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TH Taste: What's New, Westheimer?

 The new dining scene on one of Houston's most colorful byways

Underbelly’s Chef Chris Shepherd describes Houston as “the most dynamic culinary destination in the United States,” and he aims to prove it. (Photo © Sarah Kerver)

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.
Strange though it sounds, the crispy pig ears could be one of the finest nibbles to come along in ages. Thin enough to break into pieces—and ideal when accompanied by a pint of Buffalo Bayou Brewing 1836, a copper ale—these chips bear a simple coating of sugar and ground cayenne. I swooned over a plate of buttermilk waffles slathered in a peppery molasses butter and crowned with a handful of crunchy chicken livers, and briefly entertained ordering a plate of the Korean-style chicken wings, which are a hit with the 30-something clientele.
Because the beer options change so frequently (Hay Merchant offers nearly 80 on tap), so do Chef Antoine Ware’s menu options. Anything’s possible, he tells me, from New Orleans-style crab balls with spicy corn relish to mussels steamed in India Pale Ale with garlic, onion, fennel, and smoked tomatoes.

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.
Walsh, a longtime dining critic and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, persuaded Caswell to indulge their shared passion for vintage Tex-Mex.

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.
Take time to enjoy this foursome, you’ll come away with a good idea of the new culinary treasures found on this ever-evolving stretch of Houston.

Dining Lower Westheimer

Underbelly, 1100 Westheimer Rd., 713/528-9800.
Hay Merchant, 1100 Westheimer Rd., 713/528-9805.
Uchi, 904 Westheimer Rd., 713/522-4808.
El Real, 1201 Westheimer Rd., 713/524-1201.

From the November 2012 issue.

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