Friday, January 4, 2013

20 Things Everyone Thinks About Houston Food (But Nobody Will Say)

The "Eat" section of First We Feast recently published a list of of things everybody knows about food but up until then people have been afraid to say. This spawned interesting debate on Twitter, including the question of what a Houston things-nobody-will-say list might look like. With all the biases inherent in a single viewpoint, here's a stab at it. This is not meant to be an end unto itself; it's a starting point to stimulate discussion about a few areas where Houston could use some honest talk.

1. Houston hasn't yet reached adolescence in its development as a food city.
Close your eyes and think about Houston restaurants ten years ago. What was hot and exciting? Don't remember? What were the hot openings? Who's left? Mark's, Da Marco, Tony's, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Brennan's, Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe? Yes. They truck along and do so brilliantly. The larger point is that Houston has barely begun to expand beyond a handful of establishments that are interesting. But it's easy to get carried away and think, "Houston has arrived!" If you think that, however, it'll be gone in a flash, and you'll have never gotten there. Transforming Houston into a really meaningful culinary destination will take a lot of time. Don't jump to the conclusion because it's way more fun to enjoy the ride. Think about it. Houston had maybe a dozen really notable restaurant openings last year. In the San Francisco area? They're talking about ten this month. It'll be fun to watch Houston grow into a city like that.

2. Money talks.
The big money being spent on dining out in Houston still flows from the expense account/oil and gas sector. Hipsters and fadists are on the cutting edge, but they generally don't have the means to sustain institutions or trends. There's a reason why certain restaurants stay in business. People vote with their wallets and, bottom line, this is something you can't forget. Eating out is fundamentally a consumer product, and those with the bucks can be king-makers. So it's important to have a big-tent theory of food and bring everyone into the flow so the city can sustain the best restaurants.

3. Institutions matter.
This notion is linked to everything on this list. Think of any great culinary city, and you can instantly name institutions, restaurants you can't imagine the city without. New York and Peter Luger Steakhouse or the Carnegie Deli. Paris with Taillevent and Latour d'Argent. They don't have to be the best places, necessarily. But they've been there and done that for a very long time, and by and large they do it well. That matters -- because you can't live on constant innovation alone. You need to find and embrace as a city the restaurants that will become reasons for people to visit. These are restaurants that become part of the city's fabric.

4. Houston does have good barbecue.
This is one of those things people like to fight about because the amount of contested ground is so slim. Barbecue is like Tex-Mex or hamburgers or pizza. It's something whose inherent qualities are so good that, even when it's mediocre, it's pretty darn good. Gatlin's is good. Goode Company is good. You don't have to drive into Lockhart to get a fix on some nice smoked meat. It's fun to talk about what's better or best. But with something as joyously delicious as barbecue, there's no reason to go apoplectic over comparatively small degrees of separation.

5. Houston needs more good "daily" restaurants to form a culinary backbone.
Restaurant across the city in 2012 were events. There was a proliferation of places that, over time, could become flagship restaurants of a great food city. But great food cities need infrastructure in the form of tasty, serviceable, and simple neighborhood restaurants. These places don't require a reservation. They aren't see-or-be-seen establishments. They aren't a big production. They're comfortable. They cultivate clientele. They make you feel at home, whether you come in for a glass of wine and an appetizer or stop in late for a night cap or dessert. In short, the city needs more places like Poscol.

6. Food trucks are nice, but they don't compete with restaurants.
There's some quality stuff coming off of food trucks. But, on the whole, food trucks are more like diners or dive bars than they are trend setters. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but it's instructive to look at how notable food trucks like the Eatsie Boys and Modular are turning to traditional restaurant models for long-term success. This isn't about city propane regulations or anything else. Food trucks are an inherently limited medium. Good Dog Hot Dogs and Bernie's Burger Bus are delicious, and it's great to see an increase in the number of places where you can find good food carefully prepared. There's a role for food trucks to play, but they're not a threat to the traditional restaurant -- they're a complement.

7. Houston's ethnic restaurants are some of the best in the United States.
This is possibly the least controversial statement here. The breadth and quality of Houston's ethnic restaurants, particularly with Asian cuisines, is astounding. Food has a remarkable quality of allowing you to travel while staying put, and Houston does an admirable job of this. Keep spreading the word.

8. Most people don't understand tasting menus.
The current "backlash" against tasting menus seems like manufactured drama, though a kernel of truth lurks there. That's because so many consumers and, more importantly, chefs don't understand what a tasting menu is all about. Tasting menus are the ultimate, novelistic test of chefs: Can they create a cohesive, meaningful narrative, skillfully executed over a set number of courses that fills up a diner to just the right level -- full but not overly so. Thoughtful tasting menus take you on a culinary journey; they aren't just a restaurant's greatest hits or a mish-mash of unrelated dishes. They have form. This is a common misunderstanding, and sloppy execution of tasting menus causes frustration and unfulfillment. But the highest culinary highs come from such menus, so it's worth learning about them and seeking out fine examples of them.

