Restaurant Reviews

Kitchen 713 Does Global Soul Food in a Particularly Houston Manner

The chicken fried duck breakfast sandwiches are juicy and flavorful.
The chicken fried duck breakfast sandwiches are juicy and flavorful. Photo by Daniel Kramer
We arrived at Kitchen 713 as the edges of Tropical Storm Cindy teased the city, pleated gusts of rain making us hesitate just at the edge of the causeway from the parking garage. We paused, waiting for a break in the rain before making the short dash to the door. As we hemmed, a Kitchen 713 staffer spotted us and ushered us in through the back door, saving us a soaking. It was a small gesture, but it set the pace for the restaurant’s friendly, familial service, which helps ground the freewheeling flavors in Southern hospitality.

Global Soul. That’s Kitchen 713’s tagline, but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. It is not a cherry-picked sampling of dishes from around the world, laid out in a hodge-podge buffet of mismatched form and function. It is not “fusion” in the “put it in a taco and call it a day” sense that earned the term its deserved derision. Rather, the kitchen winds through world cuisines, picking up influences and ingredients and blending them seamlessly into the sort of earthy, finessed yet homespun and satisfying food “Soul” implies. It works in much the same way that the movement of cuisine itself works: a story of migration, adoption and adaptation. In this sense, the food at Kitchen 713 makes good on its area code namesake, taking the vibrant array of flavors the city has to offer and finding an organic way to bring them together into something new and tasting uniquely of Houston.

Take a bowl of oxtails, shimmering with a dark lacquer and studded with sesame seeds. The meat is braised to tenderness in Chinese black vinegar, a common Sichuan technique that imparts a sweet and nutty flavor to long-cooked meats. Here, it works wonders with the beef, making something arresting and new out of the soul food steam table staple. As with a lot of the food at Kitchen 713, you have to use your hands. Sussing out each scrap of tender meat from between the sections of bone is half the journey here, and you will get sticky. The lacquer is sweet and savory, with an almost smoky undercurrent and just a hint of vinegar twang. Haunting and addictive, its flavors ping back and forth between salty, sour, sweet and deeply umami. Sesame seeds echo the nuttiness of the glaze, while thin wheels of jalapeño add pricks of heat and bursts of reinforcing acidity. If anything, I wish there were more of the chiles, but this is nonetheless a dish that makes you crave them.

The oxtails — plenty of food to serve as a moderately sized main on their own — come accompanied by a dish of fried rice and some green beans cooked down with tomato and bacon. As with several items at Kitchen 713, the sides in question would benefit from a bit of editing. The rice is heavy and starchy; the green beans are tasty, with their kiss of porky smoke and pop of tomato brightness, but seem disjointed from the rest of the dish. The fact that these elements are served in separate bowls doesn’t help their integration, and you may well ignore them as we did, obsessing instead over the oxtails themselves, which stand perfectly well on their own.

A fried okra appetizer is similarly in need of trimming, lending more confusion than cohesion. On its own, the okra has an almost tempura-light crust that manages to retain its cornmeal character, which allows the vegetable to keep just enough of its own without risking the sliminess that many find off-putting. The okra is anchored by a tomato jam that runs overly sweet, necessitating the inclusions of bacon and parm to bring it back in line. Pickled jalapeño wheels help in that goal as well, but the dish would fare better if that jam were tuned less sweet, the pork and cheese omitted.

Catfish bouillabaisse plays the same games. It’s as if the kitchen feels like it needs to add starch for perceived completion or added value, and it really doesn’t. The fish is delicately crunchy on top, its bottom sagging gently and pleasantly into broth that whispers rather than shouts, alternately announcing bacon, onion and just the faintest hint of the sea. It’s a subtle and elegant dish, the earnest minerality of the fish played perfectly against its bouillabaisse bath, but it is oddly marred by an ungainly addition of waxy, toothy slabs of fingerling potatoes slathered in creole mustard.

A Sunday brunch order of a chicken-fried duck sandwich found its footing in spite of my misgivings. I was ready to be mad at duck breast cooked past medium-rare, but it all works. The duck is tender, juicy and flavorful, a different experience from what you might be used to with duck breast, but good. Served open-faced on a simple round of toasted white bread and draped with a sunny fried duck egg, it feels like a lily-gilded toad in a hole. Southern roots moor the “sandwich” in a pool of white gravy shot through with collard greens, which just might be my new favorite form of gravy.

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The Turkey Neck Lettuce Wraps are a menu highlight with tender shredded turkey meat.
Photo by Daniel Kramer
From gravy to turkey, the turkey neck lettuce wraps starter on the dinner menu is another highlight. It features impeccably tender shredded turkey meat (imagine the work involved here) swathed in a savory and sweet glaze, the crunch of carrots and cucumber, and gently spicy pickled jalapeño wheels, all wrapped in lettuce leaves, which on our visit had admittedly seen better days. It’s a bit like a banh mi for the low-carb crowd, and comes with a spicy umami bomb sauce for dipping. The plate is meant for sharing; don’t be surprised if you’re hard-pressed.

While the dinner menu is inventive and engaging, the brunch menu may be the more enjoyable way to go here. From the surprisingly elegant, charmingly playful duck sandwich to the tres leches pancakes, brunch at Kitchen 713 covers savory and sweet with equal aplomb, the wide open space filling with the sounds of happy families still in their Sunday finest.

