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Zelko Bistro has the best napkins in Houston. They're the flour sack towels that my mother and grandmother have always used in their kitchens, slung over their shoulders like rifles as they wash vegetables and man the stoves. Incredibly absorbent, soft to the touch, never linty and always useful, these flour sack towels are repurposed at Chef Jamie Zelko's masterpiece of a restaurant into napkins that are one of the first signals to diners that they're in for something special.
The napkins aren't the only things here that remind me of the cooks in my family. The entire restaurant is steeped in the gospel of cooking incredibly well-constructed and thoughtfully crafted comfort food from superior sources — Zelko uses seasonal ingredients that are locally sourced whenever possible — in a rich, warm, cozy atmosphere, without a hint of pretension. The Houston Press gave Zelko Bistro an award for Best Comfort Food in this year's Best of Houston® issue, and with good reason. It's like coming home.
705 E. 11th St.
Houston, TX 77008
Fried pickles: $6
The Boss Burger: $10
Fish tacos: $12
Captin's fried chicken: $15
Shrimp & grits: $16
Lemon icebox pie: $6
Funnel cake: $6
Zelko "Shack Shaker" blend coffee: $3
705 E. 11th St., 713-880-8691.
It took me several months to finally get to the restaurant, located in a converted Heights bungalow along 11th Street. I'm told it's for the best that I didn't go when it first opened in April, however, as the restaurant had some serious issues with air-conditioning — now corrected — that made eating inside a very sweaty proposition.
Fast-forward seven months, and the restaurant, with its hidden garden-style patio, seems to have been made expressly for the cooler autumn season. Of course, Zelko is now contending with another battle: construction along 11th Street that has completely torn up the driveway and access to the main entrance. Smart diners will take one of several, easily accessible alternate routes and simply enter through the side door on the patio. Construction shouldn't be a deterrent to getting a meal this good.
Like her partner in the operation, Jeb Stuart — the former chef at Shade turned front-of-house man and sommelier here at Zelko — Chef Zelko lives in the Heights. It's immediately obvious from the low-key vibe, the refusal to take reservations and the inviting atmosphere that this was intended to be a neighborhood joint, a place where Zelko and Stuart's neighbors could walk to, a place for the Heights to call home. This is a place where Chef Zelko is putting down roots. And that's immensely comforting in its own way.
There was some initial concern when the talented young Zelko left her post as executive chef at Bistro Lancaster that she would leave town for good. Thankfully for Houston, she's firmly planted here.
On my first visit to Zelko, my dining companion and I grabbed a table outside at dusk. The patio is almost entirely shielded from the street and the noise of passing traffic, making it seem almost as if you're dining in someone's cleanly landscaped backyard.
The service has been described in rather ungracious terms as "aloof" and "surly" by friends of mine who've dined at Zelko. But our waiter was perfectly enjoyable, if somewhat languorous, attending to our table quite expertly.
The waiter recited the wine-by-the-glass list from memory, as it changes every day depending on what the restaurant is stocking. A Malbec, a Syrah blend, a Grenache — all sounded brilliant for the crisp air and the meal ahead. I ordered a glass of the Old Faithful Grenache and relaxed, snacking on the lightly battered fried pickles as we waited on our food. There are a few places in town that do fried pickles better, but not many. And those pickles probably come from Sysco; I suspect Zelko's are of somewhat more enlightened provenance.
Our food arrived very promptly, almost interrupting a waking nap-like state encouraged by the cozy patio and the wine. My dining companion's Captin's fried chicken was utterly enormous: two fat chicken breasts stacked one on top of the other, atop a mound of mashed potatoes that looked strikingly familiar.
That's because they were made exactly the way I make them at home: skins still on, mashed imperfectly and without a ricer, nothing but heavy cream and salt added to the already buttery Yukon golds. I'm sure plenty of other home cooks make their mashed potatoes this way; it's just nice to see something so homespun and rough-hewn on a menu, validating your own cooking techniques at the same time it offers an instant dose of creamy comfort.
The chicken, on the other hand, was a work of majesty the likes of which has never come out of my own kitchen. The tender breasts had to have been brined before frying; they were almost unbelievably juicy and moist. Between alternating mouthfuls of chicken and mashed potatoes, my dining companion kept exhorting, "I can't believe these are breasts! They're so good! They're so juicy! This isn't right!" I think I might have seen her tear up a bit when the last bite was gone.
My shrimp and grits was comfort food with a twist. Although the shrimp were breaded and fried, although the grits were made with plenty of white cheddar and butter, and although it was all topped with copious handfuls of bacon, there was nothing greasy or fatty about the dish. I attribute that to the ring of sweet agave soy that surrounded the grits in the shallow bowl. The salty-sweet tang of the agave soy sauce cut straight through all the dairy and the batter and simply sang. Taken in hand with the bracing bites of fresh green onion on top, this is not your average dish of shrimp and grits. This fresh, vibrant concoction is what places like Ouisie's Table should aspire to, and one that does our briny Gulf shrimp true justice.