9. Da Marco, Mark's, and Tony's still define "fine dining" in Houston.
They're here. They're successful. They've done it for a long time. They might not always be on the cutting edge of innovation -- although the exceptionally talented Grant Gordon at Tony's contradicts that statement -- but they do it well, and they will keep doing it. These are important restaurants, and just because they aren't as trendy with the foodie crowd as they once were doesn't mean they're devoid of influence. This is the level the hot new restaurants of 2012 should aspire to become.

10. Underbelly does not tell the story of Houston food.
Underbelly is a terrific addition to the Houston food scene. Chris Shepherd is a fun chef who has admirable passion that normally translates to the plate. But Underbelly does not tell the story of Houston food, and more importantly it does not have to. To think that a single establishment could articulate the diversity found across this mammoth city is shooting for the impossible at best and arrogant at worst. If it were possible, it would mean our city's food scene is far too limited. It's not the job of one restaurant to encompass all of Houston, and no restaurant can do it.  

11. Houston needs more good sommeliers.
Great restaurant cities have numerous restaurants that provide a complete dining experience. An important part of that experience is having a sommelier who can provide beverages that enhance every dish you eat. The best example in Houston of a complete sommelier who provides a 360-degree experience for his guests is Sean Beck at Backstreet Cafe and Hugo's. He's unpretentious yet knowledgeable. He stays in tune with the customer's taste. He knows his menus and wine lists backwards and forwards, so he can be sure his recommendations go with the food. There are always interesting and unexpected wines, thoughtfully chosen and not haphazardly selected for their esoteric qualities, on the list. This is what you would expect of any sommelier at a minimum, yet so rarely find in Houston. At the same time, he also has an obsession with ensuring guest experiences are as good as they can be. This is how valuable a good sommelier can be. Houston restaurants should take note.

12. Fawning over obscure drinks masks true and thorough knowledge of wine, beers, and spirits.
Forget piling a dozen sherries on your wine list. Forget trying to dazzle customers with wines you've never heard of but whose presence on the wine list are to show off what a geek you purport to be. Just as developing into a great restaurant city takes years of hard work and lots of sweat, so does becoming a sommelier or skilled mixologist. This doesn't happen overnight, and there's no substitute for the hard work that comes in gaining the depth of knowledge of Houston's great sommeliers like the crew on the floor at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. There is great virtue in getting a handle on all the fundamentals before forging into the esoteric. Too frequently these days, however, Houston restaurants feature odd wines and beers and spirits simply because of their novelty, and it comes off as an attempt to cover up a lack of genuine knowledge. Booze is fun. Take the time to learn it in-depth and provide customers the best experience possible.

13. Service at restaurants needs drastic improvement.
Even in the best restaurants in Houston, you can't assume you'll receive skilled service. Walk into any very good restaurant, and you are quite likely to be the recipient of service foibles, such as food coming out incorrectly or at the wrong time or getting your meals while waiting on silverware. Like all things restaurant, cultivating a serious culture of service and staffing it with professionally minded individuals is a monumental task. But a world class restaurant city cannot fall down on something as important as service, and nothing spoils a good meal faster than crummy service.

14. Houston is at a precarious time in its restaurant growth.
Don't buy your own press. Don't live in a bubble. The way you achieve greatness is by constantly striving toward perfection that, in almost every instance, you will not achieve. Houston's food scene has shown a dangerous proclivity toward bullying those who criticize and buying its own self-created hype. That's not the thing to do. Be proud of what the city achieves, but always strive to be better. Houston is still but a glimmer on the national map. It's a growing glimmer, but one that could be gone in the blink of an eye without ceaseless dedication to improvement, learning, and creativity.

15. Houston is insecure about the status of its restaurant and food scene.
Keeping an insulated community, buying your own press, and having an immature reaction to criticism are hallmarks of insecurity. Remember when Houston hosted the Super Bowl? There were so many big showings of how great and cosmopolitan Houston was. Cities that are great and cosmopolitan don't have to go out of their way to tell you that. They're confident in it. Houston needs to learn that. The acceptance the city craves so much will come with hard work. The dining scene here isn't as exciting as San Francisco or New York. But it's more exciting than ever. Enjoy that and keep focused on reaching the point where it can play with the big boys.

16. Central Market is better than any farmers' market in town.
The proliferation of farmers' markets over the past five years is a great development, in particular because it has consumers focused on quality first. But the simple truth is that Houston and its surrounding area aren't an agricultural green belt like the Midwest or California, and it's a challenge to find really good quality ingredients. Central Market, however, provides a reliable source of very good produce and other ingredients. An important part of sourcing ingredients, for any cook, is finding products of consistent quality. This isn't to say farmers markets are bad. They're awesome. But Central Market is the most reliable source in town.

