Chef Chat

Where the Chefs Eat: Christine Ha and Alvin Schultz

This week, our Where The Chefs Eat series turns to two amateur chefs turned television reality stars: Christine Ha and Alvin Schultz. Both living in Houston and Vietnamese by descent, they each snagged a spot on the TV reality show MasterChef.

Schultz, who was featured on Season 2, is known for his Modernist techniques. In the task that clinched him a spot on the show, he used a homemade immersion circulator to create a sous-vide egg, serving it on top of his famous Hawaiian-themed "loco moco" dish to earn Gordon Ramsay's praise as a "freak genius."

Ha, the first visually impaired contestant to appear on the show, is a former Eating...Our Words blogger, has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, writes a killer blog called The Blind Cook, and famously won Season 3 of MasterChef in September of 2012, taking home a cool grand prize of $250,000 and a cookbook deal.

They both had a lot to say when I asked them where they like to eat. Get ready to take notes and bookmark this post, because they share some pretty awesome tips.

Christine Ha MasterChef USA 2012

Standard go-to: I enjoy Poscol for their reasonably priced Italian small plates and always order the baby octopus with cannellini beans, black wild rice and spicy shellfish, and the garlic and bottarga bruschette; but all of their dishes are great.  For special occasions, I love Uchi.  My favorite absolute must-gets at Uchi are any of the raw fish selections served with citrus overtones (ask the server for recommendations), the Brussels sprouts with fish sauce caramel, the bacon tataki, and anything with super-fresh uni (also ask the server for recs).  

I go to Himalaya whenever I crave Indian food and order their chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, specialty naan and samosas.  Taqueria El Rey satisfies my taco hankering: I'll get the Three Amigos (one al pastor taco, one Cuban taco, and either one barbacoa or ropa vieja taco) with a side of chicken tortilla soup.  For dim sum, I'll dine at Fung's Kitchen or Chinese Cuisine; my dim sum spread always consists of xiu mai (pork and shrimp dumplings), har gow (steamed shrimp dumplings), char siu bao (steamed barbecue pork buns), cheong fun (steamed rolled rice noodles with sweet soy sauce), lo mai gai (sticky rice in lotus leaf), pai gwut (pork riblets), gai lan (Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce) and wu gok (fried taro puffs).  Always order some hot tea to help wash the grease down.

Cheap eats: I'm all about cheap eats.  My all-time favorite cheap eat has got to be pho.  I like Pho Hung on Bellaire and Wilcrest or Pho Danh inside the HK mall.  I'm a purist when it comes to pho, so I like only the basic round eye steak (always asked for on the side so I can "cook" it in the hot broth myself tableside).  I forego all the extra herbs and sauces and only add lime juice to my broth. Sometimes, I'll ask for a side of onion slices soaked in vinegar for extra flavor.  

Whenever I'm in the mood for noodle soup but not pho, I'll get bun bo Hue (spicy lemongrass noodle soup originating from the central region of Vietnam); Kim Chau is the original place for this noodle soup, though I've been meaning to try some of the new bun bo Hue joints that have been popping up in Chinatown on Bellaire.  Another cheap eat I grew up eating and loving is the banh bot chien from Tan Tan (#A1 on the menu): egg omelette with fried rice cakes.  I also love the kimchi fries from Coreano's food truck topped with cheese, pork belly, scallion and cilantro, among other delicious toppings.  For a simple slice of pizza, I'll go to Pink's and get the slice of cheese -- it's humongous and tastier than their whole pies.

Other great eats around town: Houston has been flying under the radar in the food world, but it's got so many good eats and, I believe, is on the up-and-up.  Pappas Bros. Steakhouse has the best steaks hands-down.  Chinese Cafe is where I go to for cheap Chinese take-out.  Phoenicia's got the best chicken shawarma, Niko Niko the best gyro, A Ly the best Peking duck, Chino Fast Food the best won ton noodle soup, Laredo the best breakfast tacos, Nu Cafe the best shaved ice, Bodard the best grilled pork spring rolls, Lee's Sandwiches the best baguettes to take home and eat with butter and pâté, Central Market the best sandwich (the California Connection). Now you've got me hungry...

Alvin Schultz Private chef/Owner of Eat.Drink.EXPERIENCE MasterChef Season 2 contestant

Standard go-to: Asia Market and Golden Palace dim sum, both for brunch on Sundays. Both are a perfect way to spend Sunday morning with friends enjoying flavors aside from typical brunch fare. At Asia market, nothing's bad but I love the Kang Massaman curry (E7). I've been known to bring my own sunny side up egg, but they'll probably put one on there for you if you ask nicely. At Golden Palace, get the ham Sui Gil (deep fried mochi dumplings with pork).

Cheap eats: Chris Frankel turned me on to Shiv Sagar, best samosas in town three for $3. But my super secret ninja squirrel move: Dynasty Market on Bellaire and Corporate. Show up at the right time (Saturday of Sunday afternoon) and pick up a whole roasted pig head for $4. Forget bringing a bottle of wine to your friend's house, give the gift of perfectly roasted pork.

Late night: Pho Binh by Night bone marrow pho, or Hong Kong Food Street mapo tofu.

Comfort food: phamily bites egg rolls or Jonathan Jones's ceviche.

Pizza: Whatever special Anthony from Pi Pizza has that day.

Sushi: Has to be from chef Hori-San at Kata Robata.

Dessert: Anything from Chris Leung at Kata Robata or Philip Speer and the team at uchi. Those guys are seriously taking dessert to new levels! I love popping into either after dinner elsewhere for a sweet note to end the night.

Happy hour: Never had an unhappy hour at El Gran Malo.

Misc eats: Goat feta from Blue Heron Farms, Saturday morning bagel (everything with lox) from Hot Bagels, fried banh bao from Bun Bo Hue inside of Hong Kong mall.

If you missed our previous posts, click below to see more of Where the Chefs Eat:

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham