Meet Houston's Most Underrated Chefs

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Two weeks ago, Mai Pham's excellent post about the modern Franco-Japanese cuisine Chef Jason Hauck is cooking up at Soma Sushi shed some light on the fact that Soma serves much more than just sushi, despite its name.

It also led commenter Ryan to speak up for Houston's many wonderful chefs that often don't get as much recognition or applause for their efforts as they deserve:

...maybe this could be the basis for a good story or article? Houston's most underrated chefs as a storyline. People like Chef Hauck, who are creating such exciting and interesting food, yet fly under the radar for some reason may sometimes need a voice like yours to raise awareness of their good work. With so many restaurants in this city I guess its only natural and logical some will fly under the radar. That's where we need writers like you and good reporting from others in town who can do their part. Someone should try to expose the public to all the talent in this city that is unrecognized. This city is big enough to showcase anyone and everyone that has the chops, and it should.

Point taken, Ryan. And that's where our readers come in.

My eight personal selections for Houston's most underrated chefs is below, along with suggestions from our Twitter followers, readers and industry professionals around town.

8. Shiva Patel

When people think of female chefs in Houston, they think of Monica Pope, Jamie Zelko and Claire Smith. But why not the talented Shiva Patel as well? She and her partner run two of the city's most popular restaurants -- Oporto and the newer Queen Vic -- and it's at the Queen Vic where Patel's British-Indian cuisine really shines.

7. Danton Nix

The best Cajun restaurant in Houston isn't run by a Cajun. But you'd never know it if you didn't know its chef and owner, Danton Nix. Very few Cajun restaurants treat their seafood with as much respect and knowledge as Danton's does.

6. Jeremy Griffin

You wouldn't know that young Jeremy Griffin isn't French from the cooking he's doing at Bistro Provence, and a large part of that certainly has to do with its hands-on owners, Jean-Philippe and Genevieve Guy. But there's no denying the deftness and classicism of Griffin's wonderful Provençal cuisine.

5. Cesar Rodriguez

Samba Grille has gone minimal with its menu, eliminating the rodizio service and allowing all of the focus to rest solely on Chef Cesar Rodriguez's capable shoulders. It was a brilliant move that will hopefully draw even more people into the downtown steakhouse, where I recently had one of the best meals I've had all year: a pillowy piece of salmon in a tamarind glaze and buttery hunks of fresh calamari.

4. Tommy Birdwell

I've never had a meal at TQLA that I didn't like, and CIA-vet Birdwell keeps surprising me with modern takes on Southwestern and Tex-Mex cuisine that are almost too good to be true -- and certainly too good to be defined solely by its clubby Washington Avenue location, just as with Soma.

3. Jason Hauck

Like Mai, I think that Chef Hauck -- who was the first person to introduce me to the sheer joy and wonder of freshly-grated wasabi -- is a strong, creative and intelligent force in the kitchen at Soma Sushi. Go for a tasting of your own and find out about Hauck's prowess for yourself.

2. Greg Lowry

I've followed young Lowry with interest since he was working at Max's Wine Dive in Austin, having moved there after stints at Tony's and a few other upscale restaurants. He seemed to blossom at the short-lived Rockwood Room, and I was excited to see him land on his feet at VOICE, where he's currently creating some of the city's most exciting and under-the-radar cuisine.

1. Brandon Fisch

I adored this kid even back when he was slinging sauces at The Burger Guys, and his transition to the executive chef position at Yelapa Playa Mexicana back in February (after the departure of L.J. Wiley) has brought rave reviews ever since. A streamlined menu and richly creative uses of Gulf seafood have made Fisch's promotion at Yelapa the best reinvention of the year.

Our readers choices differed slightly, but at least a few names were repeated.

Former EOW blogger Ruthie Miller supports Chef Mike Potowski at benjy's, whose crab cakes just so happened to be featured this morning on our blog. Frequent contributor to our Flickr pool and our weekly Where Are We? posts Gary R. Wise threw in his two cents for Alex Padilla at the revamped Ninfa's on Navigation.

Twitter users @Kenektid and @ollayfrijol threw out their votes for Chef Mark Holley at Pesce and Chef Miguel Hernandez at Block 7 Wine Co. respectively. Frequent EOW commenter Albert Nurick agreed that Cesar Rodriguez was a favorite, as well as Arnaldo Richards at Pico's.

Industry professionals weighed in, too: Samba Grille owner Nathan Ketchum believes that Jeramie Robison of both Zimm's Little Deck and Cinq is underrated, especially after coming out of the Tesar's debacle in The Woodlands intact and better than ever. Carlos Rodriguez, executive chef at Vic & Anthony's, spoke up for San Hemwattakit at Rio Ranch, calling Hemwattakit, "...a genius. Quietly brilliant."

And Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge said simply, "That's easy: Antoine Ware." If Ware's time at Catalan is any indication as to his future success, he won't be underrated for long.

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