17. BYOB should be standard.
This transcends Houston, but great food cities embrace wine and beer as much as possible, and BYOB should be allowed at the discretion of every restaurant. It's an incentive for people to eat out more. Arguments that BYOB is a threat to restaurants that serve wine, beer, and spirits have no merit. Look no further than cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. The sad thing is that Houston's and Texas's alcohol wholesale, retail, and distribution networks are near-monopolies that are bad for consumers, and this extends to the choices restaurant patrons find on most wine lists and in BYOB prohibitions.

18. A sustainable food scene cannot be based on trends or fads alone.
You see it if you follow the club scene -- Richmond strip to Midtown to Washington Avenue. Trendy restaurant-goers are the same. They hit the Next Big Thing in droves, then move on. Fads and trends are fickle by definition and are no way to build long-term success. At some point, Alinea in Chicago will not be considered avant-garde. There is a process of natural selection for restaurants, and at some point, you have to begin building a canon of bedrock institutions. Remember that Chumbawumba was popular once. The hope is for exciting new restaurants to open every year in Houston, but just because something is new does not mean it's better.

19. Longevity matters.
This is closely related to No. 18. Remember in April 2011 when the Houston Press pronounced Stella Sola, open about a year, a Heights "institution"? Yet, only a year later, Stella Sola closed with no fanfare or farewell party. Meanwhile, unheralded-but-delicious neighborhood joint Glass Wall across the street trucks along to packed crowds. Running a restaurant is a business, and regardless of how cool or fun or interesting what you're doing is, making it work is essential. So before pronouncing Oxheart or Uchi or Underbelly or The Pass the new standard-bearer of all things Houston food, remember to add "potential" in front of all that. Because it only matters if they can do it over time. This is one part of what makes places like Brennan's so important.

20. If it plays its cards right, Houston can become a nationally relevant, vibrant restaurant town for decades.
One of the great characteristics of Houston as a city is that it is swift to embrace success. You can make a name for yourself on your own merits here more easily than in other cities, and that's an admirable quality. As a result, having open arms is in some ways already inherent to Houston's culture. Fostering success and driving competition to push the good to very good and the very good to great are what will propel Houston to the next level. So much of the food and restaurant scene today is concerned with sustainability -- from green architecture to sources of ingredients. But another type of sustainability -- of talent, creativity, and a drive for success -- are essential for Houston to reach its full potential.


  1. Quite a discussion provoking article, Tom! Thanks you for sharing your thoughts.

    I wanted to comment on point #11, which you and I have discussed before. I believe that Houston has a number of excellent sommeliers and I don't discount that we could always use more, however, I do think that a large majority of them are underutilized and/or overlooked within the food community. You had also integrated the point that drink and food belong together as part of a meal, but I feel it is so important that it almost deserves it's own separate section. Dining is an experience and if you're enjoying an 8 oz ribeye, a coca-cola companion will not do this dish justice. And every chef in town would agree with that.

  2. A terrific, and near-encyclopedic essay. I'd just ask if Ninfa's is our classic, and if we have any others. And I'd add that Houston also needs a compellingly urban streetscape to go with its restaurants. Walking to the bars and restaurants on Westheimer ought to be exhilarating rather than dispiriting and dangerous. The great restaurant cities are also great walking cities.

  3. Until Rick Perry signs a law allowing corkage fees, BYOB is illegal in establishments that serve liquor in Texas. Similarly, bringing your own liquor presents its own challenges for places that serve only wine and beer.

    1. Please ... let's not spoil this article with commentary about the onerous nature of Texas liquor laws and the politicos who feather their nest due to same.

  4. Your experience with Houston dining and mine are totally different.
    First, relax. Service in Houston is good when compared with other markets. Fortunately it isn't as stuffy as some. I'll take Houston service over Dallas (too stuffy), Chicago, LA or New Orleans gladly. If you consider Austin a comp, their service isn't even close. NY and SFO can offer consistently better service, but bad NY service is the worst.
    What makes Houston great is its mix of institutions (Brennan's, DaMarco, Mark's) and innovators (Oxheart, Underbelly, and potentially Pass & Provisions). There's not much to knock here. The O&G money likes institutions. The foodies like flitting around. What's great about Houston is that you can be satisfied with whatever style or taste you prefer. (And add the incredible ethnic choices on top of that.)
    Finally, you are dead wrong about wine and cocktails. The Bobby Heugel impact on Houston has been enormous. The cocktail service at Beaver's, Grand Prize, Pass & Provisions are all awesome and innovative, just to name three. As far as your dig at sommeliers, please. Every town in this country could do with more Sean Becks. If that's your expectation, then I suggest you limit your wine ordering to Backstreet and Hugo's.

  5. ...yet not a word of pretentiousness or food being overpriced. Other countries offer amazing dishes that are served/prepared as a way of life. Here, we pay for it like it's the highest and rarest privilege. For a city that boasts so much ethnic diversity in our foods, maybe we shouldn't be so concerned with New York or San Francisco.