Food Nation

Pie, Dirt and Pimento Cheese: Food Trends for 2011

Back in October, Nation's Restaurant News released their annual list of predicted food trends for 2011. Some items were already cresting the horizon here in Houston two months ago: high-end junk food, one-dish restaurants, fancy hot dogs. Others are still on the road, yet to reach the Bayou City, but getting here quickly.

With 2011 only six days away, let's take a look at which trends have already found a foothold here and which ones have yet to make an impact.

One-ingredient restaurants: Jus' Mac, which serves only macaroni and cheese, is a classic example of this genre. However, to survive, a one-dish restaurant has to make that dish supremely great each and every time. Instead of focusing on great mac & cheese, it's been indicated that Jus' Mac will start serving paninis soon. A better (albeit more underlooked) example of a restaurant with the commitment to its one dish is Moon Tower Inn, which serves a very small but well executed menu of hot dogs on soft pretzel buns. And it's a good thing, too, because...

Hot dogs and sausage shops: ...are becoming all the rage. In addition to Moon Tower, check out the double-fisted dogs at The Burger Guys, where the dogs themselves are all-beef, foot-long, deep-fried triumphs.

Mini plates: Catalan's daily happy hour, running for a few months now, showcases small portions in an ideal setting. These aren't mere appetizers, but fully developed dishes of their own that are skillfully executed on a small scale. I'd love to see this concept extended to a full restaurant, The Purple Pig-style.

Soft-serve: These serve-yourself shops have been one of my obsessions ever since I tried my first cup of imitation Pinkberry at The Yogurt Shop in Chinatown. Fruituzy is a current favorite, too, and for the same reasons: tart, slightly acidic yogurt tastes great after a meal, especially a heavy meal; the yogurt itself is healthy and so are the fresh fruit toppings; and it's cheap.

High-end junk food: In 2010, we saw one of the city's best burger joints dress up their burgers with both peanut butter and Cheetos. And people went nuts for them. Likewise, pastry chefs like Rebecca Masson have been baking batches of old-school desserts like Fluffernutters by the dozen, bringing to mind Austin's now-defunct Retro Bizzaro bakery and its homemade Little Debbie-style snack cakes and Twinkies.

Minimal menus: Da Marco has always had short and sweet descriptions on its menus (pappardelle with rabbit, roasted quail and vignola, garganelli "mmmm") that don't burden the diner with wading through a litany of place names and descriptions that can be akin to taking the SAT. Want to know more about a dish? Just ask your waiter, who can happily explain them. It's a refreshingly old-school trend that I'm happy to see make a comeback (as long as the waiter in question is actually well-versed in the menu items).

Kumquat: This tiny orange citrus fruit with its unusual backwards construction -- the rind is sweet and the flesh is sour -- has been cropping up on restaurant menus for years, but finally gaining prevalence as more Asian ingredients find lasting popularity in America. In Houston, it can be found everywhere from cocktails at Hugo's (try the sangria de Ensanada) to dinner at Bistro Alex, where the kitchen serves a duck confit bread pudding with a smoked duck and kumquat crepinette. It even featured heavily in Houston Restaurant Week menus, like Mark's seared Hudson Valley foie gras with roasted kumquat compote and benjy's grilled Canadian salmon with vanilla-kumquat vinaigrette.

Hay: Yes, hay. And laugh, but it's already being used to great acclaim up north at Bootsie's Heritage Cafe in Tomball, where the restaurant's hay-smoked mackerel earned a spot on GQ's Five Best Dishes of the Year. And over at Kata Robata, temporary sous chef Seth Siegel-Gardner has been working hay-smoked potato gnocchi into nightly specials and omakase arrays.

Neck: You already know how we feel about delicious, delicious turkey necks.

Pimento cheese: This should come as no surprise, as we've been giving Best of Houston awards for Best Pimento Cheese since 2006. Central Market has been busily turning out some great pimento cheese, too, making the first batch of pimento cheese that former EOW blogger Nishta Mehra ever liked. But the more gourmet direction for this old Southern favorite is best seen at BRC Gastropub, where the kitchen -- despite its flaws -- does turn out a wickedly good charred pimento cheese dip.

These are only a few of the predicted trends for next year; Houston is still in need of -- according to NRN -- restaurants that work with their own beekeepers, dirt (not the kind of dirt you're thinking of) and more Scandinavian dishes. And more pie. Always more pie.

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Katharine Shilcutt