Why Foodies Should Plan a Trip to Houston Now
Houston's recent James Beard nominations put the city on the national culinary map.
With a growing number of top-rated establishments across the city, there's no better time for food lovers to plan a trip.(Getty Images)
Houston hardly seems like a new discovery for the avid traveler. With a population of more than 2 million, the country's fourth-largest city is preparing to host Super Bowl 51 (or Super Bowl LI for you purists) in 2017, and its sobriquets include both the Oil Capital of the World and Space City. NASA may be based here, but it's Houston's out-of-this-world culinary scene that's drawing foodies to the Bayou City (yet another nickname). And these six Houston establishments were nominated for eight prestigious James Beard Foundation awards in 2016, the Academy Awards of the culinary universe. Here's where to enjoy a memorable meal next time you're in town.
Helen Greek Food and Wine
Helen Greek Food and Wine, a finalist for Best New Restaurant, opened in July 2015. Owner and wine director Evan Turner lived in Greece as a child, and that indelible experience led him to approach William Wright, who became his executive chef. "I hated the thought of moving, but my first night there I had to go to a dinner with my parents," Turner says. "A bowl of dip was placed in front of me. I made a face, but the waiter said, 'No, you must try this.' I was raised to at least try everything put in front of me, so I did, and it changed my life. From that point on I was hooked on Greek cuisine and culture," he says.
The dip was ktipiti, a slightly spicy dip made of feta, yogurt and red peppers, and it never leaves the menu at Helen. Helen's extensive menu presents regional dishes from the coasts to the mountains of Greece, showing Houston that Greek cuisine is much more than gyros, though they're certainly on the menu. Fish, caught daily by local Greek fisherman Frixos Chrisinis, is stuffed with traditional fillings, and the Greek village salad is served only as long as heirloom tomatoes are in season. Helen boasts the second-largest Greek wine list in the U.S. within its 1,600-square-foot space.
At Caracol, husband-and-wife team Hugo and Tracy Ortega consistently receive glowing reviews. Tracy was nominated this year for 2016 Outstanding Restaurateur, and Hugo for Best Chef: Southwest. The two met when Hugo worked at Tracy's father's restaurant as a busboy after arriving in Houston from Mexico at 17. He worked his way up the line at the Backstreet Café, earning a culinary degree in 1992 with Tracy's help and becoming the restaurant's executive chef. He and Tracy decided to open a restaurant that focused on the unique coastal cuisine found in 16 of Mexico's 31 states. With Tracy and his brother, Ruben, as executive pastry chef, Hugo launched Caracol in 2013. Today, Hugo, Tracy and Ruben serve their take on Mexican coastal street food, including grouper tamales, wood-roasted Gulf oysters with chipotle butter and shrimp tacos with cactus-flavored tortillas, all served with a variety of salsas and sauces that are true to their regions.
The Pass & Provisions
The Pass & Provisions is two restaurants in one, with its upscale The Pass restaurant feeling like a classy speak-easy and Provisions serving as an open-kitchen neighborhood favorite. The Pass was nominated for 2016 Outstanding Service, and chefs and owners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan were nominated for 2016 Best Chef: Southwest. Accessed by a secret door that opens into a bright, elegant dining room with seating for 39, The Pass is what Gallivan and Siegel-Gardner call "fun fine-dining." Guests are encouraged to eat with their fingers as they enjoy the prix- ixe tasting menu that changes quarterly. Their nine-course dinner includes plates such as as rabbit-stuffed pasta and duck with foie gras tarte, kohlrabi with pickled plum, and berries in buttermilk with fennel. Provisions offers brunch, lunch and dinner menus with hearty dishes such as gourmet pizzas and ham crusted halibut.
[See: 8 Under-the-Radar Foodie Cities.]
Kata Robata's executive chef Manabu Horiuchi is a 2016 James Beard Award semi-finalist for Best Chef: Southwest, and his perfectly prepared sushi, sashimi and Kobe beef dishes easily explain why. Horiuchi graduated from the Tsuji Culinary Institute with top honors and moved to Houston to serve as the official executive chef to the Consulate General of Japan before eventually landing at Kata Robata. His uni chawanmushi, duck confit dumplings and braised octopus are perfect in their simplicity.
Oxheart's chef and owner Justin Yu, winner of the 2016 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, offers two menus nightly: his vegetarian garden menu, and a tasting menu with meat entrees. His garden menu wins over vegetarians and meat eaters alike with courses such as crystal dumplings filled with bitter greens, served with warm kohlrabi broth, jasmine tea, and raw celtuce. Meanwhile, the tasting menu includes golden tilefish with raw squash, basil-seaweed broth and preserved fruit, along with guinea hen stuffed with rice and collard greens with a sauce of preserved shellfish. Wine pairings are available, and the open kitchen in the Erie City Iron Works building in the historic Warehouse District gives this intimate dining experience a true Houstonian feel.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston's hip Westheimer Curve serves up classic cocktails with top-shelf spirits in a warm, red-brick room. Using hand-pressed juices, house-made bitters and herbal infusions, Anvil's crafted cocktails, such as the Hanky Panky (Tom gin, sweet vermouth and fernet), Queen's Park Swizzle (blended white rum, lime, mint and Angostura bitters), Saratoga Brace Up (Cognac, absinthe, lemon, whole egg), Mai Tai, Old Fashioned and Tom Collins, recall Prohibition-era classics. Guests can also try 40-year-old Scotches and other four-figure spirits priced per ounce.
Bonus Restaurants to Add to Your Culinary Pilgrimage
These establishments may not been nominated for a James Beard Award this year, but foodies visiting Houston would be remiss not to visit them. Brennan's of Houston has been bringing New Orleans Gulf Coast charm to the city since 1967, and is a sister restaurant to the world-famous Commander's Palace in New Orleans. Serving classics such as Shrimp Chippewa, pecan crusted fish and banana's foster, Brennan's offers relaxed fine-dining within their mansion's dining rooms, or on the courtyard bar. Live jazz plays every Sunday for brunch that includes 25-cent mimosas and Bloody Marys.
[See: Tasty Cooking Vacations.]
The Breakfast Klub is another favorite local meeting place that is known for its chicken and waffles, catfish and grits, sandwiches and other hearty fare. Owner Marcus Davis started his restaurant as a coffee shop and began adding menu items until demand forced him into the restaurant business. And, yes, the Breakfast Klub is a take on the 1985 hit "The Breakfast Club," starring Molly Ringwald, one of Davis' favorites.
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Edited by Liz Weiss.
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