For the past three years, I've been visiting Houston as a judge for "The Big Taste," an event to raise money for the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters. The event is run by Matt Harris, a Houston native with a huge heart and an even larger appetite. Every time I visit he makes it his mission to show me Houston's best Vietnamese, Mexican, BBQ, and coffee. It's one of my favorite towns, with an incredibly diverse dining scene that should be getting more attention. So Matt and I teamed to see what local dining goes best with Negra Modelo.
We started our trip at Robert Del Grande's RDG Bar Annie. Chef Del Grande was a judge with me at this year's Big Taste event, where we spent much of the day discussing the local food scene and its evolution. Del Grande was a James Beard winner at Café Annie before moving to his new space in 2009. He's often credited with founding the restaurant that revolutionized southwest cuisine. I was anxious to try his cooking.
I can think of few better ways to escape the Houston summer heat and humidity than an ice-cold lager, and so we promptly ordered a Negra Modelo as we browsed the Mexican-American fusion menu. The wood-grilled rabbit enchiladas in red mole stood out, and the Negra Modelo really helped to bring out the fruit flavor from the chile.
Knowing we only had two days in Houston, we skipped dessert and moved on for more eating. The next stop was Justin Yu's Oxheart. In a state typically known for its meat-centric dishes, Justin Yu has created a vegetable-focused oasis. The menu is concise and focused, and dishes are so flavorful that you may not even realize they're missing meat. The highlight was Yu's simply roasted carrots. To be frank, I never knew carrots had such a depth and variety of flavor to them — some light and herbaceous, others smoky and meaty. For a simple dish, the flavors were anything but. A Negra Modelo was the perfect complement, its caramel malts picking up the salty-sweetness of the carrots.
The next day we linked up with David Buehrer of Greenway Coffee Roasters. We grabbed a coffee at Blacksmith, his coffee bar in Montrose neighborhood, and drove 40 minutes east to a seafood shack on the Gulf, called Pier 8. The concept of the restaurant is simple: point to a fish and choose how you want it cooked. We ordered a breaded and deep-fried red snapper with a generous pile of french fries, a pound of boiled shrimp, a few bottles of Negra Modelo, and then we grabbed a table outside on the sunny deck. The crispy, salty fish —served piping hot — was so fresh and tender that it easily pulled right from the bones with no hint of dryness. The Negra Modelo paired nicely, helping to cut through the fattiness of the fish. I could have spent all morning there.
But we had other places to go. On the drive back to the city, Buehrer insisted we make a pitstop. In addition to roasting excellent coffee, David is also a Vietnamese food expert. Name one of the thousand or so Vietnamese spots in Houston, and chances are that David has eaten there. Multiple times. David took me to Hoang My Restaurant, where we ordered bo tai chanh, ultra-thin slices of rare beef lightly cured in lime covered in ngo om, a Vietnamese herb with notes of cumin and lemon. It's BYOB, so I brought a Negra Modelo to see how the bo tai chanh would pair with it, specifically the fermented pineapple dipping-sauce and the caramel malts in the Negra Modelo. It was excellent.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at Houston's first Southern Smoke charity event, where the country's best pitmasters — guys like like Rodney Scott, Sean Brock, and Aaron Franklin — helped to raise over $183,000 to fight multiple sclerosis. The Franklin BBQ team brought their smoker up from Austin and made pulled-pork sandwiches. They were incredible, so soft and juicy with deep flavor, balanced by a thin slice of sour pickle. An ice-cold Negra Modelo was perfect with this sandwich, its fine hops and yeast varieties give way to a well-balanced flavor and a remarkably smooth taste.
We ended our trip to Houston with a final stop: Back to Buehrer's Blacksmith for steak and eggs. And Blacksmith is run by Buehrer, the steak and eggs had a Vietnamese twist. In a dish similar to the classic Vietnamese version, bo ne, Blacksmith places cubes of skirt steak underneath perfectly cooked sunny side up eggs. The result is sweet and tangy, with a strong flavor of fresh herbs. It's the perfect complement to a Negra Modelo — and, in its way, a perfect example of the amazingly high-quality, totally diverse cooking going on in Houston today.