In this multi-part series, Eat America, we will be exploring American cities emerging as dining destinations. Read as we profile a sampling of chefs who are bringing boldness and brilliance to market while employing social media to showcase themselves. This report was made possible with research conducted on behalf of McCormick For Chefs.
Houston is not what you might picture straight away when you imagine south Texas. As Anthony Bourdain discovered on a recent episode of the Parts Unknown, it’s a city whose culinary scene is defined more by its vibrant multiculturalism than by classic southern cooking. If there’s one thing that stands out as typically Texan, it’s the bold confidence of the chefs and their concepts – from delicate, vegetable centered menus to true thalis and dosas, this is one city you might be surprised to learn that you can have it all.
Brandi Key at Clark Cooper Concepts
Chef Brandi Key has a passion for real homemade fare, the sort of food that takes time and care. It must be difficult to balance that with being culinary director for six of Houston’s best restaurants. Chef Key claims, “I’m the sort of person who can sort of morph into what I need to do.”
It’s a needed asset for the diverse portfolio of restaurants she runs. Clark Cooper Concepts stands for quality and consistency across all sorts of cuisine, whether it’s the chicken fried steak at PUNK’s or the delicately arranged salumi board at Coppa Osteria.
We love Brandi’s Instagram feed for her vibrant, colorful food shots that just scream, “Real food, this way!”
Chris Shepherd at Underbelly
Chris Shepherd is more than just a James Beard Award winning chef. He’s positioned himself as a key player in a movement to define exactly what makes Houston’s cuisine unique. Chef Shepherd conceives of food as a narrative and wants to impart every influence the city has left on him to his guests.
As much as the appetizing food shots on Shepherd’s Instagram feed are sure to make you hungry, we were even more impressed with Shepherd’s list “Houston Love” shouting out every restaurant and personality he feels reps Houston’s culinary scene right, from high enders like Pass and Provisions, to a local Goat Farm and even H-Town’s own hitmaker, rapper Bun B.
Justin Yu at Oxheart
If you’re still thinking Texan food is all about butter, a big ol’ pile of BBQ and deep-fried everything, Justin Yu’s take on Southern food is about as far from that as you could possibly fathom.
The name Oxheart refers not to meat of any kind, but to a variety of heirloom tomato. Chef Yu offers two menus nightly: the garden menu, which is totally meatless, and the tasting menu, which incorporates meat sparingly. Either way, the emphasis is on creativity, invention and the elegant finish of a restrained, light touch. Oxheart’s online presence is exactly what you’d expect – turn to their Instagram for carefully made, quiet images in the often loud online world.
There’s a time and place for everything and if deep-fried everything, hold-the-veggies is what you’re craving, get in line at Lotus. Crawdads, shrimp, catfish, fried rice and po’ boys, it’s never made quite clear if this is a Cantonese restaurant reimagined for the deep south, or a Texas gulf restaurant with a slightly Asian bent. In any case, it’s a formula that’s spawned three locations and a near constant influx of arguably addicted customers.
With over 50,000 followers, these guys must be doing something right on Instagram. While the instant likability of deep-fried food might account for some of it, Lotus’ edgy attitude plays into its online success. Menu items like “loud packs” and “crack sauce” have rocketed their popularity.
Anita Jaisinghani at Pondicheri Cafe
Houston is home to one of the largest Indian communities in America and no roundup of Houston’s restaurant scene would be complete without a nod to the influence of Indian cuisine on the city’s culinary scene.
A trained microbiologist, Chef Jaisinghani bucked family expectations when she entered the culinary world to pursue her lifelong ambition of being a restaurateur. Hopefully family shock turned to delight as Chef Jaisinghani’s success became undeniable, opening two more locations (one in NYC) and being picked as the #7 best restaurant in Houstonia Magazine’s top 100.
See Pondicheri’s Instagram for bright and beautiful chili and cilantro laced dosas and thalis.
Leo Moncel is a food writer, photographer and emerging social media professional. He draws on years of experience as a line cook and a hands-on knowledge of regional cuisines to inform his work. He is one half of the foodie adventure team @appetitetours.