Houston, Texas, is arguably best known as America's centre for space travel. But the city's diverse restaurant scene is gaining momentum as a rival attraction – it has been dubbed the country's most exciting by media mogul and chef David Chang.
The fourth most populous city in the US, Houston's proximity to Mexico and status as a safe haven following the Vietnam War, together with the oil industry, universities, world-renowned Texas Medical Center and warm climate, have fostered a population that's 63 per cent Hispanic, African American, Asian or other non-Anglo. Almost a quarter of Houstonians were born overseas and more than 10,000 restaurants represent upwards of 70 countries. Each has a story to tell, but no one shares it better than these chefs.
Paratha-dilla at Himalaya Restaurant, Houston. Photo: Sofia Levin
The Pioneer: Kaiser Lashkari
"Have some more," says Kaiser Lashkari, pushing his chicken biryani towards me. "I am typically a Jewish grandmother when it comes to feeding."
I'm sitting in his restaurant, Himalaya, in Houston's Mahatma Gandhi District and can't take my eyes off the walls obscured by framed accolades and newspaper clippings. Two years before graduating as a doctor in Pakistan, in the early '80s, Lashkari horrified his parents by moving to America to study for his master's in hotel management. He learnt to cook in the kitchens of global hotels in Pakistan before settling for good in Houston.
Today the city's food scene is a very different place. Lashkari says: "I would sum it up in one sentence: It is everything under the stars. Anyone who has settled here brings their culture and their country here."
Himalaya's menu is an encyclopaedia of Indian and Pakistani dishes with thumbs-up symbols next to the names Zimmern and Bourdain to denote dishes personally approved by celebrity chefs Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain.
Beside chicken masala and lamb vindaloo are Lashkari's Houston-inspired creations, such as paratha-dilla (an Indian take on quesadilla), and a "Revolving Friendly Fusion" menu on weekends with such specials as smoked brisket, chicken fried steak and crawfish etouffee – all spiced with masala.
"The credit goes to the Houstonians because they were really receptive to new ideas," says Lashkari. "You don't just throw things together and say, 'This is fusion.' It actually has to taste good."
I comb through the menu and spot masala matzo ball soup – perhaps Lashkari is a Jewish grandmother, after all.
The Innovators: Quy Hoang, Robin Wong and Terry Wong
A few kilometres away in Bellaire, lines form outside Blood Bros. BBQ half an hour before the doors open. Robin Wong and his brother, Terry, enlisted their high school buddy Quy Hoang, Houston's first Vietnamese American pitmaster, to launch Blood Bros around Christmas 2018. Initially, they were just serving Texas-style barbecue. "Then after that we started exploring with different flavours," says Hoang.
Brisket fried rice is now one of their best-selling dishes. Others include Thai green curry boudin, and smoked turkey and pork belly banh mi. But Robin Wong is adamant it's not "fusion" cuisine. "We just say Houston food," he says.
For the past five years, the city has been experiencing a barbecue renaissance. "I think there are some traditionalists that already have it set in their mind that they're not going to like us," Wong says. "They're kind of like, 'Who are these new guys that everyone thinks are so great? They can't be that good.' We've been able to turn those kinds of people into regulars."
Viet-Cajun crawfish at Crawfish & Noodles in Houston. Photo: Sofia Levin
The Uniter: Trong Nguyen
According to chef Trong Nguyen, owner of Crawfish & Noodles in Little Saigon, Vietnamese American food could be the next Tex-Mex – a melding of two cuisines to create a popular new cuisine. For Trong, Viet-Cajun crawfish (somewhere between a yabby and a tiny lobster) might be the dish that bridges the gap. When he opened 11 years ago he spent most of his time working the floor, explaining the dish to customers. The crawfish are cooked, then tossed with Vietnamese and Cajun spices, along with preserved garlic and French butter. You eat them with your fingers like Singaporean chilli crab, tasting the flavour first, then the sweetness of the flesh.
When Andrew Zimmern featured the restaurant on his television series Bizarre Foods America in 2013, people really started to notice. The Zimmern List featured it again more recently, as did Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown and David Chang's Ugly Delicious. Now you need a booking if you want to visit.
"Right now it's more on trend and I'm very lucky to be a leader of the pack. It's just started kicking in the past few years; it's getting more recognition," says Nguyen. "There's no right way or wrong way to eat. Houston is progressive ... and I continue to do my part, and so do all the other chefs."
UB Preserv, Houston, Texas. Photo: Julie Soefer
The Advocate: Chris Shepherd
James Beard Award-winner and multi-restaurant owner Chris Shepherd is a poster boy for the Houston dining scene. He, too, rejects the term "fusion food", preferring to use "Creolisation".
"Fusion is like bones being fused together; that's a painful process. Creolisation is a more natural fit," he says. "You talk about Creole and that's multiple cultures coming into one area over a period of time."
