The Heights of Comfort

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See the making of Zelko's Boss Burger and more in our slideshow.

Zelko Bistro has the best napkins in Houston. They're the flour sack towels that my mother and grandmother have always used in their kitchens, slung over their shoulders like rifles as they wash vegetables and man the stoves. Incredibly absorbent, soft to the touch, never linty and always useful, these flour sack towels are repurposed at Chef Jamie Zelko's masterpiece of a restaurant into napkins that are one of the first signals to diners that they're in for something special.

The napkins aren't the only things here that remind me of the cooks in my family. The entire restaurant is steeped in the gospel of cooking incredibly well-constructed and thoughtfully crafted comfort food from superior sources — Zelko uses seasonal ingredients that are locally sourced whenever possible — in a rich, warm, cozy atmosphere, without a hint of pretension. The Houston Press gave Zelko Bistro an award for Best Comfort Food in this year's Best of Houston® issue, and with good reason. It's like coming home.

It took me several months to finally get to the restaurant, located in a converted Heights bungalow along 11th Street. I'm told it's for the best that I didn't go when it first opened in April, however, as the restaurant had some serious issues with air-conditioning — now corrected — that made eating inside a very sweaty proposition.

Fast-forward seven months, and the restaurant, with its hidden garden-style patio, seems to have been made expressly for the cooler autumn season. Of course, Zelko is now contending with another battle: construction along 11th Street that has completely torn up the driveway and access to the main entrance. Smart diners will take one of several, easily accessible alternate routes and simply enter through the side door on the patio. Construction shouldn't be a deterrent to getting a meal this good.

Like her partner in the operation, Jeb Stuart — the former chef at Shade turned front-of-house man and sommelier here at Zelko — Chef Zelko lives in the Heights. It's immediately obvious from the low-key vibe, the refusal to take reservations and the inviting atmosphere that this was intended to be a neighborhood joint, a place where Zelko and Stuart's neighbors could walk to, a place for the Heights to call home. This is a place where Chef Zelko is putting down roots. And that's immensely comforting in its own way.

There was some initial concern when the talented young Zelko left her post as executive chef at Bistro Lancaster that she would leave town for good. Thankfully for Houston, she's firmly planted here.

On my first visit to Zelko, my dining companion and I grabbed a table outside at dusk. The patio is almost entirely shielded from the street and the noise of passing traffic, making it seem almost as if you're dining in someone's cleanly landscaped backyard.

The service has been described in rather ungracious terms as "aloof" and "surly" by friends of mine who've dined at Zelko. But our waiter was perfectly enjoyable, if somewhat languorous, attending to our table quite expertly.

The waiter recited the wine-by-the-glass list from memory, as it changes every day depending on what the restaurant is stocking. A Malbec, a Syrah blend, a Grenache — all sounded brilliant for the crisp air and the meal ahead. I ordered a glass of the Old Faithful Grenache and relaxed, snacking on the lightly battered fried pickles as we waited on our food. There are a few places in town that do fried pickles better, but not many. And those pickles probably come from Sysco; I suspect Zelko's are of somewhat more enlightened provenance.

Our food arrived very promptly, almost interrupting a waking nap-like state encouraged by the cozy patio and the wine. My dining companion's Captin's fried chicken was utterly enormous: two fat chicken breasts stacked one on top of the other, atop a mound of mashed potatoes that looked strikingly familiar.

That's because they were made exactly the way I make them at home: skins still on, mashed imperfectly and without a ricer, nothing but heavy cream and salt added to the already buttery Yukon golds. I'm sure plenty of other home cooks make their mashed potatoes this way; it's just nice to see something so homespun and rough-hewn on a menu, validating your own cooking techniques at the same time it offers an instant dose of creamy comfort.

The chicken, on the other hand, was a work of majesty the likes of which has never come out of my own kitchen. The tender breasts had to have been brined before frying; they were almost unbelievably juicy and moist. Between alternating mouthfuls of chicken and mashed potatoes, my dining companion kept exhorting, "I can't believe these are breasts! They're so good! They're so juicy! This isn't right!" I think I might have seen her tear up a bit when the last bite was gone.

