Photography of Chris Shepherd of Underbelly by Julie Soefer Photography; Monica Pope by Jenna Noel
by Layne Lynch
Although Austin might be recognized as one of the premier, up-and-coming, local food-celebrating cities in the country, Houston continues to garner more and more of that same spotlight. In the last handful of years, many forward-thinking Houston chefs have embraced the importance of local foods, and they’ve received more than simple mentions in local print newspapers—they’ve been attracting attention from the likes of The New York Times, Bon Appétit and the James Beard Foundation.
Perhaps one of the most identifiable pioneers in the Bayou City’s move toward local is Monica Pope, chef and owner of Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. Not only is she a James Beard-nominated chef, she’s also appeared on Top Chef Masters. As a Houston native, Pope knew at a young age that she would influence the way her hometown’s culinary scene matured through the years. “I always believed I was going to change the way Houston eats,” Pope says.
It took venturing away from Houston for a young Pope to hone her craft as a tip-to-tail chef and local-food revolutionary. On her first stop, she retreated to her grandmother’s farm to learn the recipes that encompassed her family’s signature Czech baked goods. “Food is my language,” says Pope. “I felt like it was important for me to learn my family’s story. That’s how I see food today: I tell stories through my food.”
By the late 80s, years of working in both European and San Francisco kitchens had given Pope the assurance that it was time to return to Houston to bring her teenage goal to fruition. She started with Quilted Toque and later opened places like Boulevard Bistro, t’afia and Beaver’s.
During those years, Pope became one of the first Houston chefs to develop a local culinary scene—starting with purchasing produce from farmers at the back doors of her restaurants, then pioneering something no one at the time could have imagined: reliable, resourceful, urban farmers markets. “People thought I was some crazed hippie at the time,” she says. “But I understood how much change could take place by sourcing local.”
In mid-2012, Pope shuttered t’afia but promised to return with a reimagined concept that reflected both herself and Houston’s metamorphosis. Two weeks later, she reopened with new handcrafted furniture, new menu items and a new name: Sparrow Bar + Cookshop—a Fourth Ward neighborhood restaurant that showcases locally sourced dishes that are both affordable and approachable.
“There is something very wrong with a restaurant you feel you can’t visit more than once a year,” Pope says. “I was ready to let t’afia die, and I think the city was, too. Sparrow Bar is a reflection of where I am in my life now. I’m more approachable and open than I have ever been in the past fifty years.”
One chef who credits Pope for breaking ground for young guns like himself is Justin Yu, the chef and owner of Oxheart. Eating in family-owned Asian restaurants in his youth introduced Yu to the cooking bug, but it wasn’t until he began training in New York, Chicago, Napa, Belgium and Denmark at restaurants like In De Wulf and Geranium that Yu honed his now well-noted art for creating unexpectedly flavorful, vegetable-centric dishes.
“Through those experiences, I learned that vegetables really can carry a meal,” Yu says. “Oxheart is the type of food I feel most challenged and creative in making. Our food is inflected with Asian influences, herbaceousness and a sense of acidity. That’s my style of cooking.”
Before Yu opened Oxheart, he’d never even been a sous-chef. Rather, he had moved from restaurant to restaurant, city to city, learning what he could from his chef mentors. It was during this time that Yu began to cultivate an appreciation for local farmers, artisans and bycatch fishermen.
Alongside his equally talented wife, Karen Man, pastry chef of Oxheart, Yu opened his 31-seat space in March 2012. In the months since, Oxheart has been recognized as one of the best new restaurants in the nation by publications including the New York Times, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit and GQ.
Unlike many upscale restaurants, Oxheart isn’t lavished with over-the-top interior decor and unpronounceable foreign dishes. Decorated with spray-painted murals, DIY canvases, worn brick walls, a library of well-used cookbooks, vinyl records and a collection of 50-plus Asian fortune charms known as money cats, the restaurant exudes a new direction only a handful of Houston and Austin restaurants are finally embracing: creating cuisine that’s sourced responsibly and housed in homey spaces.
Season to season, Yu adds and subtracts producers—consistently working with Utility Research Garden for produce, PJ Stoops for Gulf Coast seafood and Three Sisters Farm for eggs and vegetables. On any given day, a menu might feature ingredients like flower petals, beets, carrots, okra, tomatoes, dried peaches and eggplant. And because of Yu’s commitment to seasonality, Oxheart’s ingredients and dishes must change daily.
