Nola West: Finding the Heart of Creole Where You Least Expect It, in Houston
Chef Antoine Ware serves up his take on grillades and grits at Harold's in the Heights.
Photo by Troy Fields
Houston is a city that loves it some gumbo, po-boys, charbroiled oysters and Hurricanes. That’s obvious. But how much do Houstonians actually know about New Orleans cuisine? While Cajun traditions run deep here, Creole also seems to have a softer, quieter presence in the Bayou City — it’s one element that I find really intriguing. Though it comes with caveats.
“They can’t do red beans,” a New Orleans native, whom I ran into at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, informed me. “They can do po-boys and gumbo, but not red beans.” And this warning, according to Harold’s in the Heights chef Antoine Ware: “You never get into a gumbo conversation with somebody here. It just goes on and on.”
I’ll be honest. Eating Creole outside of New Orleans can be scary. A particularly terrible grilled mahi “po-boy” I ingested in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 2013 still haunts me to this day, as does an Atlanta bar gumbo from late 2016. It’s easy to destroy New Orleans’s classics, because understanding them in the first place can be a challenge.
Sorry, Cajun and Creole Aren’t the Same Thing
Perhaps the most prevalent misconception about Louisiana’s unique foodways is the belief that Creole and Cajun cuisine are the same thing. A simple search for Creole cuisine in Houston via Google produces 28 restaurant results, as opposed to 19 for Cajun. But under the heading “Cajun/Creole” on Yelp, more than 360 restaurants are listed for the greater Houston area, which is pretty astounding, but what exactly does “Cajun/Creole” even mean?
In the simplest of terms, you can think of Creole as city food and Cajun as country food. “One of the great things my mom always said is it’s the difference between eating in Paris and Lyon,” Alex Brennan-Martin, proprietor of Brennan’s of Houston, says. “They’re both French food, but Creole is a little more stylized and refined.”
But even that is too superficial a definition. Both styles of cooking share a French heritage, though the Cajuns descended from Acadians, who were cast out of Canada for religious beliefs and then settled in the wilds of south Louisiana, while Creoles tended to be a wealthier mix of French and Spanish settlers in New Orleans whose cuisines morphed into America’s first melting pot, with Native American, West African, English, German and Italian influences in tow.
In essence, both cuisines were directly influenced by the access early settlers had to local food and ingredients, which is why Creole tends to be a bit fancier — shrimp rémoulade and trout meunière — and Cajun a bit heartier — one-pot stews and boudin. Though some signature dishes overlap, they tend to be different in preparation, such as gumbo and jambalaya, to which Creole chefs might add tomato or hold off on rice, whereas a Cajun chef would likely double down on gamey meats or a darker roux.
Within the realm of Creole itself, you have different factions as well. There is high-end French Creole as seen at longtime fine-dining institutions such as Antoine’s and Galatoire’s, where dainty soufflé potatoes still reign as king. There’s Creole soul food, stemming directly from New Orleans’s strong African-American cooking tradition, which you can find at Treme institutions like Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Dooky Chase. Creole-Italian, as cultivated by the city’s immense Sicilian population, specializes in stuffed crab and mirliton — which is a squash-like vegetable native to Louisiana — and spaghetti with red gravy and cucuzza (also a squash). Much like the Viet-Cajun cuisine of Houston, New Orleans’s Vietnamese presence, which isn’t as big as the one here, but certainly just as important, has directly affected its cuisine as well, with chefs now fully embracing Southeast Asian flavors as another defining element of Creole.
In the 1970s and 1980s chef Paul Prudhomme put Cajun cooking on the map, at Creole institution Commander’s Palace and at his eponymous eatery K-Paul’s in New Orleans, of all places, with the advent of blackened redfish, which “almost wiped out a species of fish,” according to Brennan-Martin, who also calls Creole and Cajun “hopelessly intertwined.”
Cajun-tinged Creole dishes directly influenced New Orleans chefs and diners’ tastes for generations to come, but for New Orleans natives (especially home cooks), Cajun flavors still weren’t a thing. “I never had blackened redfish until I was an adult,” chef Ware notes. “I was like, why is he burning the fish?”
