Since I started my job as restaurant critic of the Houston Press in May of 2000, I've had a chance to observe the Houston restaurant scene for just about the entire decade. Our fine dining scene has evolved in the last ten years, and so have our ethnic cuisines. Houston became the birthplace of some new fusions, and the unlikely haven for some national trendsetters. Here's my top 11 list of restaurant openings that exemplify those changes. Why 11 and not 10? Because I felt like it. The openings are listed in chronological order.
Da Marco on Westheimer opened its doors in March 2000. Born in Italy, chef Marco Wiles introduced an innovative style of Italian cooking to Houston that was nothing like the city had ever seen before. Inspired by the success of Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant, which opened in New York in 1998, chef Wiles challenged Houston diners with ingredients and dishes they had never heard of before. Every year, Wiles returns to his native Italy to collect white truffles, learn about the exciting new wines of Friuli, and keep current. Da Marco, which now shares the stage with its sister restaurants, Dolce Vita and Poscol, forever raised the bar on Houston Italian food.
Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen opened in April of 2000. Owner Ziggy Gruber is a third-generation deli man whose family opened the first deli on Broadway in 1927. Ziggy Gruber cures his own corned beef and pastrami on the premises. He used to make his own pickles, but now the restaurant uses too many -- it is the second largest buyer of kosher pickles in the nation after the 2nd Avenue Deli in New York. There were once thousands of delis in New York alone; today there are only 120 Jewish delis left in the entire country. Odd though it may seem, one of the best is in Houston.
Indika is part of a new wave of innovative Indian restaurants that's changing the image of Indian food across the country. Duck tandoori with almond curry, Gulf seafood mulligatawny, and foie gras with fig chutney are a few of the more spectacular creations of chef/owner Anita Jaisinghani. Born of Hindu Sindhi parents in Northern India, Anita Jaisinghani worked at Café Annie as a pastry chef before opening Indika in 2001. Sommelier Paul Roberts, who now works at the French Laundry, put together Indika's wine list. Jaisinghani moved from her original Memorial location to the Montrose area of Westheimer about five years ago. Thanks to Indika, Houstonians have been eating some of the most creative Indian cooking in the country for almost a decade.
Cajun Corner on Bellaire was the first of Houston's Asian/Cajun crawfish restaurants when we wrote about it in 2002. Boiling Crab and other Vietnamese crawfish joints have overshadowed the original by now, but they owe a debt of gratitude to Cajun Corner, which was started by a Louisiana-Vietnamese family. According to Carl Bankston, a professor at Tulane, Vietnamese-Louisiana fusion is a clear case of syncretism, a word anthropologists use to describe the absorption of one culture's traditions by another. The Vietnamese have learned to adapt to outside domination by taking foreign influences and making them their own, says Bankston. Which means Chinese noodles, French baguettes and Louisiana boiled crawfish are all authentically Vietnamese now.
Hugo's, the best Mexican restaurant in Houston and one of the best in the nation, was opened in 2002 by Mexican national Hugo Ortega, whose family comes from rural Puebla. Ortega entered the United States as an illegal alien, got a job as a busboy at Backstreet Café, worked his way up to line cook, graduated from culinary school, and married the restaurant's owner. Together, they opened Hugo's. Hugo Ortega avoids the whole silly debate about authenticity. Instead, the chef serves his own updated versions of traditional Mexican classics and creates new American dishes inspired by Mexican culinary concepts. It's a success story with a sobering moral: Hugo Ortega is one of the city's best chefs now, but not so long ago he was sleeping in a vacant lot on Dunlavy.
Pollo Campero turned globalization on its head. The Slow Food Movement was formed to protest the McDonaldization of the world. But in 2003, as McDonald's began closing locations, this fried chicken chain from Guatemala moved into the United States. The chain's first location in Houston on Bellaire near Chimney Rock created a massive traffic jam every day for several weeks as cars lined up at the drive-though window. Pollo Campero now has several locations in Houston and plans to open 200 outlets in the United States over the next five years. Who ever thought globalization would mean Third World fast food franchises invading the U.S.?
Cyclone Anaya's on Durham opened in 2005. It's named after a Houston Tex-Mex restaurant of the 1960s that was owned by a Mexican wrestler. Cyclone's wife Caroline Anaya was a brilliant cook who put her stamp on Houston Tex-Mex. Cyclone Anaya's son Ricardo founded the excellent Arriba line of salsas before joining his mother in reviving the Cyclone Anaya restaurant tradition. The family decorated the new place with wrestling posters and newspaper stories about Cyclone Anaya's colorful career. In a city with little sense of its own history, this place is a treasure.
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Catalan seemed to be riding the coattails of a Spanish food fad when it opened in 2006. But it quickly ditched the Spanish pretense and pioneered it own genre -- it was the first in a new group of quirky homegrown restaurants with ballsy chefs and an only-in-Houston collection of ethnic and regional influences. Chef Chris Shepherd's pork belly with Steen's cane syrup, Tabasco-mash cured salmon, and shellfish in chorizo cream became local favorites. The menu also includes Mexican street food, Vietnamese sauces and Spanish peppers along with lots of Southern flavors. Add a wine list by Houston's most adventurous sommelier, Antonio Gianolo, and you end up counting Catalan as one of Houston's best restaurants -- even if the food has nothing to do with Catalonia.
Tofu Village, which opened in 2007, serves spicy tofu soup and Korean barbecue. This kind of Korean restaurant is new to Houston, but very common in Los Angeles. Tofu Village is one of many Asian restaurants, supermarkets and food businesses that opened between 2007-2009. This new wave of Asian food was brought to us by the L.A. real estate market peak of 2005-2006. Anticipating the coming bubble burst, L.A. Asian-Americans sold their homes and businesses and moved to Houston. "You sell your house in L.A. for a million, buy the same house in Houston for three or four hundred thousand and use the rest of the profits to open a restaurant," an Asian entrepreneur explained. Thanks to L.A.'s real estate refugees, Houston's Asian food scene got a lot more interesting.
Reef opened in the summer of 2007 with a lot of fanfare. Chef Bryan Caswell and partner Bill Floyd worked together at Bank, the short-lived Jean Georges Vongerichten restaurant in the Icon Hotel. The fanfare has never let up. In its first two-and-a-half years, Reef has been named the No. 1 seafood restaurant in the nation by Bon Appetit and one of the 50 Best New Restaurants in the Country by Travel & Leisure Magazine, and Bryan Caswell was voted one of the 10 Best New Chefs in the country by Food & Wine Magazine. The chef's secret ingredient is the Gulf of Mexico. The menu takes advantage of what's available, including the usual shrimp, crab, oysters and red snapper. But it also includes such unusual fish as wahoo, tripletail, amberjack and sheepshead. And at Reef, they are all presented in unexpectedly brilliant dishes. Chef Bryan Caswell changed the game for Houston seafood restaurants.
Feast opened in March 2008 when two Brits, Richard Knight (the chef) and James Silk (the butcher), moved their restaurant here from Conroe. Both men had worked at prestigious, Michelin-rated restaurants in Europe. James Silk worked at St. Johns Restaurant in London with Fergus Henderson, the British chef who made the "whole beast" philosophy of cooking famous. Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic of the New York Times, wrote this about Feast: "It's a full-on, extended ode to offal that has no real peer in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other major cities that pride themselves on their epicurean adventurousness." "Nose-to-tail-eating" is one of most important concepts in the food world right now, and Feast has put Houston in the movement's forefront.