"I was told there was a big Arab community in Houston when I first moved here," remembers Hala Daher. "But it wasn't at all like Dearborn."
Daher, an engineer, moved to Houston from Dearborn, Michigan, where more than 30 percent of the population is Arab. It was a comfortable existence, surrounded by a close-knit community not unlike that of Beirut. Like a majority of the Arabs in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit, Daher is originally from Lebanon. When she moved to Houston after college, she lamented the city's spread-out, sprawling nature, which threw up barriers to finding the food from home that she was craving.
"It makes looking for decent restaurants much more difficult. My first few tries, nothing worked out," she says. "My mom is a great cook, and living in Dearborn meant that we had our pick of good Lebanese restaurants."
But finally, inspiration struck along the broad, hot asphalt of Westheimer. "One day, I happened to find Phoenicia, which was perfect." She smiles at the memory. "I figure if I can't eat good Lebanese food at a restaurant, I can cook it myself at home using ingredients I'm used to and using my mom's recipes." She began shopping at the sprawling market on a regular basis, feeling more at home with each visit.
"Phoenicia feels and smells like a grocery store in the Middle East," she claims. "It's basically as authentic as it gets."
Phoenicia (12141 Westheimer, 281-558-8225) is run by the Tcholakian family, Lebanese-born Armenians who have made Houston their home. But this international grocery store offers items from around the world, not just the Middle East. Jars of sauerkraut from Germany keep company with skinny links of Polish kabanosy sausages, Greek olives mingle with Turkish pastries, Indian curries with British tea. An international group of shoppers is found here every day of the week, searching for the flavors of home — which isn't surprising, considering that one quarter of the Houston population has moved here from another area of the world.
But despite Daher's initial experience here, immigrants craving authentic cuisine don't always have to cook it for themselves. Daher was thrilled to discover Abdallah's (3939 Hillcroft, 713-952-4747), the family-run bakery and restaurant that has been crafting solid Middle Eastern food in Houston since 1977. "Everything I've had there tastes like home," she crows, adding with a grin, "and it's not dumbed down for American tastes."
The shawarma at the restaurant is what keeps bringing her back, as well as other delicacies like grape leaves and tabbouleh. "Some of these things I can make myself," she says. "But they're time- and labor-intensive. It's nice to go somewhere and have it prepared the right way when I'm feeling homesick."
In fact, no matter which country you're from, when you're feeling homesick, you almost always can find the taste of home in Houston. Over the past 20 years, the city has increasingly become a destination for people who bring with them Peruvian ceviches, Nigerian fufu, Polish pierogi and Indian barfee. You can get food from every continent here — minus Australia, unfortunately, and, of course, Antarctica. You just have to know where to look.
And that makes it a good town for eating, no matter where you're from.
Miyagi moved to Houston from Japan after spending half a lifetime as a sushi chef.
"Thirty years," he smiles. "More than 30 years." In his native Okinawa, working with fish is an art form. Handling seafood — and handling it correctly, deftly — is a highly respected trade in the small chain of islands that extends south from Japan into the East China Sea, nearly to Taiwan. In those islands, Miyagi is a common surname.
Two and a half years ago, Miyagi and his wife opened Sushi Miyagi (10600 Bellaire Blvd., 281-933-9112) in the strongly Vietnamese-dominated Chinatown in far west Houston. He named the restaurant after his surname — which is the only name he goes by — in order "to let other Japanese know that someone from Okinawa runs this place." It's a point of immense pride for the chef, who is careful to capture an American (and Vietnamese) audience but retains deeply traditional Japanese items on his menu, from warm cups of chawan mushi (an egg custard with seafood) to elaborate plates of sashimi featuring minty, deep-green shiso leaves that separate the fish.
Chinatown is a nexus for restaurants just like Miyagi's, restaurants started from the ground up by recent immigrants to the city, eager to serve food to their fellow expats as well as to Americans willing to sample occasionally exotic fare like the wonderfully chewy pigs' ears in chile oil or the dusky, slightly sweet duck tongues at Sichuan King (9114 Bellaire Blvd., 713-771-6868), served bone-in — yes, duck tongues have a bone in them — while Christmas music plays overhead, regardless of season.
Of course, Chinatown is more accurately described as "Vietnamtown," thanks to the Vietnamese immigrants who outnumber the Chinese by a ratio of nearly two to one. The humid plains of Houston, after all, are home to the third-largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Vietnamese food like pho is not only found in great abundance in the strip malls that line Bellaire Boulevard, but across the rest of the city.