In the years since Katrina, New Orleans has seen a wealth of restaurants opened by Cajuns, including Donald Link (Cochon, Peche, Herbsaint), Isaac Toups of Toups Meatery and Nathaniel Zimet of Boucherie, which is named after the heart and soul of Cajun cooking: whole-hog butchery. But honestly, there seem as many Cajun influences here in Houston. Even at Brennan’s of Houston, where chef Danny Trace makes lamb boudin or has his in-house butcher break down whole hogs to make sausage and terrines, that’s a huge new advent for the classically Creole institution.
For a taste of the Cajun-Creole conundrum, Trace also is a fan of chef Graham Laborde, who is a Lafayette native (i.e., Cajun) but has trained in New Orleans’s kitchens, including Commander’s Palace, and now shows off his Louisiana upbringing at his ode to I-10 down the road, Bernadine’s, 1801-B, North Shepherd.
The History of Brennan’s: It’s Complicated
Most people think Brennan’s of Houston is directly related to the original Brennan’s in New Orleans.
Well, it kind of is, but in order for you to understand, let’s break down the Brennan family. First, there was the patriarch, bar owner Owen Brennan, who opened his eponymous restaurant, Brennan’s, in 1946. In 1956, it then moved to its current address, 417 Royal Street, where the restaurant still resides today. After Owen Brennan’s passing, his father, siblings and children inherited the restaurant and a family rift occurred while they were disputing the future of the business. By the late 1960s, several of Owen Brennan’s children, including family dynamo Ella Brennan, were operating Commander’s Palace in the Garden District, and also opened Brennan’s of Houston, the building of which, oddly enough, is a direct replica of 417 Royal, which was designed by architect John F. Staub, years before the Brennans ever bought it.
The Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s of Houston faction of the family has been responsible for some of America’s most remarkable dining achievements, from the discovery of chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse to producing certainly the most famous turtle soup recipe in existence. Ella Brennan was -responsible for ushering New Orleans’s hospitality into the modern age, as well as potentially creating Bananas Foster by accident, but it was her son, Alex Brennan-Martin, at Brennan’s of Houston who launched one of the first chef’s tables in America.
He operates Brennan’s of Houston, while his sister Ti Martin and cousin Lally Brennan now run its sister restaurant, Commander’s Palace, among other upscale eateries in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the original Brennan’s is currently making a major comeback under the new ownership of Ralph Brennan (Lally Brennan’s brother), who saved the restaurant from complete demise after his cousins Pip and Ted Brennan steered it into bankruptcy in 2013.
For a taste of the Brennan family’s famed turtle soup, head to Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith, which uses the same recipe as Commander’s Palace, though with a slight Texas twist — it’s a lighter, brighter soup with more lemon.
A po' boy at Harold's is all about the bread.
Photo by Troy Fields
What Makes a Po-Boy a Po-Boy?
Many people seem to believe a po-boy is just a glorified sub, but that isn’t so.
“Most people think po-boys are about the filling,” Ware says. He’s a New Orleans native who grew up in the city’s Ninth Ward and relocated to Houston after Katrina. “But we know it’s about the bread.”
The po-boy dates back to the early 20th century, when two Acadian transplants, brothers Bennie and Clovis Martin, provided sandwiches to the “poor boys” on strike from their work as streetcar conductors in New Orleans. The endless hankering for this iconic no-frills sandwich stuck around, with po-boys found everywhere from gas stations to fine-dining landmarks today. In fact, every city on Earth seems to have a rendition of a po-boy, so why do so many restaurants outside of the Big Easy get it wrong?
As most New Orleanians agree, the bread is a make-or-break deal. It has to come from Gendusa’s — which actually invented the large po-boy loaf for the Martin brothers — or Leidenheimer Bakery, which turns out air-like loaves that are a local favorite. To say that po-boys come on baguette sounds, well, inaccurate — baguette has a certain heft and chewiness, and gives itself easily to thick, creamy cheese and butter. French bread, on the other hand, you can poke a hole in by looking at it the wrong way.
In Houston, you can taste the difference at Harold’s, where Ware has Leidenheimer brought in locally for his po-boys. “We tried to call them and see if they’d deliver to us, but they didn’t return our call,” Ware says, laughing. He lucked out and ended up finding a distributor of the beloved French bread within Houston limits.
