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New Creole cuisine evolves in Houston

 Published on August 18, 2015

Brennan's seafood gumbo is served with shrimp, okra

Austin, Texas restaurants and restaurateurs may get all the ink, but Houston's culinary scene is thriving. Thanks to an influx of diverse homegrown and imported kitchen talent, the largest city in the Lone Star State has multi-ethnic menus that both include and exceed time-honored Tex-Mextorchbearers. (Though it's pertinent to note that absolutely no one is disparaging the pleasures of beefy nachos or cheese enchiladas made with pillowy flour tortillas.)

Midwestern transplant Chris Shepherd, chef of James Beard Award-winning Underbelly restaurant in Houston's hip Montrose neighborhood, and a former cook at New Orleans' landmark Brennan's restaurants, calls his adopted hometown "the new American Creole city of the South."

Traditional Louisiana Creole dishes like jambalaya and remoulade-topped po'boys combined the culinary traditions of the area's indigenous, African, Caribbean, French and Spanish populations. Similarly, Shepherd credits Houston's diverse foodways for the creation of new-wave local favorites like his signature Korean dumplings stuffed with braised goat.

Arguably the most evocative exemplars of New Creole cuisine come from the city's sizable community of New Orleans transplants. Following Hurricane Katrina, which marks its 10th anniversary this month, displaced residents from the Gulf coast increasingly arrived in Houston, a sprawling metropolis less than 350 miles from New Orleans.

Among them was chef Danny Trace, a Louisiana native who cut his teeth at NOLA landmarkCommander's Palace, famed for haute Creole fare like turtle soup and eggs Sardou. After relocating his family to Texas in 2005, Trace worked in several restaurants in the Commander's Palace family (including NOLA's Brennan's and Cafe Adelaide) before settling in as executive chef of Brennan's of Houston. His menu at the elegant Midtown restaurant now includes locally accented riffs on Creole classics, such as hickory-smoked Matagorda oysters dusted with jalapeno cornbread.

New Orleans native Dreux Antoine's family tree includes such legendary restaurateurs as Leah Chase of Treme's Dooky Chase restaurant, as well as Creole culinary pioneers Helene DuJean and Austin Leslie. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Antoine relocated to Dallas, and then moved to Houston to serve as executive chef for dining and entertainment conglomerate Landry's Inc. He plans to open his own Creole-inspired restaurant, Houston Cafe, in downtown Houston later this year.

Raised in NOLA's Ninth Ward, chef Antoine Ware also started his career in Brennan's classic Creole restaurants. When he moved to Houston during Hurricane Katrina, Ware joined fellow Brennan's ex-pat Chris Shepherd at now-shuttered Catalan restaurant, and later launched the critically lauded kitchen at Montrose's Hay Merchant.

Ware now helms Heights General Store, a hybrid restaurant-market serving Creole- and Southern-influenced dishes that are unmistakably Texan. Think tender masa tamales filled with Gulf shrimp and spicy Creole sauce, or Texas quail stuffed with piquant andouille cornbread, all united on one contemporary, utterly Houstonian plate.