Houston isn’t exactly what you’d call a “looker.” This is apparent as I enjoy my last lunch in the city seated on the patio at Revival Market, a cafe and gourmet grocer in the Heights, a residential neighborhood north of downtown.
Across the street, Victorian houses and quaint Craftsman bungalows line a leafy boulevard with pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and grassy medians. Trees with thick trunks and broad branches shield joggers and walkers with baby strollers from the midday Texas sun. And then, there on the corner, looking like a drunk frat boy at the opera, sits a fast-food joint, its garish reds and yellows rubbing elbows with the mint-green house next door.
As the fourth-largest city in the United States (pop. 2.2 million), and one without modern zoning laws, Houston boasts a landscape that’s an endless labyrinth of strip malls, commercial warehouses, loft-style condominiums, freeways and access roads, public parks and parking lots. Urban planning in Houston looks a lot like someone dumped the makings of a city into a burlap sack and gave it a good shake.
But I’m not here to admire Houston’s skyline; I’m here to eat in its restaurants. With some of the largest Hispanic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Nigerian communities in the country calling this sprawling metropolis home, Houston and its cuisine (think Silk Road meets Texas Bravado) has serious eaters talking.
The buzz building around Houston’s food first caught my ear a few years back, when an old high school friend relocated to the city and started tending bar at a few spots around town. Fast-forward to the present day and a phone call with news of his engagement to a man I’d yet to meet. A trip to Houston to size up the food and the fiance suddenly became a priority. For company and a second opinion on both the food and the dude, I brought along my sister, Ashley.
By noon on the first day we’re seated on the patio of El Real Tex-Mex Cafe in the Montrose neighborhood, sipping tart margaritas and squinting into the sun, the wintry Washington weather I’d awakened to in the morning now a distant memory. Housed in the old Tower Theater space, El Real is chef Bryan Caswell’s homage to traditional Tex-Mex. You won’t find innovation or trendy takes on classics on this menu; “old school” is exactly the point here. The queso arrives molten and impossibly smooth, thanks (I suspect) to a certain processed cheese, but its balance of salt and hint of heat partner well with warm tortilla chips and that frosty margarita. The picadillo puffy taco stuffed with shredded beef and the tamale smothered in deep red chile are standouts, but the posole — with its piquant green chili broth, tender cubes of pork and flecks of cilantro — wins the table handily.
That evening, Ashley and I join my friend and his fiance for dinner at Underbelly, directly across the street from El Real. Chef Chris Shepherd’s cooking embodies that aforementioned Houston marriage of international spice and Texas tradition. Snappy pole beans swim in a pool of caramelized fish sauce, and crisp dumplings pick up a red sheen from the fiery Korean braised goat that accompanies them. For the main event — the whole Gulf by-catch — a Texas-sized cast iron skillet holds court at the center of our table, heaped high with lightly fried whole red snapper and scorpionfish on a bed of eggplant and cauliflower masala. As I pluck the last bits of flesh from a pile of scorpionfish bones in the skillet, I decide that Houston has never looked so good.