That means the fried seafood po-boy at Harold’s, 350 West 19th, is no joke. Of course, it would be considered more of a spin on a classic po-boy because of the addition of -rémoulade, and it automatically comes “dressed,” which is how you typically order it in Louisiana, if, say, you want lettuce, tomato, pickle and mayonnaise on your sandwich.
Barbecue Shrimp Never Touch a Grill or Smoker
If you think New Orleans’s barbecue shrimp are actually barbecued, you’re crazy.
There’s nary a smoker or grill involved. The original recipe for these buttery, Worcestershire-drenched, sautéed shrimp — usually served with the heads on and a side of toasty French bread for dipping — originated at the city’s Uptown landmark Pascal’s Manale in the 1950s after a customer attempted to tell the chef about a dish he’d tasted on a trip to Chicago.
The reason the dish is called “barbecue shrimp” has more to do with the color of the shrimp and the sauce, which has a ruddy hue à la barbecue sauce.
“You know how back home we serve it in the shell?” Ware says. “If I did that here, people would freak out.”
You won’t find them on his menu now, but Ware does suggest Holley’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar, 3201 Louisiana, which is home to a great variation on the dish, served with a Texas twist, of course — a topper of julienned yellow and red pepper, which you’d never find garnishing the dish in New Orleans.
Charbroiled Oysters Are…Croatian?
While the New Orleans-style charbroiled oyster seems like an old Creole tradition, that’s not actually the case.
While chargrilled (or charbroiled) oysters themselves have likely been around since the dawn of man, the most famous variation of the dish, what many people refer to as the famed “New Orleans style,” didn’t actually come about until 1993. That’s when oyster eatery Drago’s actually created its beloved and, yes, legendary New Orleans chargrilled oysters.
What sets these oysters apart from those at other spots? Tommy Cvitanovich got the idea to treat the oyster the way he might a redfish on the half shell (which, if you don’t know, means leaving the skin on side-down while cooking). The oyster was grilled in its half shell with a slather of butter, herbs and garlic, and a sprinkling of Parmesan or pecorino on top.
The chargrilled oyster actually speaks to a deeper, unknown heritage in New Orleans, though. Since the 1800s, Croatians have been the backbone of New Orleans’s oyster fishing industry and have endured numerous grueling setbacks from hurricanes to oil spills to competition from the modern oyster farming industry. When the Cvitanovich family ventured out with a seafood restaurant in the 1960s, they relied on their ties to Croatian oystermen, which they still do today.
Head to the Oyster Bar at Prohibition, in the former Isis Theater at 1008 Prairie, which puts several flavorful spins on the chargrilled New Orleans classic, including one with caramelized fennel butter and fried shallots.
Remember the Sazerac
The Hurricane, contrary to popular belief, is not New Orleans’s official drink.
While the passion fruit- and rum-heavy Hurricane, created by Pat O’Brien in the 1940s in order to use up a surplus of rum, gets a lot of glory as the city’s most beloved concoction, the Big Easy does have an official cocktail and that’s the Sazerac.
It’s a local favorite, dating back to the 1830s when Antoine Amédée Peychaud — yes, the inventor of Peychaud’s Bitters — created the drink at his apothecary in the French Quarter using the cognac, Sazerac de Forge et Fils, for which the drink is named.
Today, a Sazerac is made with rye (usually the Nola-based Sazerac brand rye), simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters and a rinse of Herbsaint (or absinthe). This drink is not a guzzler like the various sweet signature potions of New Orleans — the Grasshopper, the Ramos Gin Fizz and, yes, the Hurricane — no, this is a sipper that will put some hair on your chest and fire in your throat.
Try it locally at Anvil, 1424 Westheimer, where the original recipe is still key to an exceptional, and exceptionally stiff, quaff.
New Orleanians Did Farm to Table First
Most people think farm to table is a new concept, but it’s always been a New Orleans thing.
“I never understood the term,” Brennan-Martin says. “When I was a kid, the truck farmers would show up at the door of the restaurant, all the restaurants, and would have deals with the chef, or we’d go to the French Market.”