“It’s challenging because you don’t know what a producer will be able to provide you with,” Yu says. “I think there definitely needs to be more of a dialogue between our producers and restaurants, and when that happens, I think we’ll see even more of a local shift in dining.”
Another Houston restaurant that’s earning a lot of national discussion lately is Underbelly—its cuisine creator’s mission is to tell “the story of Houston food.” Given that Houston is a smorgasbord of Vietnamese, Thai, Tex-Mex and Gulf Coast cuisines, and that Underbelly has quite the story to tell, it’s a blessing that Executive Chef Chris Shepherd is a fluid narrator.
Shepherd grew up in Oklahoma, and studied at the Art Institute of Houston—working in popular restaurants like Brennan’s and Catalan. When he tried to source locally at Catalan, though, Shepherd was surprised by the lack of options available to him. Thus, like any committed locavore, Shepherd drove to the green-acre outskirts of town, searching for the hand-painted wooden and cardboard signs that would direct him to small family farms and ranches.
It took some mileage, but eventually Shepherd cultivated a list of producers for both staple and exotic ingredients like whole hogs, heirloom tomatoes, wild blackberries and rabbit hearts. In fact, the majority of the meats and other ingredients Underbelly purchases come from within a 120-mile radius of the city. “Local is the only responsible way to run a restaurant,” he says. “It’s respectful to our farmers, our diners, our animals and our city.”
Underbelly looks like a modern ranch house, complete with nostalgic touches like pale wood tables, tasting menus tucked into vintage book covers and mason jar preserves. There’s a dark curing room with salted, succulent meats dangling from the ceiling, and a full-time butcher breaking down hog, lamb, goat, bovine and seafood just one room over. The best feature of the restaurant, though, is the menu, with its Thai, Chinese, Korean, American, Tex-Mex and Vietnamese influences.
Despite earning both a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best Chef: Southwest and a Food & Wine Best New Chef award this year, Shepherd says he hasn’t hit his stride. “I won’t be satisfied until I hear the word ‘perfect’ come out of my mouth, and that almost never happens in this business.”
A trip to Houston wouldn’t be complete without a stop at The Pass & Provisions, a two-in-one restaurant pioneered by chefs and co-owners Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. The Pass is the fine-dining arm of the establishment and features a daily tasting menu that’s sending critics and diners alike into a praising frenzy. The space embodies classic elegance, with white linen tablecloths, minimal lighting and comfy, plush lounge chairs.
Provisions, on the other hand, is more relaxed and communal, with a mostly staple menu of brick-oven pizzas, hearty sandwiches, rustic pastas, bread and cheese pairings, artisan meats and seasonal vegetable dishes. “We know what we like to eat,” Gallivan says, “and we put a lot of consideration into that process when we’re creating our two menus.”
Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan both have their own prestigious culinary pedigrees, but crossed paths while working in Gordon Ramsay’s New York restaurant, Maze, in 2005. Since then, they’ve become both business partners and best friends. “We admired and respected each other’s work ethic,” Siegel-Gardner says, and then adds with a laugh, “I think we understood that there is a collaborative process that must take place in the kitchen, and luckily we agree with each other on ideas nine out of ten times. The other ten percent of the time, we have to trust each other or resort to a fistfight.”
In terms of the space, the chefs settled on a Taft Street warehouse that previously housed institutions like Gravitas and the Antone’s Po’ Boy Deli and Import Company. Together, they’ve breathed new life into the 1950s-era building—adding small but meaningful touches like exposed brick, Julia Child voice recordings that play in the unisex bathroom, a sociable bar and one wall that divides cozy Provisions from the ever-elegant Pass.
“These are our first restaurants and we respect the time it takes to develop both of them,” Gallivan says. “We take that process as each day comes, and invite people from Austin to come in and let us know how we’re doing on that journey.”
Now, traveling to Houston isn’t just something to do to catch the latest Picasso exhibit or see the Texans play in the flesh. And though some might rely on local blogs, Urbanspoon or Yelp to identify the best restaurants in unfamiliar territories, it’s always better to let a native point you in the right direction. Just don’t be surprised if they lead you to one of these five dining gems.