Houston is America’s most exciting restaurant city. Yes, we realize that every hometown publication from Cleveland to Salt Lake City makes the same sort of brag. Being biased is part of the gig, after all. But don’t listen to them—or us.
Listen to Food & Wine, which pronounced Houston “America’s newest capital of great food” in may, or the editors of Departures, whose july/august issue declared that Houston “boasts the most dynamic and diverse food and drink scene in the nation.” Listen to Southern Living, which in August named Houston “the most interesting, far-ranging, delightful food city in the South—strike that, in America—right now.”
And listen to longtime Houstonians asking “When did all that happen?”
It’s a reasonable question. It’s hard to keep track of such changes because they happen in slow motion. “Ethnic Influences Fuel a Takeoff in Houston Dining,” reads the headline over a New York Times story in which the paper’s restaurant critic marvels at Houston’s flourishing multi-ethnic restaurant scene. It sounds like breaking news, and it was when the article was written, in 1996.
At that point Houston was already a majority-minority city. Taking advantage of changes in immigration laws and attracted by affordable real estate and a hot job market, immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America had poured into the Houston area during the 1970s and ’80s. Soon after, eateries serving cuisines from Korea, India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America began popping up in strip centers all over town.
Then, with a lot of curiosity and little fanfare, we all started sampling each other’s cooking. “That’s what I love about Houston,” says chef Travis Lenig of Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar, a lifelong Houstonian. “There are so many cultures here … everybody is willing to step outside the box and try new food.”
Houston’s current generation of young chefs grew up eating dumplings, bun bo Hue, curry, kimchi, piri-piri, and ceviche. So when they opened their own restaurants, they naturally brought all these flavors and ingredients with them—combining them with Houston downhome favorites like oysters, grits, and greens.
Our town’s top cooks are quick to give credit where it’s due. When the Convention and Visitors Bureau asked them to take part in a tour of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, they came back with another idea: take visitors on tours of the chefs’ favorite—albeit more obscure—Houston eateries. “Every city has some good restaurants,” one of them observed at a planning meeting I attended (I served as a guide on some of the barbecue tours). “But it’s the ethnic mom-and-pop joints that make the Houston food scene amazing.” The popular “Where the Chefs Eat” tours take visitors beyond the Inner Loop, to Long Point, Chinatown, and the Mexican mercados along Airline Drive. The tours sell out within minutes.
Clearly, there’s a new normal at work, and it’s transformed our dining scene. It’s hard to believe that when Doyle’s Restaurant opened on 34th Street in 1954, it was among the only places in town to serve then-exotic Italian foods like spaghetti and pizza. Today, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Korean, and Latino dishes are merging into the mainstream like latter-day spaghetti. Cilantro, fish sauce, Sriracha, and other ingredients once considered too weird for your local supermarket have become ubiquitous.
If the demographers are accurate, it won’t be long before America becomes a nation of minorities, and that shift will bring some fascinating changes to the great American potluck. But for Houstonians, that day has already come. The boundaries between national cuisines have blurred, and a supranational cuisine is taking shape. If Houston is being recognized as one of the most exciting food cities in America, it’s because we are much farther down the supranational highway than anyplace else—and the accelerator is still on the floor. Meanwhile, the Eurocentric qualifier “ethnic” is becoming ever more inappropriate. In a city like Houston, where some of our top restaurants serve Mexican and Indian food, what does the term “ethnic restaurant” mean? And why isn’t French an ethnic cuisine?
For Benjy Mason, the thirty-something chef at Down House, specializing in one single cuisine no longer makes any sense. “There used to be this emphasis on cooking one particular thing, like Northern Italian cuisine,” he says. “Nowadays, it’s less natural for younger chefs to cook that way. We grew up eating what’s now called ethnic food. I like to think we won’t worry about what to call it anymore, and at some point it just normalizes into ‘Houston cuisine.’”
Which brings up the perplexing question: what do we call the food in America’s most exciting food city?
Last year in the Oxford American, John T. Edge wrote that over the last decade, “this mutt of a port city, which is arguably the most ethnically diverse municipality in the U.S., began to emerge as the South’s 21st-century Creole capitol.”
There can be little argument that Houston, as the new center of immigration in the South, has replaced New Orleans as the hotbed of the cultural blending known as creolization. But the term “Creole” is the third rail of American food writing—nobody wants to touch it, probably because so many different groups claim exclusive rights to use it.
We aren’t the only city playing host to a hodgepodge of cultures and ethnicities, of course. But in places like New York and Los Angeles, the stratified social structure prevents the constant collision of cultures and cuisines we see here. Maybe it’s that Gulf Coast port cities are more easygoing. Maybe Houston is friendlier than other places. “Maybe it’s the ‘no zoning’ thing,” jokes RDG + Bar Annie’s Robert Del Grande. It’s funny because it’s so true. Our neighborhoods blend into one another in a way New Yorkers will never understand.
And Houstonians’ tastes are similarly unzoned. Our fondness for (or tolerance of) fiery chile peppers, pungent fermented fish sauces, offal, and bycatch (formerly known as trash fish), may well be what has propelled Houston to the forefront of the new American dining scene. Our adventurous palates give chefs from Mexico, India, China, Vietnam, and Korea the confidence to prepare their food authentically. Those same palates allow young chefs like Mason to put a kimchi burger on the menu—not because he’s trying to create some Korean fusion cuisine, but just because it tastes good.
The result is a uniquely Houston cuisine—whatever you want to call it—and one that leaves culinary visitors from other cities dizzy and awestruck. It’s a sometimes subtle, sometimes outrageous recombinant cooking style still in its infancy. Perhaps it’s nothing short of prophetic, as some claim. Maybe it’s on the cutting edge of an emerging national trend.
Who knows? All we can say for sure is that Houstonians are eating food the rest of America hasn’t even thought of yet.