Welcome to the fifth in a series in which we present the remarkable food and drink experiences of a very strange year. In keeping with the holiday season, it’s also a very special collaboration between the Houston Press food writers and Houston Food Finder, the online publication founded by former restaurant critic and food editor Phaedra Cook of Houston Press. This fifth edition features chefs who made the most of a bad year. Part six will be about coffee. In case you missed it, here’s Part 4: Beer. For more parts of the series, see the list at the end of this article.
Chef Manabu Horiuchi at Kata Robata Photo: Julie Soefer.
Unlike previous years where we had year-round dining and drinking options, 2020 was a year full of take-out, the occasional socially distant food, and lots of home-style cooking. The chefs honored here, who we recognize as this year’s favorites, are just a few who, despite the difficulties, have proven resilience and pushed forward with innovative efforts, even though they were struggling to survive. Hats off to you and thank you for the positive attitude you have towards the Houston food community.
Manabu Horiuchi, Kata Robata, 3600 Kirby: When a popular restaurant closes, even temporarily, there is an acute sense of loss. This was the case when Kata Robata closed for several weeks in June and July after months of takeaway food and a brief reopening. But it is a testament to Chef Manabu Horiuchi’s dedication to his staff and customers that he offered full transparency and took the time to reopen. Instead of offering a reduced menu to make it easier to use – he does not take any abbreviations – he developed new dishes, as in pre-COVID times. Its new sharp Lobster and Crab Ramen, for example, is simmered for seven hours to achieve a deep fullness. His take-away sushi can also be admired – the quality that comes so close to the dine-in experience that when you close your eyes and imagine yourself sitting at the sushi bar for a moment. – Mai Pham, author, Houston Press
Vanarin Kuch, Coffee shop, 1110 Hutchins: At the end of 2019, Vanarin Kuch, formerly at Tiny Boxwoods and a former competitor at “Top Chef: Just Desserts”, opened his pastry shop and Café Koffeteria on the Eastside and presented Houston with baked goods and pastries that are well received with a balance between Genius and madness. Some examples are the Beef Phở Kolache, Hot Cheetos Croissant and an ever-changing selection of hearty Danes, including Asparagus and Gouda and French onion. Some of his other creations not to be missed are the Pistachio baklava croissant and the Snickerdoodle Salted Egg Yolk Danish. On the drinks side, the Salty Cambodian – a unique latte made from homemade sourdough butter and sweetness from condensed milk and rounded off with a pinch of Maldon salt – is worth many visits again. The world of pastry is full of repetition, but innovation is the name of the game at Kuch. – Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Ryan Lachaine, Riel Restaurant, 1927 Fairview: Within a week of Houston citywide shutdown in March, Ryan Lachaine, in partnership with the LEE Initiative and Maker’s Mark, launched the restaurant worker aid program to feed unemployed and hospitality workers on leave. For the duration of the program, Lachaine and his team prepared 300 free takeaway meals a day and provided essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. To keep his restaurant afloat and to meet the demand for cheaper take-away meals, Lachaine. founded Louies, a virtual take-away gourmet sandwich shop operated from Riel. In between all of this, he also managed to fill a position as head chef at the Commons Club of the Virgin Hotel Nashville while reopening Riel for socially distant restaurants. The fact that he sniffs a bone marrow whiskey next to the guests only adds to his amiability. – Mai Pham, author, Houston Press
Jas Phan, Migo Saigon Food Street, 9393 Bellaire: When COVID-19 struck, Jas Phan refused to offer his namesake Migo noodles to-go, insisting that he couldn’t guarantee the quality of his food if it wasn’t cooked himself. But when COVID-19 persisted and it became clear that he had to offer takeaway and delivery to survive, he relented – after doing extensive testing to make sure the food at home is as good as the food at Restaurant The insistence on quality and the fact that he can consistently deliver delicious pasta under all circumstances is commendable. That he is still fine-tuning his craft, perfecting dishes like we are them (braised duck noodles) or are you all right? (Vietnamese beef stew with noodles) is a sign of the future. We look forward to being part of the ride. – Mai Pham, author, Houston Press
Jason Vaughan, Nancy’s Hustle, 2704 Polk: The year started well for Jason Vaughan when he was named a semi-finalist in the newly created Best Chef: Texas category of the James Beard Awards. Really, it was just a continuation of the numerous awards he’s garnered since the restaurant opened in 2018. Still, this year has been difficult for any restaurant, praised or not. Nancy’s Hustle has closed completely more than once – first while the dining room was closed from March 16 to May 19, then again from September 13 to 22 to allow staff to “rest and regroup”. In the background Vaughan and co-owner Sean Jensen worked on new innovations and services including a small but well organized to-go system with three options including the Thicc Nancys Cheeseburger combo. They added a section for groceries and merchandise to be called. referred to as Apocalyptic bodega and rotating take-home dinner sets. Perhaps most significant, Vaughan perfected his pizza game for a new Tiny Champions restaurant that just opened its doors last week. – Ryan Kasey Baker, contributing writer, Houston Food Finder
Favorite cooking teams
The take-out spread of Xin Chao. Photo by David Leftwich.
