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Houston cuisine is so unique, it has a former NYC restaurant columnist singing its praises

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
Texas Standard

As the fourth most populous city in the nation and the largest in Texas, Houston is known for a lot of things: pro sports, world-class art museums and NASA Space Center Houston.

But it’s the city’s food scene that’s really worth getting excited about these days.

It certainly caught the attention of Bao Ong, who recently left New York City to become the newest restaurant columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He joined Texas Standard to share why Houston’s restaurant scene is so exciting.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You wrote about food while living in New York City for practically a decade and a half. Why come to Houston now?

Bao Ong: You know, the quick answer would be that, you know, I truly believe Houston has a more exciting restaurant scene than New York City. It might be hard to believe for some people, but, you know, it was enough for me to uproot myself after 14 years writing about restaurants and chefs, paying my rent that way. And that’s not to say New York City does not have a very vibrant dining scene and that there are amazing restaurants in New York. That’s all true.

But I think Houston especially has stepped up into the national spotlight as a major metropolitan area. That’s very exciting. And just the sheer number of restaurants that are opening, the diversity of the restaurants, and, you know, there’s a lot of excitement from Houstonians to dine out.

When you say it’s more it’s more exciting than New York City, are you talking specifically about fine dining, or does that kind of extend across the restaurant spectrum?

It ranges the entire spectrum. And you know, I enjoy fine dining but also enjoy, you know, the small mom-and-pop shop in a strip mall. If there’s good food, I want to be there. And I think Houston offers that, you know, for any number of types of cuisines. I just spent the last month eating out practically every month since I moved to Houston and really experienced it firsthand. You can go to a restaurant that would be Michelin star worthy, but you can also go out into the suburbs and find great barbecue.

» From Houston Public Media: What to eat during Houston Restaurant Weeks 2022

Let’s talk a little bit about what you’ve eaten this past month while you’ve been doing this deep dive into the city’s dining scene. Can you tell me about some of the things that you’ve eaten that have stuck with you the most?

So one of the big reasons I was very interested in moving to Houston was the Vietnamese restaurant scene, which I’ve heard about many times. I had visited Houston maybe a half dozen times before I decided to take this job with the Houston Chronicle. And, you know, there’s just so much to discover in terms of Vietnamese food in Houston on Bellaire Boulevard, which is now called Asiatown. You know, I could probably spend half a year just making my way halfway through the restaurants there. But for example, I ate what’s called Bò bảy món, which means like seven courses of beef. You can’t really find that in New York. And so I experienced that for the first time. And for me, like having a meal like that really just cemented, you know, kind of like in my mind, this was definitely the right move.

Can you describe that dish in a little more detail?

So, you know, there are seven courses of beef, and so it includes everything from, you know, this like beef meatball that’s wrapped in a betel leaf that’s been grilled over charcoal. There are raw slices of tenderloin that you cook yourself in a vinegar broth. There’s another meatball that’s a little bit sweet that’s also grilled. And you’re assembling it with a lot of herbs, lettuce, some noodles, fermented shrimp paste, your fish sauce – it’s a very interactive, DIY meal that’s really fun to share with a group of people.

I’m sure you had some go-to spots in New York and are probably looking for some in Houston. For you, what makes a restaurant or a bar a place that you go back to again and again?

You know, the food comes first and foremost in many cases. I will come back to a restaurant if x dish is executed really well and the restaurant is very consistent. But at the same time, you know, I have to say, some restaurants that were my favorites, you know, the food may have been solid – was it maybe the so-called best pasta or taco or pizza? Not always. But, you know, if a restaurant was really good at creating a certain ambiance, you know, the design was really good, the customer service was really good. Or maybe I had a favorite bartender that always remembered how I liked my martini or, you know, just pour you a little bit of extra wine because you’re a regular – those are all things that would make a good case for a restaurant being a go-to restaurant for me. And I’m very confident I’ll find that in Houston.

I know that diversity is one of the hallmarks of the dining scene in Houston. But I wonder if, in the eating that you’ve done so far – which we should say has probably only scratched the surface of what you will do – do you see any characteristics in these Houston restaurants that kind of carry throughout the style of cuisine that you’re eating?

I’m glad you brought up the diversity point, because in this argument that I’ve made about how Houston restaurants are more exciting than New York, oftentimes, you know, New York is kind of seen as this very diverse metropolitan city, which it is, and it offers a lot. But when you look at the statistics, according to census data, Houston is more diverse, and it keeps getting more diverse. There’s a huge Latino population, a huge Asian-American population, and that’s only growing. And so you see not only cuisines from those countries, but, you know, there’s a big Nigerian population, a huge Indian population. And that’s all reflected in the restaurants here.

And as I’ve been dining out in Houston this past month, I’m finding kind of like, you know, more affordable options, fine dining options for all of these types of cuisines. And I think what I’ve noticed in these regions is that Houstonians are very adventurous. They don’t discriminate between fine dining versus more casual spots. You know, I’ll see men in business suits lining up for a breakfast taco. But I’ve also seen young people dining out at a restaurant that, you know, could easily be in New York, that’s more on the high end of the spectrum.

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: kcabrera@kut.org