Guiding Bite: Justin Yu’s Culinary Guide to Houston
Meet the Chef
Houston ranks as Texas’ most diverse city, both from a cultural and a gastronomic standpoint. Yes, Houston. For anyone outside of its sprawling city limits, that might be a difficult statement to swallow. But this Gulf Coast behemoth (currently the 4th biggest city in the U.S.) is a bastion of diverse flavors. Think Cajun, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Chinese, and Malaysian food, alongside more conventional standbys like barbecue and Tex-Mex.
So, it makes sense that one of the Bayou City’s standout chefs is a man of the world. A native Houstonian, Justin Yu crisscrossed the globe honing his craft with culinary stints both foreign (Belgium, Denmark) and domestic (Napa Valley). Yu finally returned home in 2012 and opened Oxheart, a 31-seat, veggie-focused tasting menu spot that has since earned him accolades in Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. And just this year, Yu added one more piece of hardware to his trophy case: A James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest.
Where does the chef find the influences that have contributed to his success? And at the end of the day, which watering hole does he like to visit to kick back with a cold one? Yu agreed to show us around his hometown to answer those very questions.
Himalaya is probably my favorite restaurant in town. It’s a Pakistani restaurant down in the Mahatma Gandhi district—kind of the Little India of Houston. It has both vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, but one thing to note: they don’t hold back on how they spice dishes. It’s very layered, very fragrant, and chef Kaiser [Lashkari] is very unapologetic about the way things are prepared. For example, they do a chicken hara masala, which is kind of vegetal green curry that has lots of different kinds of chilies, hard spices, and cilantro. Oddly, that’s one of the lighter dishes on the menu.
Best Neighborhood Restaurant
Coltivare is the best neighborhood restaurant you could ask for. I have two favorite dishes, which never come off the menu. One is black pepper spaghetti with parmesan—basically their take on cacio e pepe. It’s a very humble dish that’s all about execution, and they nail it every single time, with just the right amount of cheese and pasta water to bind it. It’s a peasant dish that they have an innate understanding of. The second dish is prepared in a Josper oven (a coal-fired oven), which I believe is the only one in Texas. Through that, they’re able to elevate simple grilled chicken with tons of seasoning and spice. It’s served over arugula and pickled grape tomatoes and is just really refreshing.
This Chinatown restaurant [Thien Thanh] specializes in Vietnamese banh cuon, which is basically a rolled rice cake wrapped around grilled meats. They use a good amount of fresh herbs, crispy shallot, and the banh cuon are always made-to-order. Even in Houston where there’s a ton of competition, a lot of Vietnamese restaurants tend to cut corners. But not at Thien Thanh. I’d say it’s one of the most authentic Vietnamese experiences you’re going to find in Texas.
Best Mexican Breakfast
This unassuming little place [La Guadalupana Bakery & Café] is located in the Montrose area. The chef, Trancito Diaz, used to work at the River Oaks Country Club as a pastry chef. So everything in the pastry case, like the conchas, is a can’t-miss. It’s just a very solid Mexican breakfast and lunch spot. They do molé mushroom enchiladas that are very, very good. And in the morning, there’s nothing better than La Guadalupana’s champurrado (Mexican hot chocolate) and chilaquiles with epazote.
Best Ice House
Houston is famous for its ice houses, and one of the better ones is Jimmie’s Ice House down on White Oak Drive in the Heights. It’s very old school, with a great jukebox, lots of outdoor fans, cheap, cold beer, and some very brusque service. A big bonus, though: They give you a free koozie with every drink. You don’t have to accept it if you don’t want to, but they are there for the taking.