Restaurant Review

Don't Underestimate These Casual Heights Hangouts

At La Lucha and Blackbird Izakaya , unpretentious, seriously great grub.

By Timothy Malcolm November 26, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

A blue crab lunch at La Lucha.

Image: Jenn Duncan

As evidenced by the dominance of the neighborhood restaurant and the chef-driven bar concept—see our list of 50 best restaurants from September—in this city, unpretentious is very much in. Houstonians want to relax on leather sofas with cocktails in hand, to banter with bartenders while snacking, to chat with the chef and get a peek inside the kitchen. We want in on the action.

In September restaurateur Ford Fry, owner of State of Grace, opened two new spots on Shepherd in the Heights: Superica, an outpost of the laidback Tex-Mex chain Fry launched in Atlanta (he’s from Houston but lived there for a time), and La Lucha, inspired by the food at the old San Jacinto Inn, the La Porte dive where his family slurped oysters, cracked crabs, and feasted on flaky fried chicken during vacations past. La Lucha’s vibe is right there on the menu: “No coats or ties necessary; even the food is served informally so that you may feel right at home.” Unpretentious it is.

The patio is outfitted with picnic tables, and the dining room is comfy, with dark wood chairs, tufted black leather seating, and cozy area rugs. The ceiling is all wood; the walls, white-painted brick. There’s a U-shaped bar, an oyster-shucking room, and a record player with stacks of Springsteen and Zeppelin albums. During one visit, it was apparently broken, but zydeco was playing, and I spotted more than one Hawaiian shirt.

In the kitchen, executive chef Bobby Matos, also of State of Grace, nails family-style Gulf Coast comfort. There’s an oyster menu plus a regular one with four short sections, for seafood, fried chicken, sides, and “Etcetera,” which throws together both appetizers and entrées.

The Etcetera plates are so large, I suggest sharing everything with everyone. Still, I wasn’t thrilled to give away half of my LA crawfish bread—seafood, sharp cheese, and rémoulade between slices of crispy, thin flatbread. It was delicious, as was the crispy shrimp taco with American cheese and árbol chile, which showcased Fry’s and Matos’s goofier sides.

La Lucha's gorgeous bar.

Image: Jenn Duncan

Other selections include the chowder fries, an enormous order of potatoes topped by a generous pour of decadent, salty oyster chowder that had me longing for my favorite Portland, Maine, seafood bar. But my favorite dish has to be the fried oyster loaf, a simple, perfectly executed dish of fried oysters, pickle slices, and Mrs. Baird’s mayonnaise between thick, lightly toasted bread. Tang, fat, crunch, and salt: It had everything. Seeking a healthier option? The lovable roast chicken salad stars a hefty, juicy cutlet with cabbage, topped with crave-worthy candied almonds, yogurt, and mint sauce.

La Lucha’s big family-style platters are perfect for a large group. The oyster menu’s Poor Man’s Plateau—an $80 spread of grilled oysters, peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, fried shrimp, blue crab, frog legs, crawfish meat pies, smoked Gulf dip, and saltines—will make you swear you feel the salt air. And the pollo especiale, a whole or half fried bird, comes piled onto a platter with biscuits and four sauces: green harissa, honey sambal, oyster mayonnaise, and apple butter. Fry says it’s an attempt to re-create the San Jacinto Inn chicken recipe, and it’s a winner: juicy, oven-hot meat with uber-crispy, lightly salty skin. My only complaint was that I wished my plate, and the two-top where I was seated, had been bigger, as I had trouble keeping it all contained.

I had a similar experience devouring the Texas blue crabs from the seafood menu, on another night when I sat at the bar. The crabs, bathed in a rich Thai basil garlic butter, nearly spilled off the tray, which wasn’t enough to hold the remnants of shell. But the bartenders were quick with an extra plate, along with hot towels and plenty of conversation.

