Houston has no defining culinary identity — and that’s why its food is so incredibly good
HOUSTON — It might sound like sacrilege, but some say the pho in Houston is better than the pho in Vietnam. That’s Houston, Texas. America. Yes, the traditional Vietnamese soup with its complex seasonings and fragrant broth is considered richer, more memorable and of the highest quality in a red state, one that claims to have served the world’s first hamburger.
One of these pho apologists is Nikki Tran, a Vietnamese chef who just opened her highly anticipated Kau Ba Kitchen in the city’s Montrose area. Tran said that when Vietnamese immigrants landed in Houston, they brought their master pho-making skills with them, and Vietnam’s noodle soup scene hasn’t been the same since. “Let me tell you something — the best pho is not in Vietnam, it’s in Houston,” she said. “In Vietnam, people load it with a lot of MSG and the beef price in Vietnam is very high. We have better beef here, and pho is all about beef.”
“Let me tell you something — the best pho is not in Vietnam, it’s in Houston.” — chef Nikki Tran
On a recent Friday night, Tran and Houston restaurateur Chris Shepherd dined with me at Shepherd’s new restaurant, UB Preserv. I was in Houston, on a trip arranged by the tourism board, to find out exactly what makes its food scene so exciting. According to Shepherd, a James Beard Award-winning chef, pho is “the dish of Houston.”
“Yeah,” Tran said, “People say, ‘Let’s get some pho’ the same way they would say, ‘Let’s grab some burgers.’”
How did this Vietnamese staple become so inherently Houston? “It’s this city, man,” Shepherd said. “It’s the most culturally diverse city in the country — we have populations that grow and change every day. Especially after ’75, the Vietnamese migration in Houston is huge.” Whether Houston can claim the “most diverse city” title is iffy: New Jersey’s Jersey City and New York City are often crowned most diverse. Still, Houston is up there: According to a 2015 report by Pew, the city is home to the third largest Vietnamese-American population in the country. Between 2000 and 2010, Texas became home to a “majority-minority” population, according to the U.S. Census, meaning that more than half its population was part of a minority group.
Maybe this is a gross simplification, but Houston’s cultural diversity is what makes the city’s food so damn good. Just as Shepherd and Tran were discussing their city’s “official” dish, a server at Shepherd’s UB Preserv dropped off a plate of blue fin tuna belly atop charred rice, tomatillo, nam jim and shaved chiles. In one appetizer, the dish honors the flavors of about half a dozen cultures — and this is emblematic of the entire menu at UB Preserv. The restaurant is a tour of Houston. The carpaccio comes with “pho aioli,” the collard greens are fried in a wok, the okra is defined as “Chinese-style” and is cooked with fermented tofu and jalapeños.
“The goal of [my restaurants] has always been to highlight the cuisine of the cultures in our city and pay homage to that,” Shepherd said. UB Preserv provides its guests with a brochure of other must-try restaurants around the city. And Shepherd really, truly, insists that people should get out of his restaurant to try the authentic foods that inspired his menu. The pamphlet reads:
“It is our hope that those who visit UB Preserv will feel inspired to further engage our community and better understand what a special place Houston is. Chris has compiled a collection of the folks that inspire his food and make him proud to be a Houstonian. 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.”
The restaurant industry is infamously a merciless one, so it seems unusual to have an owner telling his patrons to go somewhere else. “I don’t want to have competition in my life. It’s too much stress,” Shepherd said. And while he was careful to keep from getting too political, he suggested that food is one powerful vehicle for getting to know each other, and for creating acceptance. “If one guest, just one, left [the restaurant] and went to one of these places and learned one thing, we’re done here. I did my job.”
Tran’s food is also informed by Houston’s multifariousness; she refined her Viejan food — what she calls her combination of Vietnamese and Cajun cooking — at her previous restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, which was inspired by the food in none other than Houston. Hot cajun spice is mixed in seafood pho broth, and shrimp, clams, snow crab and veggies are treated in a special cinnamon sauce, served with banh mi on the side for dipping. One of her most popular dishes at Kau Ba Kitchen is a red wine beef pho, her spin on boeuf bourguignon. “I’m taking from all different places,” Tran said, which seems like the most Houstonian thing to do.
Tran and Shepherd say that pho is Houston’s signature dish, but — to no surprise — this is a subjective topic in this food town. Erin Smith, owner of Feges BBQ that opened in March, hesitated when choosing one dish, and first settled on Tex-Mex. But, she said, “It’d be very easy to argue that other cultural cuisines are just as influential.” The Texan spin on Mexican cuisine is what outsiders think when they think Houston, she said, “but anyone who grew up here is very aware that there are tons of great Indian restaurants.” Then Smith said maybe it was Korean BBQ that defined Houston, “because it’s just so good here.” Then again, pho is a really good answer, she said. “That was my first pregnancy craving.”
There’s no mentioning Texas without mentioning barbecue, another defining cuisine in Houston. But here, it’s often uniquely Houstonian in that it dares to be a little different, maybe funkier than the traditional fare you’d find in the rest of the state. In 2017, before Smith opened her restaurant, she had opportunity to cook with chef Anita Jaisinghani, who serves Indian-inspired fare at her restaurant Pondicheri Café. The coleslaw at Feges has a punchy bite to it, and that’s due to the blooming method Jaisinghani introduced her to. “The way we bloom the spices was something I saw her do repeatedly as we were making various dishes,” Smith said. “It goes against everything you’re taught in culinary school. You get a pan super hot and then you put a little bit of oil to cover the bottom and then you throw the spices in there. The fragrance that comes out of the spices is huge. She was doing that and it was so amazing to smell. I took that with me.”
In the course of three days and about 10 restaurants (and probably just as many food coma-induced naps), I ate foods I’d previously thought I understood. But every dish felt completely new. There was an inimitable carrot cake drizzled with a ca phe sua da icing similar to condensed milk, the lightest steamed Vietnamese pancake topped with a shrimp and carrot mixture we were instructed to scrape off like an oyster and a canned beer that was as salty as the ocean, but somehow refreshing. With every bite and sip, it became increasingly clear that Houston’s diverse communities — and tight-knit chefs — were influencing one another with novel techniques and tastes. Houston might not have a singular culinary identity — but that’s what kept me coming back for more, again and again. The absence of a signature dish in this city means every bite feels new, and that’s what makes the food here so spectacular.