What's shaking in the Houston food scene? A rockstar chef named Bryan Caswell, some Texas-Italian fusion cuisine, and, though they've been around for a while, the pastry pockets known as kolaches. These are just a few of the city's trends—chime in with more that you've noticed.
Kolaches, a sort of Eastern European Hot Pocket, are all over Texas. The pastry pocket is a fun food medium—just think of how many meats, veggies, and cheeses you can stuff in there. With such a big Czech presence in central Texas, most of the really good ones are there, but have gradually spread east to Houston (the supposed best are in La Grange at Weikel's Bakery).
Back in 1982 the Kolache Factory opened in Houston and has turned into a mini-chain, selling basic flavors like cream cheese to the more Texas-inspired jalapeno and cheddar or sausage. Some places get even crazier with fillings, most notably the boudin kolaches from Shipley Do-nuts—yes, that would be a moist sweet dough bun filled with spicy pork. They usually run out early.
Chef Bryan Caswell
If there's any hotshot chef in Houston you need to pay attention to, it's him. Food and Wine named the fisherman-chef-blogger (who trained under Jean-Georges Vongerichten) one of their Best New Chefs in 2009. Bon Appetit also named his restaurant Reef "the best seafood restaurant in America" in late 2008.
Reef's menu emphasizes fresh, local seafood and Caswell applies his own inventive cooking techniques (one of his most popular dishes is the crispy-skinned snapper). When he's not catching or cooking something from the Gulf Coast, he's probably uploading photos of it over on his blog, Wholefish.blogspot.com.
Apparently the seafood expertise wasn't enough. Caswell also earned trendsetter points when he opened a slider joint called Little Bigs in early 2009. The casual burger joint stays open late churning out three-ouncer patties covered in everything from Sriracha remoulade to crimini mushrooms. People also come in droves for the hand-cut fries, White Russian milkshakes, and cheap wine. As Robb Walsh, food critic for the Houston Press told us, he's pretty much a chef rockstar.
Fusion food had its moment, but there's a Texas-Italian overlap happening that sounds a little more interesting than the average taco pizza. Some would link it to the wine industry. When people started harvesting hot-weather grapes in Texas (like Viognier and Sangiovese) it only made sense to cook the food that traditionally goes with it. Except, this is Texas, so the Italian cuisine gets multiplied by mouth-scorching chili peppers and jumbo shrimp.
Chef Caswell just opened a restaurant this weekend called Stella Sola (Italian for "Lone Star") that will highlight this nexus of Texas chiles with Mediterranean flavors. Follow the restaurant on Twitter (@stellasola).