Trucks would also sell produce house to house, and Ware remembers his mother buying tomatoes and okra on the street in the Ninth Ward. Now in the Heights, he experiences challenges sourcing locally in a state with limited seasons and a competitive restaurant market. “A lot of restaurants here have ventured down that path, but can’t go all the way, because it’s too expensive.”
He recalls during his up-and-coming years at Mr. B’s (owned by Ralph Brennan) in New Orleans, “there was no question about if we were going to do it or not. We found a guy to make grits. We had a crazy blueberry lady who would deliver the blueberries and on and on.”
While Ware sources from more than a dozen local farms and ranches, he also has one small luxury — trucking in produce from Covey Rise and Chappapeela, two Louisiana farms that are extremely popular with New Orleans chefs.
Finding Good Creole Food in Houston
The final misconception must be, then, that there is no good Creole food in Houston. Actually, Creole seems to be having a renaissance of sorts in the Bayou City. Of course, I’m talking about Texas Creole, or what Brennan-Martin would describe as where “Hispanic culture and Louisiana culture collide” and “Louisiana bumps into Texas.”
It’s the reason you’ll find a crawfish enchilada with a roasted tomatillo salsa on the Brennan’s of Houston menu. Or sous-vide crispy duck with an Asian bent and mirliton crab cakes at Harold’s, or a fine bowl of traditional Creole seafood gumbo and a dozen raw oysters at Tony Mandola’s.
“You cannot deny the superb flavors of Creole food,” Phyllis Laurenzo Mandola says. “And this city has become a lot more worldly. These chefs have traveled around. Every time they expose themselves to those experiences, they’re bringing it back.”
Mandola believes the evolution of Houston’s Creole into its flourishing modern-day diaspora can be linked back to the few ramshackle oyster bars that served gumbo back when she was just a kid, in the days her parents’ Original Ninfa’s on Navigation was just opening. She and husband Tony Mandola opened the doors to his first eponymous oyster bar in 1982 after numerous trips to New Orleans, inspired by K-Paul’s in its heyday.
Tony Mandola’s mother, originally hailing from Alexandria, Louisiana, with parents of Sicilian descent, brought a wealth of rich Louisiana and Italian recipes to Houston that she eventually passed on to her kids. Laurenzo Mandola brought her mother’s signature Tex-Mex cooking to the table as well, all of which is to say, Texas Creole has a vibrant, storied past. It’s a different story from that of New Orleans Creole, but one that was solidified in the history books by the opening of Brennan’s of Houston in 1967.
Brennan-Martin notes that he’s seen modern-day Creole through its ups and downs, from “smoking white hot” to passé to its current comeback, which could be the most promising yet, especially in Houston. A proliferation of Louisiana-influenced restaurants have appeared in the city in the past ten years, with an oil industry downturn in Louisiana, a continual influx of LSU grads and the migration of Katrina refugees all potentially having a hand in its rapid occurrence.
“Houston was looked at as a chicken-fried-steak town,” Ware says. “It’s totally not that anymore.” Plus, “Texas is more of a chef-driven city than New Orleans. We don’t have to do red beans and rice on Mondays. We don’t have to serve a po-boy on Tuesday if we don’t want to. The tradition breaks here.”
That’s why you’ll find Ware serving snack-size fried étouffée balls, similar to arancini, at happy hour. Or chef Danny Trace’s newfound rendition of redfish courtbouillon, a beloved Creole and Cajun dish, at Brennan’s, which would likely make his grandma gasp. Served in an individual portion in a small Staub, this dish is much lighter than the one he grew up with in Thibodeaux, with aromatics of Creole spiced vegetables, shrimp and lemon that first hit the nose when the dish’s lid is lifted. “Like Asian food,” he says. “It’s that feel-good food. You’re not going to be stuffed.”
It will be interesting to see how Creole continues to grow in the coming years, and just what the crop of young, talented chefs in Houston will add to the conversation, but it shouldn’t be too shocking that the Bayou City is pushing beyond boundaries.
“Creole food to me has always been a lighter food, Latin influences,” Trace says. “Texas is the perfect place for that.”
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