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Southern Living's Paula Disbrowe on Houston as One of the South's Tastiest Cities

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Southern Living's senior travel editor Paula Disbrowe knows Texas.

The chef and food writer will be celebrating her 10th year of living in the Lone Star State this coming January, and was happy to report that a Texas city made it onto Southern Living's recently released list of the Top 10 Tastiest Cities in the South.

Houston is recognized in the magazine's January issue, alongside heavy hitters like New Orleans and Charleston, and Disbrowe sounded a bit like a proud parent when discussing its inclusion over the phone earlier this week.

"It's such a pleasure writing about and celebrating what has become such a vital part of my DNA," she said from her home in Austin. In addition to raising her two children in Texas, she said, 'it's the way I eat and cook now."

While some Texans may not traditionally consider their state in the "South," Disbrowe cited the fact that "Texas is such a confluence of cuisines" between Southern, Cajun, Mexican and Southwestern influences -- something that's also reflected in Houston itself.

Our city was chosen for inclusion on Southern Living's list in part because of its diverse ethnic food scene, but also for our "sizzling Lower Westheimer 'hood and new generation of tastemakers," according to the magazine, which is on newsstands starting this Friday.

"You can have everything," said Disbrowe, citing the city's especially tremendous Vietnamese scene that's fascinating to her in part because of "how it's influencing and inspiring young chefs." Chef Chris Shepherd's stage with family-run Thanh Phuong in Pearland in advance of opening Underbelly is just one recent example of this phenomenon.

Disbrowe said the magazine was equally enchanted by the way that old and new Houston co-exist side by side: one grounding the city and forcing a latent maturity to develop, and one raising the bar and pushing things forward.

There are "people that led the way like Chef Robert Del Grande," Disbrowe said. "And then we have new generations of folks like Bryan Caswell and Chris Shepherd. In fact, one of my very first celebrity chef interviews was with Robert Del Grande," she laughed.

"Since the mid-'90s, [Houston has] been on my radar as an important food town," she continued. "I think the market has a respect for the balance of where we've come from and where we're going."

In compiling the list, the magazine recognized that -- as Disbrowe says -- "Southern food has never been hotter."

"We started thinking: In the South, food with a sense of place is such a strong concept -- we all have powerful food memories whether it's a hometown or a place we love to eat or a place that's become a new hometown," she said, referring to her own adopted hometown of Austin.

All of these elements come into play in Houston as well as in other cities on the magazine's list: Lafayette, cited Disbrowe as an example, is experiencing the same influx of young turk chefs fresh off stints at world-class restaurants returning to their roots with "refined urban sensibilities," then applying those learned techniques and aesthetics to old favorites like boudin and smoked sausage.

What sets these 10 cities apart, says Disbrowe, is that none of them have food cultures based on a "gimmick for gimmick's sake or harnessing the next food trends." Instead, she said, "it's good solid cooking that comes from a really personal place."

But aside from solid cooking, Houston -- believe it or not -- has the wow factor going for it, according to Disbrowe: "It's just such an exciting city to eat. What's not to eat in Houston?"

Voting for the South's Tastiest City begins on Friday, December 23, and ends on January 31. Do your civic duty and vote for Houston online at Southern Living's website. The winning city will be featured in the April 2012 issue -- and remember: You can vote once a day.

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