American born and raised, Shepherd has been a huge part of Houston's Creolisation since launching Underbelly in 2012, which morphed into UB Preserv last year. His other restaurants include Hay Merchant, One Fifth and Georgia James Steakhouse. At the latter, a chef brings out a good-looking piece of meat for Shepherd to inspect. "Do you want to call it nam jim-marinated or do you want to call it Vietnamese pesto?" he asks. Shepherd picks the latter, careful not to alienate customers without Vietnamese heritage or knowledge of the cuisine.
In this sense, Shepherd views his restaurants as a "gateway drug" to learning more about other cultures through food. There's a list of restaurants on the UB Preserv website that have inspired him. The preamble reads: "They have enriched our lives in ways we can't describe. Sure, we'd love to have you back at UB Preserv, but we politely request that you visit at least one of these folks first."
A photo wall in the corner of the restaurant features chefs, most born overseas, who have taught Shepherd how to cook their food. "Whether it be Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean – I have all these little families that I've built these relationships with along the way," he says.
Hugo Ortega at his Houston restaurant Xochi, which specialises in Oaxacan cuisine. Photo: Julie Soefer
The Trailblazer: Hugo Ortega
For chef Hugo Ortega, Houston was – and remains – a city of opportunity. Hugo never imagined he'd be where he is now when he was washing dishes in the mid-'80s at a neighbourhood bistro, owned by his now-wife and business partner, Tracy Vaught.
"We [Mexicans] are the backbone of the industry, like many other ethnic groups are the backbones of different regions of the States," says Ortega. "We are here, and we are very thankful for the opportunity to be here, and we do our best."
Hugo's best has taken him a long way. Vaught saw something in Ortega at the beginning and asked if he'd be interested in going to culinary school. He graduated in 1992 and 10 years later, they opened Hugo's, bringing regional Mexican cuisine to Houston. Mexican seafood restaurant Caracol followed in 2013, and in 2017 Xochi introduced the city to Oaxacan cuisine, which Hugo learnt to cook from his grandmother when he was aged just 10.
Ortega admits it was ambitious to open specialised Mexican restaurants. "As Houston has been growing and developing, and the city has become more diverse, I think Houstonians were ready to try something like this type of cuisine," he says.
Jonny Rhodes at Indigo restaurant, Houston, Texas. Photo: Caroline Fontenot
The Change-maker: Jonny Rhodes
At Indigo, a 13-seat BYO restaurant where guests are simultaneously treated to a tasting menu and a history lesson, 28-year old Jonny Rhodes aims to become entirely self-sufficient – not just for his restaurant, but for a grocery store, too. "When you drive here, there are no grocery stores. There are two liquor stores on every single corner … So long as there is classism within food, everybody is subject to being a slave," he says.
On approach, my Uber driver is hesitant to drop me in shadowy Lindale Park, the neighbourhood where Rhodes grew up. It's just 11 kilometres north of Downtown, but for many Houstonians it's their first visit.
Rhodes uses his tasting menu to shine a light on African slavery, socialism, classism and the state of food. At $US125 a head, the menu is challenging the perception that soul food is always cheap, which has implications for the people who have traditionally cooked it.
One dish, "Slum Village", is an elevated version of an ashcake made with spuds preserved in ash and ladled with caramelised potato creme – a reference to the food rations of African slaves. Another, "Turtlenecks and Durags", is accompanied by a monologue about oppressed groups crawling over each other to survive, like crabs in a bucket, as you bite into buttery crab.
Rhodes challenges his guests to see value in a culture with a dark history of oppression. "The greatest thing you can give somebody is a meal," he tells us, "because you never know when your next one is going to be."
Sofia Levin travelled with assistance from TravelTexas.com, Westin Oaks Houston at the Galleria, Hotel Alessandra and Hotel Derek.
Blood Bros, bloodbrosbbq.com
Crawfish and Noodles, crawfishandnoodles.com
UB Preserv, ubpreserv.com
Hay Merchant, haymerchant.com
Georgia James Steakhouse, georgiajamessteak.com
One Fifth Houston, onefifthhouston.com
United Airlines flies direct from Sydney to Houston from $1280 return.
In the upmarket Galleria area to the west of the centre, the recently renovated Westin Oaks Houston at the Galleria is attached to The Galleria shopping and entertainment centre with an American restaurant, lobby bar and outdoor pool (marriott.com, from $329 a night), while Hotel Derek is positioned somewhere between young-couple-staycation and business-stopover, with a small pool, cow hide-pattern robes and comfortable rooms (hotelderek.com, from $220 a night). Newer Hotel Alessandra in Downtown is more refined with a spa, pool, restaurant, bar and pops of emerald velvet – plus a complimentary Maserati car service within the area (hotelalessandra-houston.com, from $375 a night).