Meanwhile, what used to be referred to simply as "southwest Houston" has become the Mahatma Gandhi District. It's here that people like the Patel family and Kaiser Lashkari have set up shop, catering to Houston's more than 100,000 Indian and Pakistani expats. The Patels run London Sizzler (6690 Southwest Fwy., 713-783-2754), an Indian restaurant with a twist: The Indian family with Zambian roots, educated in the United Kingdom, offers Indian dishes that mingle East African spices and British beers. In the same shopping center, the jovial Lashkari cooks jewel-toned cuisine from his native Pakistan at Himalaya (6652 Southwest Fwy., 713-532-2837), drenched in plenty of rich ghee.
Like the Arab community that Hala Daher encountered in Houston, the Filipino community is spread across the city. Dr. Richard Sucgang, a microbiologist who originally hails from the Philippines, knows what it's like to feel homesick. The only one of his family to leave the islands, he's worked hard over the years to lose his Filipino accent, but he's never lost his craving for the simple pleasures of home, such as sinigang.
"If I had to choose a dish to judge a Filipino restaurant by, I'd choose that," Sucgang says. "It's a sour, soupy stew, incorporating fish or meat, and has myriad variations, not only in the protein used, but also in the souring agents employed." It's a dish that — to him — represents the strong southeast Asian nature of what he calls "comfort food that reflects what was popular in the Manila region."
It's this comfort food that you're most likely to encounter in Houston's Filipino restaurants, as that's what most Filipinos — and anyone who's feeling a longing for their homeland — are likely to cook. "Even if there were to be no restaurants serving ethnic Filipino fare, people will cook," Sucgang says.
"I had no inherent expectations of Filipino cuisine when I first moved to Houston, but there are large enclaves of Filipinos living here already, and you cannot have a gathering of Filipinos without food getting involved."
However, he says, "I was quite pleased to find that one of the largest distributors of imported Filipino goods is actually based out of Houston, and thus, we have a ready supply of many processed and packaged ingredients, from dried mangos to coconut vinegar, and surprisingly affordable prices."
Just a stone's throw from the Medical Center, Godo's Bakery (7235 Fannin, 713-797-0670) serves the same homestyle meals like adobo and desserts like brazo de mercedes to those Filipinos missing a taste of home — or adventurous Americans wishing to gorge themselves on the all-you-can-eat pork belly that beckons from the lunch buffet most days.
"It was quite a change," laughs Lillie Hunegan, of her first few years in America. She moved here from Ethiopia in 1998 to help her mother, Tina, run Blue Nile (9400 Richmond, 713-782-6882), one of Houston's only Ethiopian restaurants.
"For one, I didn't speak English," Lillie says, with an accent that makes it tough to believe she's from overseas. Finding a good Ethiopian restaurant besides Blue Nile? Difficult. Her mom's experience finding ingredients here to make the Ethiopian food the family serves in their restaurant? Nearly impossible.
To this day, 16 years after Tina Amedlue opened Blue Nile, not much has changed. "We still import most of our spices from back home," Lillie says. "We used to get the teff from a farm outside of Washington, D.C., but even that comes from Africa now." Despite the difficulty in obtaining authentically Ethiopian ingredients like niter kibbeh — the clarified butter infused with spices that's used as the base for most dishes — or berbere spice, Tina Amedlue was determined to forge ahead.
"She always loved cooking at home," her daughter reminisces. "Over here, she started cooking for friends, and they encouraged her to open a restaurant, so she did." Houstonians might initially balk at eating with their hands, using pieces of spongy injera bread — a sourdough-like bread made with teff, one of the most nutritious grains in the world — to scoop up spicy bites of deep red doro wot, but if they're willing to try it, Lillie says, "most of them fall in love."
Native Ethiopians, too, have continued to fall in love with Blue Nile over the years. "They're able to tell that we're using spices from back home," claims Lillie. "It's the butter, the berbere. Those things make all the difference."