My shrimp and grits was comfort food with a twist. Although the shrimp were breaded and fried, although the grits were made with plenty of white cheddar and butter, and although it was all topped with copious handfuls of bacon, there was nothing greasy or fatty about the dish. I attribute that to the ring of sweet agave soy that surrounded the grits in the shallow bowl. The salty-sweet tang of the agave soy sauce cut straight through all the dairy and the batter and simply sang. Taken in hand with the bracing bites of fresh green onion on top, this is not your average dish of shrimp and grits. This fresh, vibrant concoction is what places like Ouisie's Table should aspire to, and one that does our briny Gulf shrimp true justice.

Dessert was no less fantastic. Created hand-in-hand by Da Capo's pastry expert Lisa Biggerstaff (keeping it local in the Heights, of course) with Chef Zelko, the dessert menu echoes the savory menu in every way, with classic, comforting desserts that are low-key and affordable. We split a lemon icebox pie, which turned out to be an ideal choice for the lovely weather outside, matching the cool air and the sharp breeze with its tart lemon base built upon a graham cracker crust ring that was neither too sweet nor too heavy. People who shy away from "sweet" desserts would love this icebox pie, especially the slightly salty dollop of fresh cream that tops it.

Our total bill that first night, with wine and coffee? A mere $60, the same price I'd paid for last week's miserable dinner at Mucho Mexico, where there was far less food and certainly not any of this quality. And this is where Zelko Bistro really outshines its "high-end" competition: A dinner for two here is profoundly affordable considering the wealth of talent behind the scenes and the emphasis on fresh, seasonal, local food. You get what you pay for here, and then some.

My second dinner was even more mind-trippingly affordable. We ended up leaving an extra-large tip as a result, since I'd brought more cash than we ended up needing. That's always a pleasant feeling.

Seated inside, it was apparent that the Zelko crew has put their heart and soul into the house's renovations and remodeling. My dining companion kept rambling in his rather hippie-esque general fashion about the "good feel" and "good vibes" of the place. One of his coworkers at their notoriously hippie-filled workplace reiterated those same words without prompting a few days later during a discussion about grabbing dinner at Zelko. "That place has such good vibes, man," she sighed. "Just such good vibes."

From the wood-paneled ceiling to the moss-green walls, from the dark chocolate-colored banquet seating to the open kitchen, the interior of Zelko Bistro is infused with warmth. Although I can imagine it being quite beastly during those un-air-conditioned summer months, I picture it becoming even more endearing in the coming winter. Encouraged by this thought, I ordered a bottle of Breckenridge's appropriately toasty Vanilla Porter, with plenty of roasted malt notes and lilting hints of chocolate and coffee. The beer list here is significantly smaller than the wine list but very well curated, with affordable options like the hoppy Full Sail Pale Ale, all the way up to Pike Brewing's Scotch style Kilt Lifter ale, which is worth every cent of its $7.50.

My dining companion's fish tacos were certainly very good, to be sure, especially with the sweet pineapple salsa that topped the grilled fish. And especially because they were served with a side of thick, sweet, succulent plantains that had been slightly fried until caramelized. But they weren't the highlight of the meal.

That honor belongs to the Big Boss burger, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, that left me utterly speechless. This is not what I expected from a chef-driven restaurant's burger. There is nothing hokey or cutesy about this burger — it is not topped with buzzwords or fad ingredients. It is simply a perfect hunk of juicy ground beef covered in cheddar cheese, crispy strips of bacon, sautéed onions, fresh leaf lettuce and slices of ruby-red tomato so thick, they add nearly an extra inch to the burger's already monumental height. A blend of Dijon mustard and mayo coats one side of the soft, slightly sweet brioche bun. And that's it.

This burger is heaven-sent. I have never tasted another burger like it in Houston. Perfect in its austerity and its simple flavors, this is the type of burger that makes people launch spontaneously into discussions of last meals and favorite childhood memories. After they've recovered the power of speech, that is.

I demolished it. With a vengeance.

Over a dessert of funnel cake — yes, powdered sugar-covered, honey-dipped, wonderfully amusing funnel cake — the burger was still all that I could talk about. I talked about it all the way home and into the next day. It was becoming comical. Thankfully, my dining companion had scored a few bites of the burger for himself and was all understanding and commiseration: "I wish we could get another one right now," he enthused over breakfast.

Such is the power of truly great food.

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