As it turned out, the bar was the perfect place to enjoy La Lucha’s bounty. I’ll be back, hopefully with a good view of the shucker battling bivalves from Alabama and Florida, as well as another invitation to thumb through the vinyls. I’ll have the cool, crisp gin cocktail called First Things First, or maybe some bubbly or mezcal, before ordering crabs and fried chicken and trying my best not to make a mess, not that they judge anyone for that here.

Best of all, I won’t need a coat. 

Popular at Blackbird Izakaya: the carbonara di uni and the skewers

Image: Jenn Duncan

The bar is also paramount at Blackbird Izakaya, owned by Ken Bridge, the man behind Heights concepts including Pink’s Pizza, Lola, and Ritual. Blackbird—also in the neighborhood, in the same space as Bridge’s and chef Bill Kin’s old Republic Diner—replaces Korean street food with Japanese pub grub: Izakaya translates loosely to “stay at the sake shop.” Cooks execute dishes behind the bar in full view of patrons. Diners can purchase a masu (wooden box for drinking sake), design it however they like, and bring it back to display on the wall.

As with La Lucha, the atmosphere here is informal and communal. Each time I walked in, employees in black T-shirts tossed “heys” and “welcomes” my way, instructing me to sit wherever I chose. As ’80s and ’90s hip-hop played, the servers bounced around casually. I think I met all of them during the course of a night. “That dish is dope,” one told me. Another called me “bro.”

Masu decorated by customers at Blackbird Izakaya's bar

Image: Jenn Duncan

While seated at the bar during my first visit, I asked a bartender about my Shiso Fine cocktail, a sweet, springy delight featuring yuzu, simple syrup, Topo Chico, and the Korean spirit called soju, finished with a shiso leaf. Kin, overhearing the question while cooking nearby, nudged the server to explain that soju is popular in Japanese izakayas because its low alcohol content means one can enjoy a few.

Ordering here is a heck of a lot of fun. I rapped with my bartender over which kushiyaki (skewers) to choose; he recommended the grilled ribeye, breast mentai, and belly enoki. He was right about both the ribeye, enlivened by a salty glaze and crunchy scallions, and the tender chicken breast, served with a torched roe mayonnaise I wanted to bottle and take home. But although I enjoyed the thought of the belly enoki, which combines fatty pork with earthy mushrooms, I found the chewy fungi overpowering.

Of the cold plates, the ankimo was my favorite. Slices of marinated, steamed monkfish liver melted in my mouth like salty foie gras, a sprinkling of sesame seeds providing just enough crunch and a squeeze of lime a bit of brightness. Harmonious, too, was the miniature garden: pieces of ahi tuna with creamy sesame sauce over tightly packed sushi rice, wrapped in romaine. The lettuce was distracting, but the sauce popped and the fish was ocean-fresh. For something completely different, the potato salad—showcasing a tangy mayonnaise, a lingering mustard bite, and a silky, soft poached egg—was divine.

Chef Billy Kin at work

Image: Jenn Duncan

The hot-plate standout was the gyoza, which were also on the menu at Republic: You’ll want to devour all five juicy, pork-filled, pan-fried dumplings. I hoped for more, however, from the kimchi-marinated karaage, since the chicken tasted as if it had been fried a half-minute too long, and the taste of kimchi was absent entirely.

One could easily hang at Blackbird for hours, sipping soju and ordering the small plates. Of course, no Japanese concept is complete without rice dishes and noodles, and there are a few exciting options. The foie hot pot—a bowl of rice under a sunny-side egg, shiso, and a foie skewer—was elevated by its excellent dashi, poured over top by the server. I engaged with every element, from the saltiness of the broth to the light crispiness of the rice. It was symphonic, as was the carbonara di uni, featuring sea urchin paste and roe dolloped over al dente spaghetti for an artful plate so briny and rich, it felt like a signature dish.

Another holdover from the old menu is the ramen, including a tonkotsu with a 12-hour pork-marrow broth and a miso version with a spicy chile bomb. During one of my visits, a couple sitting beside me at the bar ordered bowls of ramen while chatting with Bridge. They had been to each of his concepts and were excited to check in, much like old friends. I hope to be like them one day, just another regular looking for a seat at the bar.

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