But it isn't Ethiopians who make up the majority of expat Africans in Houston. That honor belongs to Nigerians. Although census data differ strongly from anecdotal estimates that place the population at 100,000 people, it is believed that Houston has the largest concentration of Nigerian immigrants in the entire United States. And along Bissonnet in southwest Houston, you'll find people from Lagos and Kano indulging in the root vegetable mash called fufu they thought they'd left behind when they left home. Fufu of a half-dozen varieties is available at Finger Licking Bukateria (9817 Bissonnet, 713-270-7070), which is improbably housed in an old Bennigan's. And a dozen soups are available to go with your choice of fufu, the better to make diners feel as if they'd never entirely left Nigeria — or even Ghana, Togo or Benin — behind in that long journey across the Atlantic Ocean.
Suya, another specialty of the region, is available across the parking lot from Finger Licking Bukateria at the halal meat market, which also sells its own fufu. But if you prefer to eat your suya sitting down, head to Suya Hut (11611 W. Airport Blvd., 281-265-1411) in Stafford. Similar to shish kebab, suya is prepared with chicken, beef or fish and a mixture of spices that includes garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper and ground peanuts. Those craving more straightforward Ghanaian food, however, can get their fix at Ghana House (14109 S. Main, 713-729-5000), where roasted goat will appeal to fans of a much more Texan item: cabrito.
"You cannot be in Houston with mind in Bosnia," exhorts Brane Poledica, manager at the Four Seasons, who moved here from Sarajevo in 1996. At that time, the country had recently declared independence from Yugoslavia; Poledica had fought in the civil war for four years before decamping to nearby Slovenia as a refugee.
"We had a right to be there, but no work permit," Poledica says. And because the war had erupted and cut short his education — he was in school studying physics, his wife studying chemistry — he didn't have the skills or the language to ensure that he'd find work in the United States, where he sought asylum and settled. He was hired as a busboy at Neiman Marcus and began working his way up the ladder.
"I was stubborn enough to learn English quickly," he says. And before long, Poledica had earned an associate's degree from Houston Community College in hotel management, eventually landing his current job.
During this time, Poledica has become acclimated to Houston's climate — "It's so hot here!" was his first reaction straight off the plane from New York City that mid-July — as well as our culture. He and his wife still occasionally make traditional food for the holidays, but he says it's more likely to find guacamole and pico de gallo at his dinner table than pljeskavice.
Bosnian food, he explains, is a mixture of Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Western European influences, much the same way Houston cuisine is an amalgamation of Mexican, Cajun, German, West African, Vietnamese and any number of other cultures that have worked their way to the Bayou City across the years.
Poledica likes Cafe Pita + (10890 Westheimer, 713-953-7237), but — as he explains it — only for quick, fast meals. Dishes like pljeskavice and cevap are fast food to most Bosnians. Comfort food, yes, but fast food nonetheless. He prefers to eat at Tony's or Mark's when he and his wife want a night out. The high-end food and atmosphere — and even the price point — are much more similar to nice restaurants in Bosnia. He chuckles as he points out, "Many things from that part of the world are very cosmopolitan. Where I lived was only two-hour plane flight to Paris, after all."
To make traditional food at home, Poledica and his wife have markets like Phoenicia and Balkan Market (10928 Westheimer, 713-953-7237), but he says it's just as easy to buy goat cheese that's every bit as good as Bosnian cheese from the Houston Dairymaids, just as easy to make burek that tastes as good as that from Sarajevo with the Texan grass-fed beef that he buys at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
Greek, Italian, French, Spanish and even German to a lesser extent are all fairly easy cuisines to locate in Houston. But Belgian and British have considerably fewer establishments to choose from.
As Catherine Duwez, the Belgian-born proprietress of The Broken Spoke (1809 Washington, 713-863-7029), is quick to point out, Belgian cuisine shouldn't be confused with French cuisine. Although they're in the same area of the world, Belgian cuisine is as infatuated with beer as the French are with wine. Beer is used in much the same way as wine: You cook with it, then drink it along with your meal. And waffles aren't for breakfast; they're a street food just like crepes. You can get both crepes and beer — and plenty of it — at The Broken Spoke, or just a simple combination of moules frites that will have you longing to visit Bruges.
British food similarly gets a misunderstood rap sometimes. It's not all fish and chips, after all, as Richard Gleave puts it. "If you're gonna do British food, then for me, you've got to expand beyond fish and chips and go get some Welsh rarebit on the menu," he says. "Or Yorkshire pudding. Black pudding. Lancashire Hotpot. Otherwise it'd be like me being in England and taking McDonald's as a good representation of American food."
