Nothing Compares to Yu: A First Look at Theodore Rex

Grab a glass of wine and a seat at the bar for an exciting view into the kitchen.
Grab a glass of wine and a seat at the bar for an exciting view into the kitchen.
Photo by Eric Hester
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The vibe is established even before you arrive at Theodore Rex, evoking a feeling of whimsy and playfulness, which is exactly what Chef Justin Yu was aiming for when he named his latest restaurant after his nephew, Teddy. Family is the reason Yu always knew he wanted to cook. After experiencing the rush of restaurant life at his aunts’ restaurant in California, he set out on his own path of traveling, cooking, eating, and soaking up every idea he could. Lucky for us, he brought it all back to his home town.

The atmosphere at Theodore Rex is relaxed and devoid of pretension. No glitzy chandeliers or tasting menus in sight. Just a warm, intimate space with a few tables, cozy booth or two, padded with soft, inviting cushions and pillows. The staff even welcomed me personally, indicating that they recognized me from Resy, the app you use to make reservations.

Everything down to the fun and functional dining tables with built in drawers for flatware, to the handmade plates and matching light fixtures, is a nod to the beauty in smart simplicity that Yu has mastered here. They’re also made by local artists Eric Rosprim (tables) and Ellen Cline (ceramics) — another authentic touch. The kitchen is open to the dining area with bar seating to witness the action up close. A brown leather apron hangs between the windows that makes you feel at home, like you’re dining in an extension of Yu’s kitchen.

A cozy nook in the corner of the dining room, complete with beautiful, locally made decor.EXPAND
A cozy nook in the corner of the dining room, complete with beautiful, locally made decor.
Photo by Eric Hester

Yu’s voice really shines in the details. He sat at our table after the meal, speaking proudly of his epic playlist — Wilson Phillips, Hall and Oates, Whitney Houston — which he and his girlfriend actually made together. With a big smile and a swig of champagne he joked, “I really wanted people to enjoy themselves and have that ‘man I love this song’ feeling.” Judging by the noticeable excitement on diners’ faces as each song passed to the next, I’d say he nailed it.

The cheerful and knowledgeable staff are ready to give spot on food descriptions, perfect wine pairings, or even a suggestion for where to get a surf lesson in Galveston, if needed. I don’t know your life. Our server encouraged us to take our time, look over the menu, decide what to eat before ordering wine. They have an interesting and affordable wine list that’s heavy on the bubbles. He suggested Gut Oggau “Theodora,” a Gruner Veltliner Blend that quickly became my new favorite. However strange it was on the nose, the taste was dry, crisp and minerally, which paired well with most of the dishes. I was pleasantly surprised by the generous pour. Sometimes size really does matter.

We chatted with our server about how much food we should order. The menu consists of a few small, shareable plates ($10-$12), small, not-so-shareable items, main dishes ($18-$32) and my personal favorite, desserts ($8-$10.) We decided on two shareables, tomato toast and pakora battered onions and mushrooms served with a creamy and salty sauce soubise and caviar. The stewed beef cheeks were our next choice as a small plate. We ordered the gulf tilefish steamed in collard green parcels and the Wagyu beef for main dishes.

Sharing these along with two desserts was the perfect amount of food for two and surprisingly affordable compared to most fine dining around town.

Despite the carefree vibe, some seriously brilliant work is going on behind the scenes. A stripped-down fine dining experience may seem oversimplified, but in Yu’s case this was clearly a bold move to lay bare the real focus — the food. As he described what he cooks in his down time, although admittedly infrequently, he shared his love for Italian food because of its technique-driven style, with simple, fresh ingredients. His favorite thing to cook however, is roast chicken, stating that “when you really get it right, it is sooo good.” I guess we all have our inner Ina Garten. Unfortunately, I did not try the chicken dish on the menu. I immediately regret this decision.

Both Houston and inspiration from his travels are all undeniably present in his dishes. He aims to keep it real with his food, knowing that when it comes to predictable trends, “people see right through it if you’re trying too hard or not being true to yourself.” He sighted the local classic Barbecue Inn when illustrating his point, perfectly describing the salad you get with your “really good chicken fried steak,” both familiar and comforting, and as real as it gets. I happen to agree since I grew up eating chicken fried steak at Barbecue Inn and Triple A with my great grandfather.

Some of his ideas for T-Rex came from his experience in restaurants in Copenhagen. Yu was inspired by their unpretentious, food-focused approach with “no fancy plating” and use of pickling, fermenting and super fresh ingredients. These techniques were present in all the dishes.

The menu will change quite frequently, but rumor has it my favorite dish is here to stay: The tomato toast, y’all.

You won't want to miss the tomato toast everyone has been talking about.
You won't want to miss the tomato toast everyone has been talking about.
Photo by Eric Hester

Here you will find simple ingredients combined with flawless technique resulting in flavors that will blow your mind. The dish starts off with a thick slice of rye and flaxseed pan de miel toasted in Texas olive oil. The bread has a light crunch and buttery flavor. Dressed with green tomato juice, the flavor seems to permeate the bread without making it soggy at all. If that wasn’t enough sorcery, the next layer is a tomato fondant, which is tomatoes cooked waaay down and spread on top adding this intense umami flavor that will have you believing there is cheese involved. I asked. There isn’t.

Finished with the third preparation, simply sliced, fresh grape tomatoes and herbs add that familiar sweet and citrusy note. I feel like that hidden drawer of flatware in each table is just for fighting over the last piece of tomato toast, but I could be wrong.

The Wagyu beef, casually plated for the perfect bite every time.
The Wagyu beef, casually plated for the perfect bite every time.
Photo by Eric Hester

My favorite main course, the Wagyu dish, is food magic. Marble Ranch Denver Cut Akaushi beef is seasoned with salt and pepper, seared and served in thin slices that are scattered around the plate. Each meaty disk maintains a satisfying salty crunch around the edges. Striking the perfect balance, a sherry vinegar pan sauce cuts through the rich beef, while the charcoal wilted mizuna and kale gives a smoky, bitter note. The simple plating makes it easy to try these flavors together.

Yu came up with the idea behind one of his favorite dishes on the menu, Persimmons in Calamansi Juice, while visiting his friend Gita at Animal Farm, where he sources the freshest local produce. She showed him some incredibly ripe persimmons from Oscar’s Orchard. He was surprised by their soft, juicy center and knew he wanted to present them very simply. The result is a truly refreshing and well-balanced dessert in which persimmons are almost melted away into a sweet, slightly thick, citrusy sauce with calamansi juice. A drizzle of rich olive oil imparts a silky texture and savory touch, while a sprinkling of finishing salt adds a salty crunch that keeps you coming back for more.

As I devoured each unique dish after another, I was more and more impressed with the perfect balance of flavors and level of sophistication in such an easygoing environment. From the warm welcome you receive when entering the small dining room (even if you’re already singing along to Wilson Phillips) to the moment you taste the tomato toast, it’s clear that Yu genuinely wants you to have a great time. These elements add up to a memorable dining experience that everyone can enjoy, even your picky friends. Intention, authenticity and fun. It doesn’t get more Houston than that.

The glassware beckons wine lovers from its perch above the bar.EXPAND
The glassware beckons wine lovers from its perch above the bar.
Photo by Eric Hester

Theodore Rex, 1302 Nance St
832-830-8592, trexhouston.com
Reservations: Resy
"Walk-ins are welcome; please call in advance or just pop in to see availability."

Hours: Thursday through Monday, 5 to 10 p.m.

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