Visiting our nation’s fourth largest city? Better to arrive (very) hungry
- Last Updated: 4:20 PM, April 30, 2012
- Posted: 11:12 PM, April 23, 2012
It might long for the respect it probably now deserves as the fourth-largest city in the country, but to me Houston has always been nothing more than New Orleans if New Orleans took a bath, put on a suit — a rather ill-fitting one — and got a job. A job that leaves it with more money to throw down on the bar at five o’clock in the afternoon, otherwise known as the time when the serious drinking (as opposed to the possible lunch drinking) begins. Which then, of course, leads to the eating.
I love the cultural life in this often brutally ugly town — the uniqueness of the Menil Collection, a little Renzo Piano-designed Met in the middle of a park in residential Montrose, the outstanding Symphony, walking under the live oaks in Memorial Park, all that stuff — but after a few visits, I have to admit to myself that the real reason I go to Houston is to get fed.
I’m still dreaming about the queso at El Real, an old-is-new Tex-Mex joint from local celeb Bryan Caswell and semi-retired food writer and authority on Texas food Robb Walsh. (Number of days it took for my blazer to stop smelling like delicious, sizzling lard: Two.) It was one of too many quesos I consumed in a 24-hour period and entirely worth the shame spiral I descended into somewhere in the middle of the whole, beautiful ordeal.
Of course, there was more than queso this time. There was incredible house-made charcuterie and artisanal Texas cheeses at Revival Market in the Heights; it’s a sort of mini-Eataly run by hipsters, with an obsessive focus on local products. Before that, I stopped by the neighborhood’s super-smart Down House, an excellently Houston affair where you have people downing absinthe and carefully made cocktails in broad daylight, one table over from a studious laptopper sipping on a perfect espresso — why wait, when you can start early? (They serve food there too, by the way.)
The real buzz this visit, though, was around Underbelly, the latest effort from local big-name chef Chris Shepherd. It’s a rustic-sleek space on lower Westheimer Road in the happening Curve district (that’s where El Real is located — to point out one more of many reasons this neighborhood is becoming a go-to going-out spot); Shepherd’s goal is to chronicle and celebrate the new Houston food. A Herculean task, Houston food being as broad and diverse as it is these days — I should know; a few days of trying to sample it all can really take the wind out of your sails. (This time, I only lasted two days, before I had to put down the fork and walk away.)
Exhausted and content, I retired to the patio at El Gran Malo, a cool but divey tequila bar on a superbly awful corner facing a shoot ‘n’ stab gas station, a Mexican restaurant and other assorted random Houstonia; I went here because every chef I encountered during my visit told me that this was the spot. I absolutely had to go, they said.
So I went and I drank tequila, because that’s what I saw everyone else doing. A lot of it too, apparently — by the end of the night, I vaguely remember being on the other side of town stalking a food truck selling lobster that may or may not have actually existed. Which was fine — it would be days before I was in a position to eat a proper meal again.
Learn more about Houston at visithoustontexas.com.