According to my handy Frommer's statewide guidebook, Houston is "not usually considered a tourist destination."
Sounds like the folks doing the considering don't let their guts lead, since -- as I discovered on my first trip there this weekend -- Houston is an incredibly exciting town for eaters. I'm sure native Houstonians could parse the reasons behind their city's culinary vivacity better than I, but the food geeks I quizzed repeatedly credited the coastal city's diverse population and extraordinarily strong food community.
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How strong? When I mused over dinner Saturday night that I wasn't sure how to spend the next day, my host, Jenny Wang, messaged her fellow "Houston Chowhounds," instantly summoning enthusiastic invitations from strangers for me to brunch, lunch or dim sum with them. Under Wang's much-admired leadership, the Chowhounds -- who number about 800 -- have held tasting dinners, cooking classes and quarterly throwdowns featuring Houston's top chefs; this summer, the group raised $30,000 for Gulf Coast fishermen.
According to the Chowhound members I met, the camaraderie chefs have forged at group-sponsored events has helped fuel a new kitchen culture of collaboration and cross-pollination -- and restaurant-goers have been the sated beneficiaries.
Something's obviously working, because Houston's pretty delicious. The three dishes listed here were particular standouts. Since I was only in town for 36 hours, I mostly patronized the heavy hitters, but look forward to learning which under-the-radar eateries I should seek out on my next visit.
- 1. Oysters Gilhooley, Gilhooley's, San Leon This dish has received so much press it's astounding it doesn't travel by limo. Saveur doted on it a few years back, and former Houston Press critic Robb Walsh recently ensured locals would have to keep sharing their rough-hewn hangout by naming its signature oysters his favorite dish in Houston. All the hype's deserved: The plump wood-roasted oysters are doused with garlic butter, and then smothered with nutty, tangy parmesan cheese cooked to a golden ember.
- 2. Potato salad, Stella Sola I was initially reluctant to order a dish as prosaic-sounding as potato salad, which should be a lesson in the hazards of potato heresy. I'm still marveling at the house-smoked mayonnaise that swabbed the heirloom potatoes, white and tender against crisp, salty wisps of pig ear. The brilliant dish is lovingly graced by a single perfectly poached egg: No wonder chef Justin Bayse was short-listed for the James Beard award in the Rising Star Chef category this year.
- 3. Local peach sour, Anvil Bar & Refuge The peaches in Anvil's gorgeous bourbon drink come from Texas, and the eggs were bought at a shop just four blocks away. I know, because we did the buying: The immensely popular cocktail bar was so slammed on Saturday night that Wang and I were sent on an egg-fetching errand. The resultant drink, massaged with just the right amount of bitters and a splash of acidic lemon juice, was soft and frothy and wonderful.