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Charmed by Houston’s Local Food Scene

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I think Houston gets a bad rap.  Yes, it’s hot, humid and sprawling.  No, I do not want to trade my Austin residency for a Houston address.  But, Houston has an incredible restaurant scene that is complemented by a rapidly growing local food community with farmers markets, urban farms and food artisans popping up all over town.  Thanks to my friends David Leftwich and Tara Kelly, leaders in the Houston local food movement, I’ve developed a Saturday morning routine for my increasingly frequent visits that makes my heart sing.

I start at Urban Harvest’s vibrant Eastside market in the shadows of Greenway Plaza.  I love visiting with the folks from Blue Heron Farm and some of my new favorite vendors like Brown Paper Chocolates, Utility Research Garden and Discovery Shrimp.

My second stop is Revival Market.  Oh, how I would love to transport this market to Austin, preferably down the street from my house.  Revival’s draw is the butcher shop featuring the meat from Morgan Weber’s Revival Farm, but you’ll be equally impressed by the robust coffee, the well-curated array of local and artisan food products and the café.   You can shop for dinner ingredients or enjoy a meal from the daily board.  I stopped in recently for an English muffin egg sandwich that was the perfect Saturday morning shopping fuel.

 revival egg mcmuffin 2

One of my favorite things to buy at Revival is the Galveston County salt.  It’s the first Texas salt I’ve found and the texture is perfect for cooking.  It’s become a new staple in my spice rack.  I’m also addicted to the Slow Dough pretzel rolls and can’t resist buying a bag when I’m there.

From Revival, I swing by Houston Dairymaids. The musty aroma of cheese envelops you as you walk in the door and entices you to head straight for the tasting table.  You can nibble on the daily selections and shop from a wide variety of cheeses, including a hefty selection of Texas offerings, as well as artisan products, beer and wine that complement cheese.

I finish my crawl of the Heights at Down House.   I love this place.  I will admit total bias because my friend Chris Cusack, who used to be with Thunderbird Coffee in Austin, is one of the owners.   That friendship may be the reason I visited initially, but now I can’t wait to get there and try their newest creations.  Whether you are looking for a potent cup of coffee, a lovely artisan cocktail or a tasty lunch, Down House has what you need.

And, it’s just fun.  When I popped by for coffee in June, they were roasting a pig on their patio for their anniversary party celebration.  Chef Benjy Mason has all the qualities I admire in a chef – creative, curious, never really satisfied with the status quo – and it shows in his food.  Something as seemingly simple as a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup had me humming with delight, making “yummy” noises as I ate my lunch – a little awkward when you are dining alone.

 down house pig roast 3

Now that I have my ‘usual’ haunts in Houston, I’m looking forward to expanding the list.  I recently wrote a story for Edible Austin about the growing local food scene in Houston with a guide to some of the farmers markets, locally sourcing restaurants and craft cocktail bars.  I have a lot of exploring to do!

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Road Trip! Houston

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This spring I was invited down to Houston by some like-minded real foodies for a screening of the movie What’s On Your Plate?, a charming and compelling documentary by two young women about where food comes from.  I visit Houston often to see family, but had never taken the time to explore Houston’s farmers markets. This was the perfect opportunity to learn more about Houston’s real food scene.

First stop on my itinerary was Revival Market in The Heights neighborhood.  Morgan Weber started Revival Farms, a ranch and farm just outside of Houston in Yoakum, TX, in 2009 and quickly became one of the state’s top purveyors of quality, humanely raised heritage breed pork and beef.  Revival’s booth at the Houston farmers markets was swamped with customers and chefs from as far as Austin would drive to Yoakum to buy their meat.

This spring, Weber teamed up with friend and chef Ryan Pera to open Revival Market. I walked in expecting a meat market and was delighted to find instead a small neighborhood grocery selling locally sourced meats, cheeses, dairy, produce and staples.  The market also offers prepared foods, charcuterie and coffee.  “I wanted to create a place where you could come by to get everything you needed to cook a great meal and didn’t have to go to another store,” said Weber.

Revival market - produceRevival Market - prepared foods and charcuterieRevival Market - cannced goods

Revival Market is definitely that – bright and inviting with shelves stocked with tempting artisanal goods.  It was a challenge to not buy one of everything.

Just a couple of miles down the road, Houston Dairymaids offers tastings of their carefully selected cheese and specialty foods at their warehouse location on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings.  Houston Dairymaids brings the best from Texas cheesemakers to Houston and supplements their stock with artisanal cheeses from around the country.  The warehouse opens to retail customers a few hours each week, but cheese fanatics can also find the Dairymaids at area farmers markets.

Tasting at Houston Dairy Maids
Houston Dairy Maids - tasting board
Houston Dairy Maids - olives & breads
The daily tasting included an eclectic mix and I found some new cheeses I really enjoyed including the Stewart’s Special from Texas’ own Veldhuizen Family Farm and the Cumin Gouda from Marieke in Wisconsin.  Houston Dairymaids also sells specialty foods and I noticed bread from Slow Dough Bread Co., which I had just seen at Revival Market.  Clearly, this bread must be good.  We thoroughly enjoyed the salty pretzel rolls and the perfectly baked baguette.

With a few hours to kill before the movie screening, I decided to grab an early dinner at Haven, located just off of Kirby Dr. near the Southwest Freeway (Hwy 59).  The tasting from Chef Randy Evans was one of my favorites at this year’s Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival Stars Across Texas event in April and I couldn’t wait to try items from their menu.

Chef Evans uses fresh, local ingredients to create what he calls Texas regional cuisine.   Touches like serving buttery crawfish over tender gnocchi and topping a salad with fried green tomato “croutons” highlighted the creativity of the kitchen.

Haven - crawfish gnocchiHaven - salad with fried green tomatoes
With “Happy Times” starting at 2 pm on Fridays and the bar serving up craft cocktails, Haven is a terrific place to kick-off the weekend.
Haven - cocktail

As the sun began to set, it was time to head to Mandell Park, a small municipal park in the Museum District, for the movie screening.  The event was hosted by the Friends of Mandell Park, a community group committed to the improvement and maintenance of the park and its community flower and vegetable garden.

Mandell ParkMandell Park - spring veggies

Moviegoers spread blankets and chairs across the lawn while they nibbled snacks from Green Plate Kids, a catering and prepared meal service that specializes in healthy food for kids.  Chef Monica Pope, owner of t’afia and passionate advocate for fresh, local cuisine, kicked off the festivities with a question and answer session during which she noted, “Food is the language of family. Eating well has to start with the family.” It was the perfect opening for a movie about two girls learning where their food comes from and how it is raised or grown.

If you have children in your life, I highly recommend the movie as a way to introduce them to the importance of knowing your food.  The girls are sweet, honest and inquisitive – probably just like your kids.  You can watch the trailer and inquire about scheduling a screening on the movie’s website.

I spent the rest of the weekend exploring farmers markets and some of my sister’s new favorite restaurants.  After Chef Pope’s inspirational comments the evening before, it only seemed fitting to start Saturday at the Midtown Farmers Market hosted at her restaurant t’afia.

Midtown Farmers Market - spring veggiesMidtown Farmers Market - quail eggsMidtown Farmers Market - plums

The Midtown market is a smaller, neighborhood affair with booths from area produce vendors, Houston Dairymaids and several prepared food vendors including Chef Pope’s own Green Plum Catering.  Among the market’s unique finds were first of season plums and quail eggs.  The Midtown Farmers Market is currently on break (June 1 through August 31), but is definitely worth a stop if you are in the neighborhood after the summer.

Urban Harvest, an organization similar in mission to Austin’s Sustainable Food Center, operates three farmers markets in the Houston area.  The largest, Eastside Market, is open Saturdays from 8 am to noon at 3000 Richmond Ave. in the parking lot of an unassuming office complex.  With over 40 booths from a variety of vendors, you can quickly fill your market bags with fresh produce, meat, dairy, baked goods and prepared foods.   I was glad to finally meet the farmers from Blue Heron Farm who sell their completely addictive cajeta at Antonelli’s Cheese Shop in Austin.

Carrot bouquets at Eastside MarketEastside marketBrown Paper Chocolates

On Sunday’s Urban Harvest operates a neighborhood farmers market at Highland Village (2720 Suffolk Drive) from 10 am to 1 pm.  You can grab quiche for brunch from the catering arm of the restaurants Shade and Canopy or pick up flowers, produce or eggs from one the dozen vendors.

Highland Village Farmers MarketFarm eggs at Highland Village Farmers Market
As we puttered around Houston, my sister introduced me to some of her casual dining favorites.  We had breakfast tacos at Tacos A Go-Go before the Midtown market.  The taqueria, just around the corner from t’afia and next door to Houston’s Continental Club, has a fun, funky decor, an abundance of breakfast taco ingredients to choose from and a spicy, tangy salsa verde that I wanted to bottle and bring home.
Tacos A-Go-Go - breakfast

We also visited Calliope’s Po-Boys where I had the best po-boy I’ve had outside of Louisiana, and that is no exaggeration.  I ordered the surf and turf sandwich – sopping wet, tender roast beef paired with crispy, sweet fried shrimp on crunchy french bread.  Wow!

Calliope's Surf & Turf po-boy

And, of course, we visited family favorites.  No trip to Houston would be complete for me without Vietnamese food, this time at Vietnam Restaurant in the Heights, Sunday breakfast at Merida’s on Navigation (we are a Merida’s, not a Ninfa’s, family) and coffee and a pastry at Croissant Brioche in the Rice Village.

One of my favorite things about Houston has always been the restaurants and that you could eat well from any corner of the globe.  Discovering the real food community with its committed farmers, chefs and artisans makes the city’s culinary landscape that much more intriguing.

 

View the full slideshow below.

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