Houston claimed eight of the nominees for this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards. That’s right -- Houston, that other Texan city.
The unprecedented number -- which includes a record of five chefs elected for the category Best Chef: Southwest, and the winner of the title, Justin Yu -- suggests a larger trend in a city that has been largely ignored by foodies... until now.
These are the new faces of Houston’s rising food scene.
Winner: Best Chef: Southwest, Justin Yu
Neighborhood: Downtown/Warehouse District
The highly experimental, eight-course menu at Chef Justin Yu’s restaurant Oxheart seems out of place in the warm corner-lot bistro, lined with Lucky Cats (gifts from patrons). Yu’s dishes are an art form -- painstakingly constructed (he’s been seen prodding at a vegetable with tweezers) and able to alter your perception of taste. In a take on the Chinese porridge congee, Yu adds masala and navel oranges to assorted grains; its layers of spice and sweet are complex yet comforting. His most impressive feat is a plate of roasted carrots, which he transforms into something that resembles smoky pork and beans.
Nominee: Best Chef: Southwest, Hugo Ortega
Outstanding Restaurateur, Tracy Vaught
Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught hooked Houstonians when they opened their restaurant Hugo’s, dedicated to regional Mexican cuisine. Now, at Caracol, the husband-and-wife team applies the same concept to Mexico’s coastal states. The result: dishes that challenge expectations yet play on your heartstrings. Standouts include the wood-roasted oysters with chipotle butter and fish tamales rolled with house-made masa and Mole Amarillo -- a Oaxacan variation that lacks sweeteners, like chocolate, making for a brighter, spicier flavor. For dessert, chocolate molded into the shape of a coconut (faux fuzz and all) is served with a mallet; crack it open and scoop out coconut custard and cookie crumble.
Helen Greek Food and Wine
Nominee: Best New Restaurant
Neighborhood: West University/Rice Village
This might surprise you, but the idea to open a small taverna serving regional Greek food didn’t exactly take off at first in Houston. "When I first got here it was still all about steak restaurants,” says owner Evan Turner. After three failed attempts at funding, Turner got the space and a partner: William Wright (formerly A Voce, New York and La Madia, Sicily). Helen serves variations on staples like spanakopita, opting for wild greens over spinach (as it’s traditionally done in Greece) and keflokgraviera cheese (in addition to feta), which adds a surprising dimension to the dish; as well as things you may not immediately recognize as Greek, like grilled octopus with yellow split peas, and snapper stuffed with a Meyer lemon, pea, and fennel spread.
Nominee: Best Chef: Southwest, Manabu Horiuchi
Neighborhood: Upper Kirby
Good strip-mall sushi is something you’d expect from L.A., not Houston. But Manabu Horiuchi’s unassuming sushi joint Kata Robata stands out -- and not just because of the quality of fish (which is, admittedly, excellent). “The most important ingredient in sushi is the rice,” says Horiuchi (he goes by “Hori” in the restaurant). When rice is imported from Japan and soy sauce is made in-house with the chef’s own blend, the simple items like Toro and Kobe beef are just as memorable as the more elaborate foie gras and scallop sashimi and miso-crusted bone marrow.
Nominee, Outstanding Service
The Pass -- an upscale backroom in the dual-concept restaurant The Pass & Provisions -- offers a playful twist on formal dining, where tables are clad in white linens but silverware is, occasionally, optional. Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan (who met while running Gordon Ramsey's Maze) devised the nine-course menu to include upscale takes on layman’s food. The squid chicharron, in which the squid is pulverized and fried, then topped with slabs of octopus and seaweed, is eaten with your hands. The most impressive is a homemade pasta stuffed with rabbit with a side of roasted squash. It comes with a glass of broth, made from the rabbit legs and squash trimmings, to sip in between bites.
Anvil Bar & Refuge
Nominee: Outstanding Bar Program
Bobby Heugel hadn’t so much as stepped inside a craft-cocktail bar before he opened Anvil Bar & Refuge in 2009, which consequently kicked off Houston’s mixology movement. Perhaps that’s why it feels more homegrown than other bars like it -- Moleskine menus and vintage signs meet patrons drinking in cowboy boots on Friday afternoon. Though Anvil specializes in the classics, drinks are tailored to your preferences; I decided to try both. Heugel matched me with The Jungle Bird, which he described as, “The only good cocktail to come out of the ‘70s.” Anvil’s version uses black strap rum (mixed with lime, pineapple, and Campari), which adds a hint of maple. Though it was created in Kuala Lumpur, it feels like it’s made for the Texas heat.