The Return of the Dreaded “F” Word
There is a plastic squeeze bottle filled with soy sauce and another with Sriracha on every table at Lillo & Ella. “That’s our salt and pepper,” said chef and owner Kevin Naderi with a smile.
You may remember the restaurant’s building on Ella Boulevard in Shady Acres. Formerly, it was the home of Tex-Mex gastrocantina El Gran Malo, which moved downtown and became El Big Bad in June. Naderi’s transformation of the space has been nothing short of amazing—the formerly dark warren is now a sunny, spacious, cheerful café, with vibrant pops of turquoise and mandarin orange and ironic touches like a yellow plastic Buddha (which Naderi picked up at T.J. Maxx, by the way).
He calls Lillo & Ella’s array of dishes—which combine Chinese, Korean, Thai, and Vietnamese preparations with Western ingredients—“pan-Asian street food.” It’s a natural progression for the chef, whose menu at his first restaurant, beloved Montrose eatery Roost, includes such dishes as Middle Eastern roasted-and-fried cauliflower sprinkled with Japanese bonito fish flakes.
“I love Asian food—it’s what I cook for myself at home,” Naderi explained, “but I can’t very well open an authentic Vietnamese or authentic Thai restaurant—I’m Houston Persian.” And while he himself may have found the right niche, it remains to be seen whether the same will be true for his restaurant, i.e., whether Shady Acres is the right place for such an experiment, even if the food is both delicious and approachable.
Is Naderi’s cooking really pan-Asian street food? I believe there’s a better way to describe it—with a term critics far and wide have danced around ever since they overdosed on Pacific Rim cuisine in the 1990s. I’m speaking, of course, of fusion.
While the F word hasn’t entirely shed its old connotations (discordant travesties such as tandoori foie gras and Chinese chicken salad with toothache-sweet dressing), there’s no denying that Asian fusion—or, rather, a more modern and organic version of it—has lately crept back into fashion, and food writers have finally begun to admit it. In 2012, New York Times food critic Pete Wells revived the term in a review, and since then, world-renowned chefs like David Chang at Momofuku in New York have embraced it too.
At Lillo & Ella, Naderi studiously avoids authentic Asian recipes. My favorite entrée here is the hearty, spicy thai muu noodles tossed with spicy ground pork, chopped Thai chiles, and Chinese long beans. The noodles, which look a lot like linguine, are dressed with a tangy sauce of shredded herbs and lime juice. It would have been easy enough to use authentic Thai rice sticks instead—but half the fun of fusion cuisine comes in bringing your own preferred ingredients and influences to a previously rote dish, which is why you’ll find chewy Chinese egg noodles in Naderi’s creation.
Brussels sprouts have become an Asian-fusion standard, and Lillo & Ella’s version—charred with a Hong Kong–style dried-fish sauce known as XO—is one of the most interesting iterations in Houston. The soups and salads, meanwhile, represent some of Lillo & Ella’s most innovative dishes, incorporating ingredients not typically associated with Asian cuisine. The lemongrass and sweet potato soup with Napa cabbage and mushrooms is an unassuming but wonderful twist on tom yum soup, while the crispy calamari salad with crushed cashews, pineapple, and miso dressing is a luscious tangle of tentacles, tropical flavors, and influences. And the savory curried cauliflower and barley salad is great for those looking for a starch fix; it may be the restaurant’s most filling dish.
Another standout is something called Salty Viet Wings, a large pile of chicken wings boldly seasoned with fermented fish sauce and garlic caramel, a slow-cooked confit. There’s also a mound of blue crab fried rice—a huge dish with big chunks of crab and slices of sweet Chinese sausage—that deserves a place among the new classics of Gulf Coast cuisine.
For those who desire something a little more straightforward, Lillo & Ella’s basil flat iron beef is the Asian fusion answer to steak-frites, juicy, flavorful, and pleasantly chewy. It’s served with white rice at lunch and fries at dinner, the latter of which come with a tangy aioli dipping sauce. Other dishes are straight-up classics, such as the satay-like sesame beef on a stick or grilled skewers of scallops marinated in earthy Japanese miso. Still, you’ll find fusion elements even among these simpler offerings, as with the skewers of perfectly cooked Gulf shrimp marinated in tangy yogurt.
I enjoyed all these dishes, and I’m rooting for Lillo & Ella to succeed despite the challenges presented by its location. The place is doing a steady business at dinner, but lunch has been a challenge—the highly residential area is mostly empty during the day. By night, though, the restaurant comes alive, bolstered not just by neighborhood residents but by people who drive in from across the city to try Naderi’s newest fusion venture.
Still, the bar area hasn’t really caught on, which is a shame, because in addition to a selection of unusual wines and beers that complement the food well, there’s also a wonderfully sophisticated cocktail list. I love The Darb, a martini variation featuring dry gin, dry vermouth, apricot brandy, and a lemon garnish, and the Crawling Through Bellaire, made with coffee, cognac, and sweetened condensed milk. But craft cocktails are a hard sell with the locals. “People keep asking for margaritas,” Naderi sighs. Perhaps memories of El Gran Malo are cemented in their minds. Meanwhile, Hitachino, so beloved by beer nerds elsewhere in town, is barely selling at Lillo.
Naderi is determined to adapt and succeed, however, and envisions a future in which his restaurant becomes a stalwart Shady Oaks hangout. I hope it does. Lillo & Ella is an exciting place for diners to experiment with the sort of fusion food Naderi is becoming well known for, with the added bonus of a chic bar and an inviting patio. And as long as we are rehabilitating the term, I hope Kevin Naderi doesn’t mind if I call Lillo & Ella’s the coolest Asian-fusion restaurant in Houston.