The new Kitchen 713 space — a significant upsizing from its modest roots east of downtown — is large and echoing, split roughly down the middle between counter-height bar tables and four tops, the space feeling a bit undecided in its intentions, but in a pleasantly casual way. During that first dinner service, a jazzy guitar trio wound through Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder and more, a bit over-loud but lending a bouncing energy to the room. During brunch, the room provided its own bounce, though a live band would have felt right at home.

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Tres Leches pancakes swim in their namesake milks.
Photo by Daniel Kramer
The tres leches pancakes look unbearably sweet, with two dinner-plate cakes positively swimming in their namesake milks, and spread with dulce de leche to boot. The bottom pancake soaks through, achieving something like traditional tres leches texture, but better. The top stays dry, adding a lovely contrast. The buttermilk batter brings a rich, almost savory quality that really stands up to the drenching, thereby making the batter more than simply sweet. On balance, this might be better than any version of tres leches I’ve ever had. The entire table fought for command of the plate, even though there was plenty to go around.

If you’re looking for something more straightforward, the fried chicken is hard to beat. A thin and crispy crust encases tender and juicy meat, well-seasoned throughout and with a gently dusky herbal tug I can’t quite place.

You get your choice of sides with your order (our visit netted two sides with a three-piece order of chicken, three sides if you opted for the whole bird — the menu shifts subtly from week to week, and this appears to be one of those changes), and we suggest the mac ’n’ cheese. Saucy and adult, with a tart edge and a loose sauce enrobing noodles that avoid the par-cooked gumminess of a lot of restaurant specimens, it’s not adventurous, but it’s near perfect as is. The red beans and rice offers lovely textures, but lacks basic seasoning. Even the sausage rounds have given their all to the sauce, winding up flavorless. The braised collard and mustard greens came a little overcooked, a little oversalted and a little overloaded with stems.

If you want greens, we suggest the Down South carbonara. While it only slightly resembles its namesake dish, it’s a perfectly delicious bowl of pasta in its own right. Though it lacks the yolk-silky sauce you may be expecting, you’ll likely forget that omission amid the compelling flavors on display. Smoky, earthy, a hint of tang, a whisper of heat. If the kitchen could grace the pasta with a slick of egg-rich sauce, this would be in the running for my favorite dish of the year.

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The new Kitchen 13 space is large and pleasantly casual.
Photo by Daniel Kramer
 Both the dinner and the brunch menus feature a slate of inventive cocktails, as is increasingly de rigueur in contemporary Houston dining. As sampled, they are inventive and generally above average. If anything, they suffer a bit from the general advancement of the bright line of Houston cocktail excellence. Three or four years ago, the drinks at Kitchen 713 might have been among the best restaurant cocktails in the city. Some still warrant strong consideration.

On the dinner menu, the charred grapefruit Paloma boasts a pleasantly bitter edge, with a sneaky ribbon of smoke from the charred fruit. It might benefit from a bit more acid and a bit less sweet, but these are micro-adjustments that even out through the long drink. It’s very good; it could be marginally better.

At brunch, we like the Kitchen 713 Golden Mary and the Malay Milk Punch, which occupy different ends of the cocktail spectrum. The Golden Mary is bright and sunny, and it packs a wallop. Korean fermented pepper paste, gochujang, offers an edge of funk and a fruity heat along with a jolt of umami that works in tandem with Worcestershire to make this a decidedly savory cocktail. Yellow tomatoes provide their color, plus sweetness and acidity, itself buoyed by an unexpected addition of pickle brine, which both shines through more clearly and works better than you might expect. For all its flavorful components, the Golden Mary manages to feel elegant and restrained. That said, I might like it to be a bit more strained; as is, you wind up chewing the drink as much as sipping it.

Then there’s the milk punch, which is rich but playful, neither too sweet nor too intensely spiced. Gentle notes of coconut flirt nicely with the bourbon base, while a little bloom of chile provides heat of a different sort. It’s a really well-balanced drink. It seems Southern by way of the Caribbean, echoing some of the flavors you might expect in coquito, a festive Puerto Rican tipple with similarities to eggnog.

From oxtails braised in Chinese vinegar to carbonara with a Dixie state of mind, even winding through many of the hits on the cocktail list, Kitchen 713 is a fun and effective jaunt through the flavors that call Houston home and which, for those of us who love eating in this city, make it feel like home. The beauty of a lot of the food on offer is how inevitable, how right it feels. It’s often exciting, but in a way that manages to feel fundamentally correct, almost as if it should always have existed. The lines between the foreign and the familiar are blurred, gently and with care, until there scarcely seem to be lines at all. That’s Houston food.

Kitchen 713
4601 Washington, 713-842-7114, Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, happy hour — 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, brunch — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Turkey neck lettuce wraps $11
Crispy okra $10
Down South carbonara $16
Fried catfish bouillabaisse $24
Black vinegar braised oxtail $22
Fried chicken (three pieces) $16
Tres leches pancakes $11
Chicken-fried duck breakfast sandwich $16
Malay Milk Punch $9
Kitchen 713 Golden Mary $12
Charred grapefruit Paloma $13

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Nicholas Hall