Diversity in Dining

A Very Houstonian Brunch at Lowbrow

How to wear your heart on your sleeve (and eat well while doing it)

By Katharine Shilcutt May 1, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, I got wrapped up in reading a beautiful article by Julia Moskin in the New York Times about the emergence of Middle Eastern spices, seasonings, and ingredients in haute dining rooms across Manhattan—though chefs have often found themselves having to sneak those flavors into their food. "What is easy for spices has proved difficult for people," wrote Moskin. "And the troubles of the Middle East have had repercussions for chefs here, including a reluctance among many to draw attention to their background."

Not so in Houston, where our Middle Eastern community is a vital part of the city's landscape—both culinary and otherwise. Dr. Michael DeBakey, whose original last name was Dabaghi, was born to Lebanese immigrants. So was legendary wildcatter Michel Halbouty, and Joe Jamail—the billionaire attorney known as the "King of Torts." Here, pita is as common as po-boys. Here, Middle Eastern markets like Phoenicia are eclipsing Anglo grocery stores like Randall's. Here, we have halal taco trucks.

And so it was that the boisterously diverse brunch platter I recently ordered at Lowbrow spoke volumes about Houston, and the way we never feel the need to hide our cultural influences. We divulge them flagrantly and aggressively. Here is a breakfast of loosely coiled merguez lamb sausage from North Africa (made by the very British Richard Knight, former chef at Feast, for Black Hill Meats while he waits for his new restaurant to open), with Lebanese pita and "conflict-free" hummus from Palestine, accompanied by fried eggs and an tall glass of Vietnamese iced coffee. Here is Houston on a plate.

I've mentioned before how much Lowbrow itself, just by virtue of its Houston-themed wallpaper and watercolor paintings of dead Houston celebrities, is a celebration of our city. One would expect nothing less from Omar Afra, the founder of Free Press Houston and the associated Free Press Summer Fest, born in Beirut but raised in Houston from the age of 2. Just as Houston wears its Middle Eastern influences on its sleeve, so does the Lebanese Afra wear his love for our city on his own.

For a few unsteady months after opening, Lowbrow went through a rocky phase as it cycled through some personnel changes: initial chef Rachel Merk left, while her sous chef Jason Kerr (formerly of Hollister Grill and the Zilla Street Eats food truck) stepped in as her replacement. The waitstaff seemed unsteady too, and I had one of the longest meals in recent memory one Sunday morning as I waited 20 minutes for a cup of coffee, then 10 for a glass of water, then another 30 for my food, then another 20 for my check.

On this most recent visit, I was glad to see Afra and Kerr both on site; their presence seems to have stabilized the dining room, and our brunch went off without a hitch. This made me happy, because I want to recommend Lowbrow. I want people to go and experience its brash version of Houston cuisine, its menu dotted with masala chicken wings and "HISD breakfast burritos" and pastrami brisket sandwiches. I want people to experience how liberating it is to love something, and to wear that love on your sleeve for anyone to see.


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