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Hungry For H-Town

by Jeff Heilman

My four-day exploration of culinary Houston kicked off with a banquet—for the mind.

Morago, who was drawn to Houston in 2009 after 25 years with The Hartford Courant in Connecticut, highlighted the city’s “more inclusive” culinary scene today. “The barriers are down,” he said. “People that once kept to their own neighborhoods now travel all over town to eat and drink.”

With some 10,000 restaurants representing cuisines from 70-plus countries and US regions, these culinary coordinates beckon in every corner. Some, like the Last Concert Café, have spicy legacies. Charismatic owner Dawn Fudge regaled me with tales of the landmark-protected venue, a former quasi-speakeasy from 1949 and live music shrine. One delicious tale comes from the 1960s, when the Café, reportedly then a gay bar, was targeted for demolition to pave way for Interstate 10. However, city officials ordered the freeway diverted around the Café, allegedly at the behest of prominent local figures protecting their patronage of the adjacent brothel (and gay bar).

Today, the Café is the place for tasty Tex-Mex, margaritas, and live jams. Patio dining and dance parties in the sandy backyard are major draws, with events including long-running house music and techno fest Praia Urbana (Urban Beach) in July.

The chief curator of Houston’s culinary transformation is Robert Del Grande, the city’s original celebrity chef and first James Beard winner (1992), whose love-struck summer swoon in 1981 would turn tables like never before.

With a PhD in biochemistry, the San Francisco native found another sort of chemistry with a young librarian named Mimi, whose sister had recently launched Café Annie, a small French bistro in Uptown Houston. Smitten, Del Grande moved to Houston in 1981 and took a summer job cooking at the restaurant. It was a recipe for love (the couple soon married) and Del Grande’s role in a global culinary revolution.

State of Grace Lobster Hush Puppies with Cane-Syrup Butter

State of Grace Lobster Hush Puppies with Cane-Syrup Butter

Writing in 1996 (“Texas Food Conquers the World!”), longtime Texas Monthly’s food editor, Patricia Sharpe, describes “a loosely knit group of…young Texas chefs” united in “the realization that each, in his or her own restaurant or hotel kitchen, was doing something exciting and very new with Texas food.”

Part of the quartet within that group coined “the Texas mafia,” Del Grande, along with Dallas Chefs Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles, and cookbook author and restaurant consultant Anne Greer, reinvented the Texas menu and gave it a name: Southwestern cuisine.

Their fusion of Texas tradition with rustic Mexican flavors and French and other regional styles spread like wildfire; credit Del Grande and his co-renegades for putting chilis, cilantro, chipotle, jicama, mole, and other Southwestern hallmarks on fine dining and fast-food menus around the globe.

“The beauty today is that we are no longer imitators,” Del Grande told me in 2008, just after debuting The Grove, his leafy Convention District concept with its “Treehouse” roof deck. “It’s home-based cooking, done our way.”

Rising to national stardom, Del Grande ran Café Annie (with Greg Martin as chef de cuisine) until 2009, when the space was torn down for new development. In its wake, the Del Grandes kept the soul, spirit, and team alive by opening RDG + Bar Annie nearby, where they hosted us for dinner my first night.

Del Grande, the epitome of West Coast cool, brought out plates including grilled octopus with charred fig salsa, and a Café Annie classic, wood-grilled rabbit enchilada. Equally flavorsome was our conversation, about food, music (since 1985, he has played guitar with Fearing in The Barbwires), and “imminent big news.” To Houston’s surprise and delight, that tease was this May’s relaunch of Café Annie in the RDG + Bar Annie space.

As Del Grande comes full circle, the last five years or so have seen Houston break out as a culinary destination. One hotbed is Montrose, Houston’s gay epicenter.

After warming up at Houston seafood institution Brennan’s and since shuttered Catalan Food & Wine, Chris Shepherd went whole hog with Underbelly, his 2014 Beard-winning (Best Restaurant: Southwest) homage to Houston’s cultural diversity. With a fully equipped butcher shop onsite, the Omaha, Nebraska native prioritizes local sourcing for “American Creole” temptations like Korean braised goat with dumplings. Longtime Montrose residents will remember the rustic Underbelly space as Chances, the largest lesbian bar in Texas, and the restaurant’s adjacent Blacksmith coffee shop as legendary leather bar Mary’s.

Devoted to “butchering, pickling, smoking, brining, and fermenting” is recent newcomer Pax Americana. Palate-pleasers like bourbonpork pâté and roasted heritage-breed pig head are creating buzz at this joint venture co-owned by brothers Dan and Mark Zimmerman. In the 1970s, their father Steven opened Houston’s first wine bar and sidewalk café, Zimm’s, in then crime-ridden Montrose, followed by the exquisite La Colombe d’Or, a former mansion turned into an intimate hotel featuring fine dining Restaurant Cinq.

At Indika Restaurant, Chef-Owner Anita Jaisinghani, a Houston fixture for two-plus decades, delivers innovative Indian food such as crab simosas and fish steamed in banana leaves. Daring gourmands can try the fiery ghost pepper sauce at her other concept, Pondicheri, in Upper Kirby. Bryan Caswell, whose Midtown flagship Reef is an enduring seafood shrine, serves fresh-ground sliders at his popular retro-burger joint Little Bigs, plus frozen treats like the Dude, a white Russian milkshake.

Robert Del Grande

Robert Del Grande

For authentic regional Mexican cuisine, Hugo’s is one of three restaurants from acclaimed husband-wife team Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught. Originally from Mexico City and in Houston since 1984, Ortega, a serial James Beard finalist (2012 to 2016), met Vaught (a Beard finalist this year, for Outstanding Restaurateur) at Backstreet Café, their popular bistro in historic River Oaks.

The couple also offers Caracol, their Mexican coastal seafood showcase, in energetic Uptown. With Café Annie as its brightest star, Houston’s “other downtown” now includes eight new-build restaurants in the new super-luxe River Oaks District.

Distinct from historic River Oaks, this 14-acre mixed-use campus has become Houston’s Rodeo Drive, with Dolce & Gabbana, Hermès, Tom Ford, and Harry Winston among the elite retailers. There’s highstyle living at the Grey House (in homage to the Menil’s signature color) and opening in succession this year, those eight new eateries.

Off to a smash start is Parisian bistro-style Toulouse Café and Bar, helmed by Philippe Schmit, a Master Chef of France and Houston veteran known as the “French Cowboy.” Another instant hotspot is Steak 48, a 14,000-square-foot culinary show palace from California and Arizona Restaurateurs Jeffrey and Michael Mastro. Other venues include upscale French-Vietnamese Le Colonial, Austin “burger bar” import HopDoddy, and SumoMaya Mexican Asian Kitchen.

Also on the “ROD” campus, high-concept movie chain iPic Theaters offers luxury airline-style seats for two with “ninja-style” F&B service, plus the Tuck Room gastro-lounge from three-time James Beard–winner Sherry Yard.

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