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.
The next night, Ashley and I head for dinner to the Pass & Provisions, a new dual-concept restaurant on Taft Street that boasts a seasonal menu where the familiar (pasta, pizza, seafood and meat) gives a nod to the flavors of Asia and Africa. At the time of my visit, only the casual side, Provisions, is open, with the more formal Pass expected to debut in a few weeks. My entree of harissa bucatini tossed with Gulf shrimp, guanciale and broccoli is devoid of spice and sans the promised broccoli, and has me longing for the uni-topped pizza on my neighbor’s table. But the meal’s beginning — kimchi pan au lait accompanied by a warm egg yolk afloat in kimchi spices and a wedge of perfectly runny cremant cheese — and its end — Thai iced tea soft-serve sprinkled with chocolate feuilletine (crisps), candied peanuts and dehydrated strawberries — prove most noteworthy. Provisions’ unisex bathroom, however, where Julia Child follows you into the stall thanks to piped-in audio recordings from The French Chef, may alone be worth the trip.
Post-dinner, we belly up to the bar for a cocktail at Anvil Bar & Refuge, back in the Montrose neighborhood. My soon-to-be-wed buddy is working the bar there these days, but Anvil also happens to be slinging some of the most creative cocktails in town. The menu, a list of 100 cocktails ranging from light to bitter to fruity to boozy, can be overwhelming. Skip the heavy reading and consult with the able bartenders for guidance, or throw caution to the wind and ask for “bartender’s choice.”
On the morning of our last day, Ashley and I decide to check out an offbeat tourist attraction, the Beer Can House. Completely covered in beer cans by its owner in the late 1960s, the house is an artistic oddity worth a few gawks and giggles and a decent way to fill a few hours. Then we head to Revival Market for our final bites in town. I devour Revival’s take on a banh mi, a classic Vietnamese sandwich of porchetta, pat and pickled carrot doused with fish sauce and green goddess dressing, all spilling out of a perfectly crusty-chewy baguette.
As I’m polishing off my side of pearl couscous with roasted cauliflower and sipping at my last dregs of hibiscus iced tea, I begin to plot how many jars of Revival’s house-made mustard, barbecue sauce, sorghum and vinegars, which are for sale inside, we can cram into our suitcases. And by the time I climb back into my rental car with a bag full of tasty Texas souvenirs and a homemade Oreo cookie for the road, I couldn’t care less about that fast-food eyesore in the distance.