While Texans love their BBQ and Tex-Mex, they have welcomed a new style of Texas cuisine that has chefs infusing multicultural ingredients and cooking styles with local Lone Star favorites.
Ripe strawberries from Poteet, meaty pecans from San Saba, big red snapper from Baffin Bay, and sweet, juicy grapefruit from the Valley are all tasty treasures that native Texans like me consider a birthright.
As the Lone Star State has developed into an intricate quilt of nationalities and cultures, however, new foods and culinary styles have worked their way onto restaurant menus. In cities big and small, innovative chefs are melding the new with the known, creating exotically influenced dishes with fresh ingredients born and bred right here in Texas.
To discover more about what’s happening on the Texas cuisine scene, I didn’t have to go far. Backstreet Cafe has been a Houston institution for more than 30 years and is a showcase for seasonally inspired, chef-driven dishes. Not far from my home, it is—in fact—located on a back street, just off South Shepherd Drive in River Oaks.
A friend and I visited on a wintry evening and, as always, Executive Chef Hugo Ortega’s menu was replete with influences drawn from the multicultural mix that is Houston. I started with a locally sourced dish, Gulf Coast Beignets, filled with shrimp, crab, andouille sausage, and corn. For the entrée, I chose Crispy Pan-Seared Duck, served with mission figs. My friend ordered Roasted Vegetable Soup to start, then spiced things up with Jalapeño Fettuccine.
A few weeks later, in Dallas on a business trip, I took some clients to Abacus. Both of them are fervent fans of Iron Chef and wanted to check out Chef Kent Rathbun, a contestant on the American version of the show in 2008. I was happy to oblige.
After dinner, we chatted about other innovative restaurants in the area, and my client noted Place at Perry’s. Describing it as “not your father’s steakhouse,” he said it was a light, contemporary space with an eclectic steak menu. As a shrewd businesswoman (and one who loves a good steak), I made a note to take them there on my next trip.
The Texas Hill Country is a regular haunt of mine. However, for this trip I was on the trail of an up-and-comer with a particularly “buzzed-about” menu.
Fabi + Rosi is in a turn-of-the-century Craftsman bungalow in Austin on Hearn, just off Lake Austin Boulevard. German-trained chef Wolfgang Murber’s menu included the German name for dishes, but I was happy to see English translations provided. That’s how I knew I was ordering a Beef Consomeé with Bone Marrow Dumplings to start, and Black Forest Mushroom Ravioli served with scallions straight from the restaurant’s own backyard garden.
When visiting my cousin in the Alamo City, I find it difficult not to revisit the restaurants I know I love, namely Silo Elevated Cuisine and Biga on the Banks. On this trip, however, I was all about Nao.
Nao’s name is derived from the Latin root neo, which means “to intertwine.” From the menu, I could see that the name was totally on target.
During the late 19th century, the second-busiest port in the country (after New York City) was Galveston, Texas. While exports included cotton, cattle, and rice, the largest “import” came in the form of immigrants from more than a dozen countries. Each cultural group brought its own recipes, and through the years those traditions have been woven into the rich and varied “quilt” of Texas cuisine.