From 2012 to 2014, Houston Press ran a series called “Where the Chefs Eat,” (you can re-visit the entire series here) in which we asked some of Houston's most prominent chefs where they ate when they weren’t cooking in their own kitchens. Though it ran its natural course at the time, so much has changed in the Houston landscape since then that we’re bringing it back. For the new series, we’ll be putting the spotlight on one chef at a time. Want to find out where Houston chefs eat and some pro tips along the way? Come back often to discover the restaurants and dishes that spark joy for Bayou City's best toques.
To kick off our new Where the Chefs Eat series, we asked Austin Waiter, the executive chef at Tony’s Restaurant — Tony Vallone's Italian fine dining restaurant in Greenway and one of Houston's longest standing restaurants — where and what he likes to eat. Originally from Westport, Connecticut, Waiter attended the Culinary Institute of America, coming to Houston to complete his internship at Tony’s under then-executive chef Grant Gordon. It was such a good experience that when he completed his degree, Waiter returned to Houston, and Tony’s, first as a line cook under then-executive chef Kate McLean (now a frequent Houston Press contributor), working his way up until he was named Executive Chef almost two years ago.
“It is pretty exciting and an honor to be the executive chef at Tony's since the restaurant has been open for 54 years,” says the 27 year-old Waiter, who is given free rein to create everything on the menu, including the unforgettable canard à la presse that he introduced last year. Waiter travels frequently, gleaning inspiration from places like Bologna (where he staged in the kitchen for a day), along with other places he's traveled recently: New York City, Mexico City, Napa Valley, Milan, and Rimini, Italy.
“I come up with dishes by picking one ingredient and focus on complementing it with different textures," says Waiter. "I like to focus on simplicity, like cooking with less ingredients and making them more meaningful within the dish. I also create dishes based on flavors, ingredients, and techniques I've tried at restaurants I visit.”
When he's not in his own kitchen or traveling, here are some of his favorite places to eat in Houston.
Standard go-to's: I am a creature of habit, so when it comes to my standard places to eat I have a few go-to places. My No. 1 go-to place is Uchi. We like to go on Sunday's or Mondays (my day off) for happy hour or dinner. One of my favorite things is to sit at the sushi bar and order the torched salmon belly (sometimes they won't have it, but when they do it is money.) The nasu nigiri is one of my favorites too. It is topped with a Meyer lemon curd and togarashi. Hot dishes - I love the Walu Walu. It is perfectly grilled and served with a yuzupon sauce that is salty. tangy and delicious. After eating just about every one of the nigiri selections, I like to finish up with the kinoko nabe and add the gyutoro.
One of my most frequent cravings is for doughnuts. I have a few favorites but it is a toss up between Sam's Fried Chicken and Donuts and Shipley's. At Sam's, my go-to is the Apple Fritter. It is about the size of both of my hands put together and is glazed to perfection. At Shipley's...it's all by the dozen, glazed, cake, iced, sprinkles...you can't go wrong.
For tacos, Cantina Barba is one of my favorites. Their tortillas are fantastic and green salsa (while slightly spicy) is packed with flavor. I am a baby when it comes to spice so I can only handle that one. I love their veggie taco. I like to top it with cheese...when I am feeling healthy. Pro-Tip: get their breakfast tacos. Add potato, bacon and avocado. I recommend at least two tacos per person and a Topo Chico. I first tried Taqueria Barba and Catalina Coffee and now love eating at their brick and mortar on North Main.
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Cheap eats: My favorite cheap eats spot is Raising Cane's all the way. I will pick it up on the way home, use Favor or pop-on over there late night. I like to get the Box Combo and honestly love how juicy their chicken strips are and of course the Cane's sauce is amazing. Pro-Tip: Tell them hold the coleslaw and ask for extra sauce — it's free. Also, the Westheimer location stays open the latest — if you are craving late night food. Shepherd and Ella locations close WAY too early. A box combo at Cane's is $7.80 for four chicken strips, Texas toast, fries, canes sauce, a drink, and coleslaw or extra canes sauce.
Another one of my favorite cheap eats is La Guadalupana on Dunlavy. I like to order their torta and cinnamon coffee. Torta is $3.50.
Pet-friendly: I like to hang out with my dog Fennel a lot and we like to go to dog friendly places for lunch. One of our favorite dog friendly patios is The Dunlavy. I like to order their burger and french fries (they are fried in beef fat). Fennel likes the fries too.
Wine list: I love the wine list at Theodore Rex. Bridget is super knowledgeable and always gives interesting and cool recommendations.