“I love this town, I love this state, I love the Gulf Coast and I couldn’t imagine spending too much time anywhere else,” says Food & Wine Best New Chef 2009 Bryan Caswell. Caswell is the owner of Houston’s highly acclaimed seafood restaurant Reef, a burger joint called Little Bigs, and El Real Tex-Mex Café, which serves comfort food such as a fried egg-topped burrito, in a restored 1930s-vintage theater. Here, he shares his favorite local haunts for suckling pig, a soul food breakfast and the meat-loving city’s most surprising find, a vegetable-driven tasting menu.
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Bryan Caswell’s Favorite Houston Restaurants
Innovative Japanese: Uchi
“Uchi is a model of perfection in my mind. The service and the dishes are so distinct and so tasty and flavorful,” says Caswell. Chef-owner Tyson Cole serves the same inspired Japanese fare as at his Austin flagship restaurant, including amazing crudo and Jar Jar Duck (duck, kumquat, endive, rosemary smoke). Cole recently named former pastry chef Philip Speer his director of culinary operations. “Philip used to work for me and he’s a good friend. I love eating there,” says Caswell. uchirestaurants.comPhoto © Ralph Smith.
High-Low Dining: The Pass and Provisions
“This place is two restaurants in one. One half is The Pass, which is super fine dining. Provisions is more gastropub-esque, with suckling pig for two and wood-fired pizzas. Both chefs, Terrence Gallivan and Seth Siegel-Gardner, like me, left town and worked for a long time, but came back because they knew there was only one place they wanted to be. The food is fantastic.” passandprovisions.comPhoto © Clay McLachlan.
Vegetable-Focused Stunner: Oxheart
One of the city’s most exciting restaurants right now, the vegetable-driven Oxheart offers only tasting menus, with dishes such as turnips baked in salt with radishes, Texas pecans, beef fat and garden leaves. “It’s cool to see the younger generation represented here in Houston,” says Caswell. “Chef Justin Yu worked in California for a long time and now he’s hammering it down in a small 30-seat restaurant with his wife, the head baker and pastry chef. It’s a beautiful space (filled with reclaimed materials) and the menu is probably 80 percent vegetables.” oxhearthouston.com
Best Breakfast: The Breakfast Klub
“Make sure you get there early because after 9:30 a.m., the line at this soul food place is around the building. Every day, literally seven days a week! The pork chops and eggs is by far the best breakfast I’ve ever had and the service here is bad to the bone, too. The nicest people in the world, and they’re always playing good music. Some Sundays they have a bounce house outside for the kids. It’s just a community joint with catfish, grits, chicken and waffles, all that.” thebreakfastklub.com
Go-To Lunch: Les Givral’s Kahve
“I’m at Reef almost every day for lunch, but sometimes I’ll run to this Vietnamese café for a double-pork banh mi sandwich with barbecue pork and pâté, and a sweet basil seed drink—the seeds become chewy like little tapioca pearls. It’s our staff go-to; I’ll take an order from all the guys in the kitchen and bring everyone back lunch.” lesgivrals.com
Fine Dining for the New Era: Underbelly
“At Underbelly, chef Chris Shepherd is doing food that belongs in Houston. It’s incredibly diverse and meat-centric: They butcher their own meat, and serve Korean dumpling dishes and barbecue and the whole myriad of things that exist in this city.” underbellyhouston.com
After-Hours Pub Food: Hay Merchant
Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd, the founders of the fantastic cocktail bar Anvil, have become local empire builders: They have their hands in Underbelly, and now in Hay Merchant, an amazing beer bar with 80 taps. “It’s attached at the hip with Underbelly,” says Caswell, “and has just really good pub food like crispy pig’s ears and pork trotter tots.” haymerchant.com
Late-Night Asian Grub: Mai’s
“This is a Vietnamese place in the Chinatown area. I was going there in high school, late-night, and you can still go in at 2, 3 in the morning and chow down on some delicious grub.” maishouston.com
Culinary Day Trip: Long Point Road in Spring Branch
“On my days off, I’ll go somewhere I haven’t tried yet, usually near Long Point Road, the main strip in the Spring Branch district. It is a complete and total cross section of the cultural diversity in Houston. There’s El Hidalguense, a Mexican place with a huge earthen pit, like something out of the Hill Country, except they’re roasting goats. There’s a Korean-Japanese place called Dadami, where you can order fresh octopus and they’ll bring it to your table alive, still crawling around. They clean it up and chop it for you right there. When I put a piece in my mouth, it suctions to the roof of my mouth. And there’s a Polish place I like called Polonia, where they’ll serve you shots of frozen vodka between courses.” poloniarestaurant.com
Houston Shopping Picks
Farmers’ Market: Urban Harvest
“On Saturdays, Urban Harvest is a great farmers’ market on the eastside. It’s been a long time coming for us to get a great one, and now this one’s been going for about four years.” urbanharvest.org
Asian Superstores: Hong Kong Market and Ranch 99
“I love going down to Bellaire to go to the Hong Kong Market and Ranch 99; they are these massive Asian grocery stores. When I say huge, I mean they’re twice the size of a Walmart. We literally have, like, 25 of them. The gummies they have there are outrageous, too. I’m such a sweet tooth guy. I love all the Southeast Asian candies there.” hkfoodmarket.com, 99ranch.com.
Chef Heaven: Kitchen Depot
“This is a kitchen supply store in Houston’s old Chinatown. You can get everything there. Because there’s such a huge Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese population here, they have every Asian culinary tool you could ask for, dirt cheap: from hooks to hang half a pig on to woks.” kitchendepot.net
Top Houston Hotel Pick
Most Beautiful Hotel in Galveston: The Tremont House
“The Tremont is one of the most underrated hotels in the state. It’s so freaking beautiful, with big skylights and huge, super-skinny palm trees. It has a bar that looks like it’s 300 years old and there’s a rooftop bar as well. There are massive vaulted ceilings in the rooms and—maybe it’s because it’s on the seawall—it’s never expensive. There’s no pool at the Tremont, but its sister hotel, the Galvez, is only five or six blocks away and you can go to the one there and use its beach entrance or its awesome swim-up bar.” galveston.com