Mark Clayton and Drew Gimma, Squable, 632 West 19th: When the dining rooms had to close in March, this team quickly moved to the curb and added an online ordering platform. Like an upscale version of Mel’s drive-in from the film “American Graffiti”, well-executed dishes from a reduced menu and paired with discounted wines were delivered to your car window without any missteps. (All that was missing was the roller skates.) Customers could also order a few staples from the pantry, such as cultured butter and pasta. After the dining rooms were allowed to reopen, Gimma and Clayton continued to add and even started adding new creative dishes using local produce and meat Burger Tuesday, the innovative versions like the Lil ‘Ma, Clayton’s take of a certain fast food classic. To be named Best New Restaurant in a normal year is quite an accomplishment. Maintaining this level of quality during a pandemic is next to impossible, but Clayton and Gimma along with the rest of the Squable team made it.
Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen, Xin Chao, 2310 Decatur: Opening a new restaurant with a new business partner during the COVID-19 crisis is like building a boat in a hurricane. However, Ha of The blind wayat the and Nguyen of Saigon house not only opened Xin Chao, but also managed to create a restaurant that serves memorable and impressive dishes. Takeover of the site that once housed beaver and Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory, The team has created an elegant modern space with a large terrace – something that is badly needed right now. Some of the best dishes on a menu include modern Vietnamese cuisine Nguyen-er Nguyen-er Chicken Dinner – crispy lemongrass-buttermilk-fried chicken – and the spring rolls, an amalgamation of the recipes of Hate and Nguyen’s mothers. In all fairness, Xin Chao served one of the best take away meals I’ve had all year round. – David Leftwich, Associate Editor, Houston Food Finder
Favorite Chef Pivot
Dawn Burrell: On February 26th, Dawn Burrell received a James Beard Award Semi-finalist for Best Chef: Texas for her work as head chef at Kulture. Just 19 days later, the downtown restaurant was closed due to the pandemic. It has yet to be reopened. Burrell, a former Olympic athlete, doesn’t let that put her off. Work with I will have what she hasShe helped, a local nonprofit led by women in the hospitality industry in Houston that focuses on women’s health pivot point. Pivot presents global home cooking and combines a meal delivery service with informative online cooking classes. The most recent menus have explored West African cuisine, while other dishes like Lobster cornbread and Glazed Japanese yams. In July, Burrell officially left her position at Kulture to focus on Pivoting and looking after her family, particularly her mother and stepfather. – David Leftwich, Associate Editor, Houston Food Finder
National favorite recognition of a chef
Chris Williams, head chef at Lucille’s. Photo by David Wright.
Chris Williams, Lucilles, 5512 La Branch: This year the James Beard Foundation honored the chef Chris Williams and his restaurant in the Museum District, showcasing his work on a virtual “Taste America” dinner night featuring dishes like gumbo z’herbes. We’re not sure where the time has gone, but Williams has served his beautifully presented Southern comfort food at Lucille’s for eight years – including his grandmother’s famous chilli cookies. Although the award was long overdue, this was a step in the right direction in a year in which food and drink gatekeepers from Bon Appétit to the Beard Foundation were being scrutinized for a lack of diversity. Granted, the Beard Foundation still has a long way to go in addressing these systemic issues. However, the provision of opportunities in addition to the (usually annual) James Beard Awards makes a wider range of food and bar professions shine and is a step in the right direction. – Phaedra Cook, Editor and Editor, Houston Food Finder
The other most popular Houston food and drink experiences in 2020
Part 1: Bars
Part 2: Treats & Trends
Part 3: Wine
Part 4: beer
Part 6: coffee
Part 7: Delivery & To-Go
Part 8: Cocktails & Spirits
Part 9: Industrial helpers
Part 10: Innovations
Part 11: Shops & Products
Part 12: Restaurants
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