Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Benjy Mason of Down House and His Take on Classic American Dishes

Benjy Mason Down House 1801 Yale St. 713-864-3696

This is the last installment of a three-part chef chat series. Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

For the last two days, we've been chatting with Down House's executive chef, Benjy Mason, about his love of Chinese food as a young boy, butchering pigs' heads in his early days staging at Feast and his rise to executive chef at Down House just nine months after he decided to change careers.

Today, we try some classic American fare from his new dinner menu, which rolled out approximately one month ago.

We started with a house salad with boquerones, which are Spanish anchovies cured in vinegar. "I wanted to give you this because it's pretty indicative of what we do. It's a pretty standard salad with a shallot mustard vinaigrette, green lettuce and cherry tomatoes," Mason said.

Like the kale salad from his previous menu, which I'd really enjoyed, this one was well-portioned and could have easily been eaten as a main entrée. Sadly, I'm kind of averse to all things fishy -- anchovies included -- so even though the boquerones were lighter in flavor than anchovies, I couldn't really appreciate their addition, though I'm sure that lovers of the Spanish tapa would disagree. The fresh produce, especially the cherry tomatoes, shined through, however.

Next up we tried mushrooms on toast with a poached egg on top. The egg was still jiggling as he set the plate down, signaling what would later be a gush of creamy yolk as I cut through it. I'm a sucker for anything with egg and runny yolk, and I finished the plate with gusto. It reminded me more of a breakfast dish, but it fits in with Down House's breakfast-lunch-dinner-food-anytime kind of theme. If you're craving something breakfast-y in the evening, this is it.

I was excited to try Mason's kimchi burger, and it did not disappoint. Burger lovers will appreciate the eight ounces of thick and juicy Augustus Ranch grass-fed Texas meat patty topped with cheese, kimchi and a sunny-side up egg. The challah bun -- soft, moist and slightly sweet -- was well accented with bulgogi sauce, the Korean equivalent of a teriyaki marinade. All melded together -- the sweet and spicy, tangy crunchiness of the kimchi, the runny creaminess of the egg, the bulgogi sauce and juicy patty -- it made for one outstanding burger. The side of fries was crispy and generously portioned.

I "get" Down House. I find myself stopping by whenever I'm in the Heights, whether it's for a coffee or a late lunch. It's a place where I can have a meaningful one-on-one with a girlfriend or kick back with a group of friends and talk about everything and nothing. And at the heart of it is the food, with a young chef who is committed to sourcing local wherever possible and whose experience with food abroad translates into twists on American classics -- the addition of the Spanish boquerones to a traditional house salad, or kimchi to a classic American burger. And you never know, next up Mason might just decide to put some handmade Chinese dumplings on the menu (at least I'm hoping he will).

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham