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In an article posted on GQ late last year, world-renowned chef and culinary innovator David Chang made some bold claims. One of such claims labeled an unsuspecting town in Texas the next up-and-coming destination for foodie lovers everywhere. That city was none other than Houston, the fourth (and soon to be third by surpassing Chicago) largest metropolitan in the United States. While the Momofuku founder may have brought the nation’s gastronomic spotlight down South just recently, locals will be the first to explain that the restaurant scene has been diverse and vibrant for decades.
Primarily known for its deep ties in the oil and energy industries, H-town has quietly built itself into one of the fastest expanding cities in the country with booming real estate, medical, and tech opportunities. As transplants settle into the endless sprawl of suburbs surrounding the hubs that make up the “City Without Limits,” land and cost of living remain relatively affordable, making it the ideal landscape for aspiring chefs to make a name for themselves. Whether its Southern comfort food or high-concept, locally-sourced vegan delicacies, the diverse makeup of Houston’s population makes any restaurant concept feel right at home.
Within the nearly 700-square miles of urban landscape, patrons can find anything from the local pub-style fish and chips to traditional Burmese cuisine and everything in-between. Surpassing Queens as the most diverse city in the nation in 2016, Houston also serves as a major immigration hub thanks to its proximity to the Southern border and the Gulf of Mexico, along with its two large International airports.
All of these factors have played a role in the rapid expanse of the culinary pedigree in Houston. While many outside of the Lone Star State are only now hearing of Houstonian chefs like Justin Yu, Chris Shepherd, and Hugo Ortega (all recent James Beard Award finalists and recipients), the residents know all too well that the list only starts there. While restaurants like Oxheart may have the upscale dining market on lock, a dynamic duo of food truck Chopped champions by the names of Shannen Tune and Justin Turner round out the opposite end of the spectrum.
There is simply something for everyone. Where the brick and mortar restaurants miss, pop-up chefs like Cuc Lam fill in the gaps offering approachable and authentic flavors of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine that you can’t get at the local Vietnamese café. Thomas Nguyen of South African Restaurant Peli Peli said it best, “It’s about unique flavors. It’s about putting a lot of different things together, sometimes if it’s weird, just to create something special. That’s what Houston has become, and that’s what our cuisine is about.”
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