Gleave, who moved to Houston from Manchester nearly ten years ago, admits that his expectations weren't very high at first: "Having got here and seen the heavy Mexican-Southern-barbecue influences, chances of finding a decent steak and kidney pudding or toad-in-the-hole sort of dissipated a little." And, he adds with bemusement, "for a state that loves its meat, where's the lamb?"
But it turns out that finding places that offered British food wasn't terribly difficult, he recalls. "Once people realized I was English, they immediately pointed me in the right direction," which ended up being to pubs like The Richmond Arms (5920 Richmond, 713-784-7722), where Gleave is now pleased to be able to catch Premier League soccer (a.k.a. football) on the televisions with a pint of Boddingtons and think of England.
"The food I did find varies somewhat in delivery," he admits. "I asked for the Scotch eggs in one establishment and received these mammoth overcooked things with burnt breading." That aside, he's pleased with what he's found so far. "I have had an excellent Cornish pastie at The Bull and Bear (11980 Westheimer, 281-496-6655) and a really good Sunday lunch at the Red Lion (2316 S. Shepherd, 713-782-3030)."
He's equally pleased with the fact that shopping for food from home has become easier over the years, as well. "British Isles (2366 Rice Blvd., 713-522-6868) is the best bet for anything UK-related," he says. "But I have also increasingly been able to find a selection of UK foods in the likes of Randalls and H-E-B stores recently. Not sure if this is a new development or I just missed them prior, but it's much appreciated nonetheless," he smiles.
"Tiradito is something between Japanese and Peruvian food," Roberto Castre explains. "It's like Japanese sashimi with a ceviche sauce."
Castre, who opened Latin Bites (1302 Nance, 713-229-8369) a little over a month ago with his sister and brother-in-law, moved to the United States from Peru nine years ago. In that time, he lived in New York City, Dallas and finally Miami before moving to Houston to be with his family, who'd settled here in the meantime. "There's just something special about Houston," he says. "It's more modern, it's friendly." Trained as a chef in Peru and having worked in kitchens across the country, he decided to open a Peruvian restaurant in a city that doesn't have much in the way of food from that region.
Peru is quickly becoming the culinary capital of South America, with a strong Asian influence that has created a highly varied and creative cuisine out of native ingredients, Hispanic culture and plenty of fresh seafood. Ceviche is an excellent example of this philosophy, borrowing from many different cultures to create a uniquely Peruvian dish of raw fish cured with citrus juices. At Latin Bites, Castre — in keeping with the Peruvian attitude of ingenuity and creativity — is, in his words, "bringing a new concept, new techniques to ceviche."
At the ceviche bar — which he likens to a sushi bar in a Japanese restaurant — you order a ceviche (all of which is made with flounder, shrimp or a combination of the two) and it's made in front of you, fresh. "We use rocoto, aji amarillo or aji limo," Castre says, referring to the three Peruvian peppers used as bases for the ceviche, peppers which he's easily able to obtain here in Houston.
It used to be difficult to get such ingredients in the States, he says, "but not anymore." Castre has found a wholesaler with a Houston presence — Barreda Food Products — that gets him everything he needs, from pisco to lúcuma, which he uses in unique creations like a lúcuma tiramisu.
The small, Houston-based chain Pollo Bravo (10434-B Richmond, 713-278-0801) serves more authentic, home-style Peruvian food, from rotisserie chicken to the bright-purple, warmly spiced fermented maize beverage called chicha morada that's second only to its pisco sour as the best Peruvian drink in town.
In Brazil, cuisine takes on a Creole persuasion due to the African and West Indies populations brought over by the Portuguese during their 300-year colonization of the country. Despite this, Brazilian food in Houston is mostly identified with churrascarias and dancing girls in feathers and sparkly bras. For truly authentic Brazilian food, however, head to Emporio Brazilian Cafe (12288 Westheimer, 281-293-7442) for foods like feijoada — Brazil's national dish — and the shrimp stew called bobó de camarão. Pop one or two knobs of pão de queijo — cheese bread made with manioc flour — into your mouth and you might not be able to stop.
The strongly European-influenced Argentina presents an interesting balance to other South American countries, where native foods and dishes are still present in modern cuisine. In Argentina, there is little to no indigenous influence on the national cuisine. Why? Because Argentina was very sparsely populated prior to colonization by Spain and the resulting influx of European settlers.
