Restaurant News

Loro Houston: A Sneak Peek

Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Aaron Franklin and Chris Shepherd have a look at the new smokers.

Pitmaster Aaron Franklin has a lot of fan boys. We apologize if that's a sexist trope and we realize there are plenty of people who adore the famous Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Still, there's something about young guys meeting their smoke hero that makes their eyes light up and give them the giggles.

Perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration but there were some happy folks at the Loro pop-up that was held December 11 in the parking lot of the upcoming Houston location. The Asian smokehouse from Hai Hospitality, a partnership between Franklin and Chef Tyson Cole, is expected to open in the first quarter of 2022. The building is still under construction but members of the media were given a hard hat tour prior to the public event which required pre-registration and was full within hours of the announcement.
click to enlarge Loro mixes smoked brisket with Thai flavors. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Loro mixes smoked brisket with Thai flavors.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Not only was Franklin milling about with attendees but James Beard-award winning chef Chris Shepherd was on hand as well to offer support to his pal. Franklin's appearance at Shepherd's Southern Smoke Festival always draws huge crowds and the two friends have worked together for years to raise money for hospitality workers in crisis situations. Loro's regional chef Mike Perez and Loro Houston's chef de cuisine Marcos Leal were also in attendance. Needless to say, there were a few guests with stars in their eyes as the men made their way around.

For the tour, we were guided around by Hai Hospitality members Ellen Saathoff, Director of Design, Chelsea Fanning, Interior Designer, and Amber Quist, Chief Branding Officer. After discussing the plans for the exterior and the patio, they led us to the smokers where Franklin and Shepherd were having a look as well.

We were told that the smokers will be located outside but will be accessed from the interior kitchen, allowing the staff to escape the Houston heat. The kitchen itself is enormous and when we commented on the size we were informed that it is due to the volume expected when the Houston location opens.
click to enlarge Take me to church. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Take me to church.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We were then shown into the interior of the former church which was built in the 1940s. The renovation of the space is sympathetic to the structure's history though the facade will now be more glass than brick, letting light into the dark sanctuary. Some of the original windows remain but the stained glass has been replaced with clear panes and skylights have been added as well. With the soaring ceilings, the space still evokes a feeling of divinity and many people feel that Franklin, a James Beard-award winning pitmaster, and Cole, a James Beard-award winning Best Chef Southwest, might be kissed with a little bit of heavenly favor.

Loro Houston will be counter service and more casual than some of the other Hai Hospitality concepts such as Cole's Uchi and Uchiko. A look at its menus in Dallas and Austin show reasonable prices for the quality dishes being served. We asked if the Houston menu would have items unique to our city but for now it seems the Houston menu will be more on par with the Dallas menu. There were a few eyes rolls to that reply which turned into thumbs up when we were told that there are plans to increase the happy hour offerings.
click to enlarge A rendering shows the dramatic entrance to Loro Houston. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
A rendering shows the dramatic entrance to Loro Houston.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The menu combines the gastronomic style of Cole with the barbecue prowess of Franklin. Because it is an Asian smokehouse, diners should not expect a three-meat plate with slaw and potato salad. Instead there are starters such as Texas Sweet Corn served with yuzu kosho aioli, sunburst tomato, cotija cheese, Sriracha powder and lime, a mix of Mexican and Asian flavors. The Oak Grilled Zucchini is served with cashew sambal, walnut bagna cauda and lemon.

The Smoked Beef Brisket, which the Dallas menu says is only available after 4 p.m., is flavored with chili gastrique and Thai herbs. Those same flavors appear in the Oak Smoked Brisket Sandwich, which we were fortunate enough to taste later. It's served on a brioche bun topped with papaya salad and peanuts. Though there is a sweetness to the sandwich, it doesn't overpower the smoky brisket and I had a nicely charred chunk on mine that was heavenly. That's the last time we will use that word, we promise.
click to enlarge A man can't eat in peace if he's famous. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
A man can't eat in peace if he's famous.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Brisket is not the only protein on the menu, of course. The Oak Smoked Salmon gives pescatarians an option. While cucumber is a natural accompaniment to salmon, at Loro, cucumber gets coupled with yuzu for a flavorful broth. There are also rice bowls such as the Crispy Szechuan Tofu and the Char Siu Pork Belly. The Loro Cheeseburger gets rave reviews from food critics and restaurant goers alike. It's served with red onion-brisket jam, Muenster cheese, lettuce and chili aioli. Lauren Drewes Daniels at The Dallas Observer is especially fond of the brisket jam.

While most Texans expect a peach cobbler on any menu with smoked meats, at Loro it gets the yuzu treatment as well with the addition of whipped Chinese five-spice mascarpone.
click to enlarge The lucky ones scored admittance to the free event. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
The lucky ones scored admittance to the free event.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
After the hard hat tour, we lingered outside, enjoying our brisket sandwich and one of Loro's Gin & Tonic slushees. I hate gin and I hate tonic but I love slushees. This one was smooth and icy and I liked it despite the cold and breezy weather. We were also given some of the Candied Kettle Corn topped with togarishi and sea salt. Local food and drink blogger Jamie Alvear, The Drunken Diva, loved its kick.

Just before the public was let in to the event, Houston rap legend Bun B arrived. He has dipped his own toes in the restaurant pool with his Trill Burger pop-ups. As he tried to enjoy his brisket sandwich with photographers shooting his every bite, I smiled as the young woman next to me was schooled by her friend on Bun B and the late Pimp C.
click to enlarge Aaron Franklin (right) has fun with fans. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Aaron Franklin (right) has fun with fans.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Shepherd said his goodbyes to Franklin with a "love you, bro" and then the revered young pitmaster mingled with the crowd, happily taking photos, answering questions and sharing laughs.

Despite the wind and cold, there was a feeling of warmth.