Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Jose Vela of Mockingbird Bistro and the Wows that Come from his Kitchen

This is the third part of a three-part chef chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we've been getting to know Jose Vela of Mockingbird Bistro. Vela's story is the classic one of immigrants everywhere. He came to the United States with his fellow rock band members in the mid-'90s, hoping to make more money so that they could make it big in the music world.

Young and confident, the 19-year-old and his friends thought it would be easy. It wasn't. Forced to go out and earn a living, with little in terms of English-speaking skills, Vela landed a job as a dishwasher at John Sheely's Riviera Grill (now closed). The relationship with Sheely, and his career in the culinary industry, flourished over the years. Now, 18 years later, Vela is head of the kitchen at Mockingbird Bistro, a place where he used to volunteer his time, just so he could learn more and move up.

Diners will be glad he did, and as I gazed upon one of the most beautiful pieces of foie gras I've seen in ages, I knew Vela has not just learned how to cook, he's learned how to compose, to create, to build on the foundation of experience gained throughout the years to emerge a true chef in his own right.

Let's look at the foie gras, this plump oval, seared until the edges were a caramelized golden brown, then scored criss cross on top, as you often see done with calves' liver. The plating was magnificent, the dish well composed in terms of color and height. A vibrant swoosh of luscious tomato jam slashed across the plate, its gel-like consistency almost like a three-dimensional paint on the plate. Underneath the foie gras sat a thin slice of seared pork belly and a small, thin rectangle of toasted brioche. A small tuft of verdant microgreens and drops of black pearlescent balsamic reduction dotted the side of the plate. I took a ton of photos, trying to do justice to the stunning presentation. 

"California, eat your heart out #foiegras heaven here in Houston," I posted via Instagram, referring to their current ban on foie gras. I proceeded to eat every single morsel on the plate, just humming in pleasure for the way in which the foie gras literally melted in its richness, combining with the slightly bitter jam, greens and a hint of sweetness from the balsamic reduction in beauteous glory.

To follow came a plate of three humongous pan-seared diver scallops, approximately four inches in diameter. "Wow!" I exclaimed as they were presented in front of me. "What size are these? They're much larger than u-10 scallops, aren't they?" I asked. I was informed that they were probably a u-3 size. I let my eyes eat up the plate before taking a bite, admiring the way in which the scallops were arranged to resemble a small crown, with crispy leeks on top and the scallops sitting sideways facing outwards on a green bed of local spring puree wtih shimeji mushrooms, cauliflower and ratatouiille vegetables. There was no doubting the quality of the food or its preparation, and it tasted heavenly.

The double-cut kurobata pork chop special came out next, served on a wooden slab with the pork chop glistening in its just-seared pan juices, making my mouth water even as I was enjoying the scallops. One of Vela's most popular specials, the pork chop was served with a small cake of boudin blanc and mirepoix dirty rice, seared local peaches, grilled brussel sprouts and Shiner bock morel reduction. This time, I didn't just say "Wow." I said it three times in a row. Seriously, the marbled juicy pork is the type of thing that will make you roll your eyes in the back of your head and just groan at how good it is. The plate was somewhat rich for the summer heat, but it didn't matter. You could definitely order this to share with someone, or devour on your own because it was that good.

By the time dessert came out -- a deconstructed pineapple coconut panna cotta, with a thick square of creamy panna cotta sitting next to a coconut macaroon topped with caramelized pineapple and a small shot glass of horchata -- all I could do was sit back and marvel at the feast that I'd just experienced. Some places go on and on about sourcing the best ingredients, but at the end of the day, it comes down to execution. You can have the best ingredients and not know how to put them together, overcook them or oversalt them, or combine them with the wrong accompaniments and it will all be a mess.

At Mockingbird Bistro, Vela is not only sourcing the best ingredients, he's touching every plate that comes out of the kitchen, and he's composing the best experience for your palate. It shows dedication, intelligence and a commitment to the diner that you won't get at larger restaurants, and it speaks to longevity. Vela has spent 18 years perfecting his work as a chef, and it shows.

Mockingbird Bistro 1985 Welch Tel: 713-533-0200

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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