New & Notable

First Look at Pax Americana

With great power comes great responsibility.

By Katharine Shilcutt August 8, 2014

Pork belly with eggplant and squash; the dining room at Pax Americana.

If you look past the political implications of naming a restaurant Pax Americana and all the imperialist connotations that are naturally identified with the phrase, Pax Americana is a very fitting name for the sort of territory that restaurants currently occupy in Houston. If you simply think of Pax Americana (or Pax Romana for that matter) referring to a time in a nation's history during which it's flourishing economically, creatively and agriculturally, there's a strong parallel to draw there between that and the flush Bayou City boomtown we now find ourselves in.

It's not that we haven't gone through these high tides before—even my own memory isn't that short—but it's hard to imagine a time in which Houston could sustain the number of inventive, creative, and [not coincidentally] pricey restaurants it does these days. After a short fallow period, Pax Americana is the latest of this crop of restaurants to emerge from the same fertile soil that gave us places like Underbelly, The Pass & Provisions and Oxheart.

It's not a drink menu; it's a beverage journal.

Around this time four years ago, its chef, Adam Dorris, was hosting "Ghetto Dinner" pop-up suppers at a Montrose dive bar while its pastry chef, the equally talented Plinio Sandalio, had left his station at the ultra-creative but short-lived Textile. Houston wasn't quite ready to host the Dorrises and Sandalios of the world in dining rooms of their own, but you could feel the city building toward it, a wave swelling softly from the ocean floor. Dorris's Ghetto Dinners, the Just August series of dinners from chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan (now at The Pass & Provisions), the Money Cat suppers from chef Justin Yu (now at Oxheart)—each passing meal added to the swell, brought new fans, transformed diners' ideas of what a meal could or should be.

And here we all are now, four years later. Sometimes those four years feel like an instant, sometimes they feel like a generation has passed. In some ways, it has. These young chefs have become the new standard-bearers—a fact cemented by Chris Shepherd's recent James Beard award for his work at Underbelly. 

I can't recommend the peach old-fashioned enough.

Pax Americana makes sense in this regard, a regime change of sorts. Restaurants like Pax and chefs like Dorris and Sandalio are now defining Houston's future as a food city and a standard-bearer in its own right. The wave is crashing on our shores.

We are now eating once-unthinkable items like deep-fried sanguinaccio with horchata ice cream and thinking nothing of it other than how delicious it is. We are demanding that our bourbons be infused with grilled peaches because to do otherwise would be boring. We are ordering tables full of gleefully mismatched dishes that only make sense to us and only make sense here in Houston: Texas brisket coated with French-Indian vadouvan and a hint of New York–style corned beef under the smoke ring; house-made goat's milk ricotta topped with strawberry preserves; grilled canary melon with marinated feta and honey. We may have never figured out what to call this Mutt City style of cuisine, but it doesn't matter anymore; like obscenity, we know it when we see it.

And there is a slight obscenity to it all, of course—in the gluttonous way we order food until our tables sag under the weight of so many small plates, in the gourmet expectations we all now possess when plenty of us didn't even know what vadouvan was a few years ago or what to do with the weird canary melons we occasionally saw in Asian grocery stores. But a certain amount of obscenity accompanies any sort of Pax period, when we're all quite pleased with ourselves and how far we've come and how perfect everything is right now. How relatively perfect. And that's okay, as long as we all know that obscenity when we see it, and learn how to appreciate how lucky we are in a decent, dignified manner.

Top: U-10 shrimp in spices; bottom: sanguinaccio fritters.

I realize this may seem like I have mixed feelings towards Pax Americana. But I don't. The clever, delicious food that Dorris and Sandalio are turning out is mostly impeccable. The soundtrack—heavy on subversive pop like Springsteen and Bowie—and the decor, which features the equally subversive pop art of Warhol and Haring, seems to signal a tongue-in-cheek nod (subconscious or not) to the imperialist implications of the restaurant's name. I'm thrilled that Pax Americana has arrived. And I have a feeling these new standard-bearers will wield their responsibility and influence more wisely than anyone else who's ever uttered the phrase "Pax Americana" in reference to their own hegemony.

Oh, and try the succulent U-10 shrimp. They're as big as your forearm. America.

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