As a result, Argentinean cuisine is what colonists made of it. German, French, Spanish and Italian cuisines have all made their mark over the years, resulting in diverse dishes like thickly pounded milanesas and mashed potatoes — strongly similar to German schnitzel but with an Italian name — alongside French-style wines and cheeses. But above all, beef is king here, something most Texans can relate to. Manena's (11018 Westheimer, 713-278-7139) is the meeting grounds for most Argentine expats in Houston, with plenty of milanesas as well as a variety of authentic empanadas (although the carne and humita — creamed corn — options are the best). Of course, leaving without pastries is almost a sin: Argentina is known almost as much for its alfajores as its beef.
"I came here in 1981," recalls chef Hugo Ortega, who moved to Houston from Mexico City as a teenager. "It was a huge shock in culture for me. Coming from a big city, I thought, 'Where are all the people?' In those days, the crisis in oil was bad. It was very difficult for me."
It was difficult to find work and difficult to find food from back home, as Ortega came to discover. Washing dishes in restaurants across the city, not only could he not find the rich interior Mexican food he so desperately missed, he couldn't afford it anyway. "I ate a lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken and coleslaw," he laughs. The fried chicken reminded him vaguely of the rotisserie-style chicken with crisp, buttery skin that he longed for from back home.
"Whenever we did have Mexican food, it was always at someone's house," he recalls. "We would make things that we loved from back home, like tamales or posole at Christmas." In time, though, Ortega began to explore the burgeoning interior Mexican food scene in Houston at the same time as he began dating Tracy Vaught, now his wife and co-owner of Hugo's (1602 Westheimer, 713-524-7744) and Backstreet Cafe. "Tracy took me to places like Pico's (5941 Bellaire, 713-662-8383), and we became regulars."
When the couple decided to open a second restaurant after the success of Backstreet Cafe, Vaught suggested to Ortega that he cook the food of his homeland. "I was paralyzed!" he says, laughing. "I have so much respect for this cuisine that I love so much, that it was frightening to think of." These days, Ortega has overcome that fear to much acclaim and is able more than ever to find authentic Mexican ingredients in Houston that were so hard to come by when he first arrived.
"It's much better now than it was 20 years ago," Ortega says. He's able to purchase things at Canino's (2520 Airline, 713-862-4027) and in the stalls behind the market that he would have had to import back then. And although he still brings in items like dried peppers, cinnamon and cacao from a friend in Oaxaca — elements that are crucial to the Pueblan-style mole Hugo's makes in-house — Ortega is happy with the way Houston has been transformed over the years into a world marketplace, with something for everybody.
Those people selling food from the stalls behind Canino's aren't just Mexican, of course. People from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are equally likely to do their buying and selling at the giant open-air market. For those from Honduras, purchases lean toward more tropical items, as the country's cuisine has much more emphasis on fruits and coconut milk than any other in the region. Sopa de caracol — a sweet, creamy seafood soup with a coconut milk base — is perhaps one of the most unique and representative dishes of the country, one that shouldn't be missed among the other delicious items at Honduras Maya (5945 Bellaire, 713-668-5002).
Salvadoran cuisine holds the pupusa in high regard. This marvel of simplicity is solid evidence that pocket-based foods truly are present in every culture. Get your fill of pupusas — extra-thick corn tortillas that encase cheese and other fillings, eaten with a pickled cabbage relish on the side — at places like the all-you-can-eat Pupusa Buffet (5920 Bellaire, 713-218-6666) just down the street from Honduras Maya. It's a dangerous stretch of road for those with insatiable appetites for good Central American food; wear comfortable pants.
Comfort reigns supreme in the cozy dining room at Tex-Chick (712 Fairview, 713-528-4708) in Montrose, which is currently the only Puerto Rican restaurant in town. Carlos Pérez, the current owner of the restaurant that's served mofongo and juicy bistec empanizado since the early 1980s, has a simple explanation as to why: "There aren't as many Puerto Ricans in Houston," he says. "And we mix so well with others!"
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Successive waves of colonization on the Caribbean island over the centuries mean that the food itself is as multiethnic as the people, Chinese intertwining with native influences, West African with Portuguese. (See Best of Houston®, "Dishes and Drinks," page 115).
And although he's occasionally homesick for San Juan, his hometown, the lack of Puerto Rican food in Houston doesn't trouble him. Aside from the fact that his kitchen can cook up pollo guisado any time he wants it, he points out that Puerto Ricans are more relaxed in their attitude toward food. "Mexicans want to eat Mexican food all the time," he laughs. "We'll eat anything."
Spoken like a true Houstonian.