The new dining scene on one of Houston's most colorful byways
By June Naylor
I’ve maintained for some time that Houston has grown into one of the nation’s most interesting food cities. And so it was a pleasant surprise to discover on a recent trip that a handful of America’s top culinary talents now strut their stuff within a couple of blocks from each other, on a stretch of Westheimer Road once known for its thrift stores, tattoo parlors, and smoke shops.
But a restaurant renaissance in this part of the Montrose neighborhood makes sense, considering that James Beard-nominee Hugo Ortega began forging the path for neighborhood appeal years ago with his elegant interior Mexican restaurant, Hugo’s. Ortega, who recently released his first cookbook, Street Food of Mexico, proved that this bend of Westheimer could draw crowds.
Spending a weekend exploring the new synergy on Lower Westheimer, I soon realized I’d have to spend days to cover it all. So I focused on four restaurants whose chefs are breaking rules and expanding Houston’s already adventurous palate.
Anything's possible, from New Orleans-style crab balls with spicy corn relish to mussels steamed with garlic, onion, fennel and smoked tomatoes
With his new venture Underbelly, Chris Shepherd, one of the city’s most imaginative (and gregarious) chefs, has created a place where he can feature the kind of homegrown food that he’s come to love in the Houston area. Shepherd brings in honey, citrus, vegetables, herbs, dairy, and fish from local providers, and—after buying whole pigs and sides of beef from area ranchers —he breaks them down in the butcher shop adjacent to the kitchen.
Shepherd finds inspiration from myriad ethnic markets and restaurants to fashion what he calls “new American Creole” cuisine, blending influences from divergent cultures. The menu changes daily, but the assortment of dishes I found on one evening included grilled Wagyu satay with a field-pea hummus (melding Asian, Middle Eastern, and Southern ideas), seared scamp grouper with braised leeks and Kabocha squash broth (mixing French and Japanese influences), and roasted goat with tomatoes, chiles, and sweet potato greens (combining Southern flavors with hints of northern Mexico).
An antique plow and a wall of preserves and pickled vegetables fit into the decor, and two communal tables add familiarity to the mood. I was especially taken with Shepherd’s friendly rapport with cooks working the open kitchen, expediting dishes while keeping an eye trained on the dining room.
When Shepherd and his business partners acquired the space for Underbelly, they allocated half of the building for a gastropub that would share the butcher shop. This sister restaurant, Hay Merchant, boasts one of the city’s largest selections of craft beers and a menu that reaches far beyond what’s usually found in a bar.
Less than a block east, in a renovated space that for decades housed Felix’s Mexican Restaurant, Austin superstar chef Tyson Cole recently opened the second location of his wildly successful restaurant Uchi. Cole and chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards now treat denizens of Lower Westheimer to Uchi’s Japanese-inspired food, playing mad scientist with such combinations as smoked baby yellowtail with yuca root crisps, buttery Marcona almonds, Asian pear, and garlic brittle; or slices of big-eye tuna with goat cheese, pumpkin seed oil, and apple.
Sampling one of the ever-evolving Omakase menus—that’s 10 courses, chosen by the chef—I particularly enjoyed the blast of sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavors in a dish called the Suzuki ringo, which is a combination of grilled loup de mer (a kind of sea bass) with green apple, citrus-chile paste, and Vietnamese fish sauce. For a meaty interlude, I found the perfect answer in a juicy slice of pork jowl with Brussels sprout kimchee, romaine lettuce, and a lush crème fraîche.
Sitting at the sushi bar, I watched the action in the open kitchen. But to sit in a cozy booth along one wall would be a way to enjoy the parade of dishes with someone special in an intimate setting, away from the hubbub. Red-blossom wallpaper, warm lighting, and blonde woods give Uchi a welcoming sophistication.
Across the street from these dining spots, El Real celebrates a distinctly old-school brand of Tex-Mex fare. The concept comes from two highly decorated culinary types: chef Bryan Caswell and journalist/author Robb Walsh. Caswell, a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2009 and competitor on the Food Network’s “Next Iron Chef,” wins fans aplenty with Reef, his seafood restaurant in Houston’s Midtown.
They’re doing just that in the renovated Tower Theater, keeping the movie marquee out front in pristine condition and projecting 1940s Westerns on a wall of the restaurant.
A bite into the puffy tacos—one filled with picadillo (spicy ground beef) and another with smoked chicken— took me back to my first childhood taste of those iconic goodies. The bestseller is the cheese enchiladas smothered in chili con carne and topped with a fried egg, but my favorite snack in the place is the gooey queso flameado, flecked with bits of spicy chorizo and set aflame tableside by the server.
Dining Lower Westheimer
From the November 2012 issue.