I recently took a five-day trip to Chicago -- my first vacation in three years -- to revel in the cool weather, the lake breezes, the iconic architecture, the absorbing museums, and, of course, the food.
Chicago's evolution into a culinary destination began 30 years ago with the annual Taste of Chicago food festival and was more or less cemented with the recent news that Michelin (the famous purveyor of dining guides and gold stars...and tires) selected Chicago as an ultra-prestigious Guide Destination. Only two other American cities -- New York and San Francisco -- have been rewarded with this recognition.
Along the way, celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter, Rick Bayless, Grant Achatz, Graham Elliot and -- more recently -- Stephanie Izard have made the city their base of operations with world-famous restaurants like Tru, Alinea, Moto and Schwa.
Of course, I didn't go to any of these restaurants. Perhaps on my next vacation, I'll be able to save up enough money for a $110-per-person meal at Schwa or a three-course prix-fixe menu at Tru for $95. This time, the plane tickets alone nearly did me in.
That's not to say I didn't eat well while I was there. And I fell in love with three things in particular that are familiar to any Chicagoan, but which haven't yet made it to Houston. Below are three culinary concepts that I hope Houston will embrace sooner rather than later.
1. American tapas
Okay, so the idea of "American tapas" sounds incredibly pretentious. At least, that's what I thought before I ate at The Purple Pig. The result of a collaboration between four of Chicago's best chefs and restaurateurs, the Pig's motto is simply "Cheese, Wine and Swine."
One-page menus are binder-clipped to lampshades that hang above communal tables, and you'll quickly find yourself immersed in conversation with the folks on either side of you -- perhaps even sharing their food. It's just that laid back. The average price of the plates is $6 or $7 despite the Magnificent Mile location, and three will easily feed two people, along with a glass of wine off the wide-ranging but very well priced list (you can even get a third of a bottle here). Flavors are a medley of American, Mediterranean and Spanish -- and there is certainly a pronounced emphasis on pig -- but nothing is inaccessible or affected.
It reminded me a bit of the small plate-oriented happy hour that Catalan has started hosting each evening, to great acclaim. An entire restaurant built around this concept in Houston would skyrocket.
2. Clusters of restaurants, in a highly walkable area
Houston isn't walkable -- that's the old refrain. It's only un-walkable because we choose to build that way and choose to allow the City of Houston to regulate things like parking lots (which restaurants themselves should ultimately have control over, a battle that folks like Jamie Zelko and Ziggy's are intimately familiar with).
We headed to Wicker Park early Sunday morning to eat at the Bongo Room, which I'd heard had one of the city's best breakfasts. Walking one block from the train station, we discovered that the wait for the Bongo Room was already up to one hour. I wasn't that committed to eating there, especially considering we had a busy day ahead of us (shopping on Damen and then the giant Polish festival in Jeff Park). So we walked a third of a block back toward the train station and randomly stopped at Bin.
The meal ended up being our second favorite in Chicago, directly after The Purple Pig. And it happened because of how Chicago clusters its restaurants: a main artery in a neighborhood featuring a broad selection of restaurants -- chains and independents -- in an easily walkable corridor. The wholly unpretentious, open-air wine bar had sidewalk seating and drew us in with a brunch menu posted outside that included Bloody Mary and mimosa flights. Done. Exceptionally tangy buttermilk pancakes, a face-slappingly fresh omelet and inventive hashbrowns that included a layer of caramelized onions made me long for this kind of "stumble upon" food in Houston.
Restaurants might think that close proximity to each other will decrease sales and guests. But I don't think that's necessarily true. Put enough good restaurants together in one easily walkable location, and it will quickly become a destination. This hasn't always worked out in Houston in the past (Bayou Place has been a great example in recent years), but that's due more to the quality of the restaurants than the real estate. Places like Samba Grille are looking to change that perception; imagine if restaurants of equal quality moved in next door to Verizon. Bring back a decent movie theater, and Bayou Place would be going over like gangbusters.
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3. Italian beef
Why is there no decent Italian beef here in Houston? Take your Chicago dogs, take your deep-dish pizza. Just give me a beef sandwich with cheese, dipped. Texans love beef. And Houstonians -- at least judging by the number of chains here like Jimmy Johns, Quizno's and Which Wich -- love sandwiches. So why no Italian beef?
Or perhaps there is great Italian beef in town, and I've simply missed it so far. If so, readers, please enlighten me in the comments section. I've been dreaming about the smell of the beef and the soggy bread (yes, truly) since I left Chicago, and would murder another sandwich if given the chance.
And if there isn't any authentic Italian beef in town, I smell an opportunity for someone... I'd be your most loyal customer, hand to God.