Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Talking Trenza and Those Pesky Closing Rumors With Susie Jimenez

This is the second part of a two-part Chef Chat interview. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.

On the day of our visit, Susie Jimenez was working in the kitchen and had been all day. She'd been on-site since 7 a.m. and would be there a few hours past our 5:30 p.m. visit. She's one of those enviable people who looks great even in casual cooking garb and no makeup. Perhaps boundless enthusiasm is a beauty secret.

In Part 2 of this interview with Jimenez, we get down to brass tacks about the controversy surrounding Trenza. Is it good? Is it closing? What's the deal? On more lighthearted notes, we also talk tequila and some of the bizarre foods she's eaten.

EOW: Would you like to address the rumors swirling around about Trenza being doomed?

SJ: Some places can open the doors and be automatic hits. Trenza is not a common Tex-Mex restaurant or an Asian restaurant. I've got a really different menu, and it's going to take time for people to catch on. I didn't expect that in two months I was going to be making money like "Ka-ching! Ka-ching!" It's going take awhile.

I'm not going to worry about the rumors, even though they are hurtful. People listen to social media. It's the world we live in right now. My employees show up to work every day and do the best job they know how to do, whether we have 100 people or just a few. We can only do the best we can on our end. I didn't sign a 10-year lease or pick up and leave a successful catering business, move from Colorado, leave my husband for Trenza to not succeed. I came here to work my little ass off and make sure it does. People can just hold on to that rumor for a bit. We've got a ways to go before we're going to give up.

EOW: You're doing a fusion of three cuisines: Mexican, Latin and Indian, correct?

SJ: Yes. Trenza means "braid," and there are three strands. The Latin is the essence that I come from. I'm Mexican and grew up around my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother in the kitchen. I add a little Indian essence to all of my dishes. Latin and Indian are a lot alike, and I've learned about that cuisine throughout my journey as a chef.

The guys who lived across the street from my mom and my business partner are all Indian and they've taught me a few things. It's just natural to have that essence. I went to culinary school and learned Italian, French, Vietnamese and Japanese, but as a Mexican woman it's hard for me not to want to add cilantro, serranos or spice every time I cook. Those three strands always make something beautiful happen that is very artistic and different.

EOW: What made you fall in love with Indian flavors?

SJ: There's a huge Indian population in Turlock, California where my mom lives. I have friends who bring naan and samosas to my place to try. Indian flavors were everywhere! The guy who lived across the street from my mom taught me how to make samosa, and I was mesmerized by that. When I moved to San Francisco, a friend took me to an Indian market, and they introduced me to paneer, which they put in their naan. The Indian just kind of kept pushing on me because it's so much more similar to my cuisine than Italian. Italians don't eat spicy. They have basil, we have cilantro. They have tomatoes, we have chile de arbol. There's nothing very similar. French people can't handle spicy at all. We had Chef Fox here from Artisans and his bald head was dripping sweat. I said, "I am so sorry!" and he said, "Your shit's too spicy!" I said, "Did you just call my food shit?" and he's like, "You know what I mean!" I felt so bad. He was literally sweating.

Indian is the other cuisine I relate to and I can honestly say "Yeah, I can make lamb vindaloo," or "I can make a curry."

EOW: Do you have any fear about Trenza being compared to Pondicheri, an Indian restaurant that is literally right next door?

SJ: It's not an issue. I'm not trying to pretend that Trenza is an Indian restaurant. Anita [chef/owner of Pondicheri] has an amazing thing going over there. I ate there for eight months while we were working on this buildout. They're doing traditional dishes of Northern India. I'm just adding an essence; a little curry, a little vindaloo here and there. I'm not trying to make something I'm not good at. We have Indian customers who say, "This is so beautiful. We love how you're marrying our traditions with yours. It's not traditional but it works."

EOW: What are your favorite things on Trenza's menu?

SJ: I knew you were going to ask me that, and that's a hard one. I love my dad's carnitas. He's no longer with us. I remember watching him make them as a kid. He didn't give me the recipe, but I watched him do it. After he passed, I made them for my mom, and she literally cried. She said, "My God, your dad is in this dish. How did you...he never told anybody!" I said, "I watched him, Mom. I watched how many oranges he put in many lemons and much beer and how much salt."

I love the squash blossoms that I have on my menu now. I made them just to see what they'd be like, and they're the number-one seller. I love how creamy, crunchy and spicy they are. They're nutty from the pistachios.

EOW: Let's do some fun questions. Is there an ingredient that you hate?

SJ: No! Not really. When I was growing up, our family would eat the entire animal. One of the biggest traditions is to kill a pig and make carnitas. They stab it in the neck and drain some of the blood. Everyone takes a shot of the blood with tequila afterwards to celebrate the pig's life. And we'd eat everything: the skin, the intestines, stomach...everything. We'd eat cow brains in tacos. I'll chop up pig stomach and eat it with a little lemon. My husband will say "You are literally eating pig stomach," and I'll be like "It is so good! I don't know what you're talking about! I don't care what you people say."

I've eaten the weirdest things as a kid, so there is nothing I won't try. I will say that I won't eat cole slaw. I can't stand jarred mayonnaise. I have to make it myself. I'll make my own slaw but add avocado for the creaminess. There's something about that jarred mayonnaise and cabbage that make me go "Oh my God, kill me."

EOW: You've been doing a lot of events lately. What's up next?

SJ: We've got a lot on our plate. "Sparklers and Spice" is coming up in July and we're also doing [Houstonia Magazine's] Burger Bash.

EOW: What's been your favorite night at the restaurant so far?

SJ: I have to say Valentine's Day. We had a few big tables of couples who were all friends. They were all like, "Chef! Chef! Chef! Let's do shots!" It was so much fun to see these couples not deal with all that typical Valentine's Day pressure. I was all sweaty in my kitchen, and I was like, "Yeah, let's do shots!"

EOW: If you could only have one of the following the rest of your life, which would you choose: beer, wine, cocktails or spirits?

SJ: That's a tough one, but I have to go with spirits. I've been around tequila my entire life. My family makes it in Mexico, and I've been drinking it with my grandfather since I was a kid. I love wine, absolutely, but I'd have to go with spirits.

EOW: What's your favorite tequila?

SJ: Toro de Lidia, although we also started carrying Titanium and had a recent event with them. I'll have a little shot of that here and there...enough that I feel a little guilty about it!

My family is coming out with their line of tequila now. They don't have a name for it yet but I can't wait to try it when it comes out. But I also like whiskey! I love Old Fashioneds (when they're made right).

EOW: To wrap up, what is one thing you want people to know about you?

SJ: Especially since I'm new to Houston, I'd really like people to come in and make their own opinions about the restaurant. There's so much going around on social media. We live by that now, but I really would love for everyone to just experience it for themselves without going on Yelp and saying "well, this person said that it sucks." Well, that someone may be more uptight than you are. Everyone needs to experience [Trenza] before they judge it. Make your own judgment call and don't make assumptions. Not everyone has the same palate.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook