry chefs from renowned kitchens, a siren’s call for diners searching for a taste of home, of childhood, of comfort.
We spoke with a handful of Houston chefs to capture a collective snapshot of the city's food scene as it stands today.
On The City
We saw Houston as this bubbling metropolis of opportunity. We felt it was a good place to be. Ryan Pera (Chef & Owner of Agricole Hospitality)
To think it was supposed to be a cowboy town, those rough and ready cowboys. It was coat and tie back then. Now, it's much more of a laid back kind of place. Not so formal. The joke goes: if you see someone in the dining room wearing coats and ties, they must be attorneys. Robert Del Grande (Executive Chef & Owner of Annie's Café)
Houston was a sleepy city where people didn't really value it [as] a gold mine. You can literally just throw a rock and hit [the Gulf of Mexico]. You go 30 minutes out of the city, you’re in the countryside. There’s the opportunity to [be] anything that you want to be. Hugo Ortega (Executive Chef & Co-Owner of Backstreet Café, Hugo's, Caracol, Xochi)
It's 45 miles to the Gulf. Port towns tend to have a large influx of people from foreign countries on ships. The food moved around the world with sailors, so to speak. Robert Del Grande
It's not that they’re separated, but they have all come together in a specific area and have their own grocery stores and their own way of life. The city is so big that they have enough space to do that. Dominick Lee (Poitin)
It might take you an hour to get from one side of Houston to the other. You get a lot of little niche restaurant neighborhoods. Erin Smith (Feges BBQ)
Hillcroft [is] like little India. We have hundreds of grocery stores and clothing stores and sweet shops, where it looks like an Indian city. They get the best ingredients from India. When you're homesick, you crave those flavors. Kiran Verma (Kiran’s)
On the Food
It was a little bit of a steak and whiskey kind of town. [In] the mid-80s, nouvelle cuisine arrived in Houston, and that began to shake things up. Robert Del Grande
I grew up on chain restaurants—that's how I would define Houston's dining scene in my adolescence. When I came back to Houston, it was 2010, [and] you could feel the shift in the dining scene. Erin Smith
The food culture is as diverse as the people are. Culturally, economically, it's a true reflection of the population here, for better or for worse. The availability of those different food opportunities at a cheaper price point has been an introduction to more interesting and international food to a lot of people. Jillian Bartolome (Executive Sous Chef, Aqui)
The reputation down South is that they’re not open-minded, but they are. The people of Houston love different cuisines. Ethiopian to Greek to Somali to Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese. You name it. We have everything. Kaiser Lashkari (Chef & Owner of Himalaya Restaurant)
[Houston] turns an ethnic cuisine into a local hometown cuisine pretty quick. It absorbs it. Houston [doesn't] have a fear of foreign things. That's why people can do anything they like. If it's good, people are going to go for it. Robert Del Grande
One of the challenges is [that] there's so much good food here. There are a lot of options: Your restaurant is just one of those. You've got to be on top of your game, day in and day out. Erin Smith
You can go to Chinatown. You can go [get] Indian food. You can go get Polish. You can go [to] Mexican taco trucks. And don't forget the sweets, damn it. I'm hungry. Rebecca Masson (Fluff Bake Bar)
I think all of us started making sure that people knew where our inspirations were coming from. We [aren’t] traveling to other places—they’re coming from our city. We’re exploring cuisines [here], and championing that experience both in our restaurants and in the city as a whole. Justin Yu (Theodore Rex)
Often the conversation about the food scene here is reflective of either the cheap ethnic food and the diversity of that or this kind of James Beard track style food. What I think is interesting about Houston's food scene is the coexistence of those things. There's so much in this city that no one is talking about—individually, and the city as a whole. There's this whole spectrum. Jillian Bartolome
Houston has always been a really great underrated dining city. Houstonians love dining out. We didn't explore the different foods as much as we could have earlier. Justin Yu
Most states have its lead city. There's San Francisco, Los Angeles. You tend to have a little bit of this inferiority complex that we're not as good as those other cities. Robert Del Grande
So many publications over the past ten years [have been] like, “Houston is up-and-coming, Houston is going to be big.” You know what? We already are big. We're already there. People from outside of Houston just need to come and see it. Erin Smith
[We’re] already as good as Chicago, in my opinion. We’re rubbing shoulders with Chicago. Kaiser Lashkari
I don't think Houston is something you can compare to New York, L.A., San Francisco… I don't think it's about achieving that. We are our own coast. We have our own identity that's not comparable to the other cities. I can't imagine very serious tasting menus being successful here, at least not right now. Fast-casual and everyday good eating seems more where people are interested in and where they want to spend their money. It's something people want to be part of their everyday lives. Jillian Bartolome
In order to hold onto the attention of just the local clientele, it's just too easy to get really great food here. If it's that easy, why would you [pay] $200 to $300 a person? Justin Yu
Customers want to do what they want. You see the rise of people sharing things and ordering as they go along. To sit down to 14 courses is very rigorous. It's too much like church, I guess, for most people. Robert Del Grande
On What Lies Ahead
Having come from New York, which is a very, very, very competitive industry, I didn't get the sense that chefs from other restaurants were friends with each other. There wasn't this sense of camaraderie, this sense of support, this network that you could lean on. It really felt like every man for himself, dog eat dog. In Houston, it's pretty much the opposite of that. We're all in this together. We're here to help each other. Erin Smith
There is a lot of talent, but that talent is not necessarily enough to go around for all the restaurants that are here. That's a huge challenge. [Restaurants that are] pushing the envelope, changing menus often, putting new ideas and new techniques on constantly, [aren’t] as readily available in Houston. I think young people are constantly moving to New York specifically for that reason. Ryan Pera
Houston has a lot of work to do to edit this current draft of food, but we have a very solid framework for something really, really unique around the idea of community. Moving more toward that, and less toward exclusivity, is what it's all about. Jillian Bartolome
I think where it is headed is a lot of the food will be very democratic. Strong presences of distinct cuisines, as opposed to being mashed together like it is currently. People are going to try to find themselves within the city, and there’s a place for them because there's such a large population of every culture here. Justin Yu
The future is: less confining, less "you can't do that." I want that—as long as it's good. Robert Del Grande