By any measure, the new Terminal C North at George Bush Intercontinental Airport has been designed to impress travelers. When it opens next month, the $277 million, 265,000-square foot facility will be more than 100,000-square feet larger than the old building it replaces.
At a preview party held Thursday night, Houston Airport System director of aviation Mario Diaz noted that United’s investment in the facility represents an attempt to give travelers a memorable experience rather than simply competing on price, which is designed to build customer loyalty.
“The experience does not begin when a passenger boards an aircraft,” Diaz said. “It begins in this space. It begins in the airport, in the terminals.”
Safe to say this new terminal stands out. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer expansive views of the tarmac, and seating areas feature plenty of plugs for keeping everyone’s “portable electronic devices” fully charged.
More importantly, the dining options have been dramatically enhanced by the presence of five restaurants connected to local chefs: Ember, a tavern from Underbelly chef-owner Chris Shepherd; Vida, a Tex-Mex restaurant from the Laurenzo family (El Tiempo); Bam Bam, a Vietnamese seafood and sushi restaurant from John Nguyen (Cajun Kitchen); Olio, a panini restaurant from Monica Pope (Sparrow Bar + Cookshop); and Pala, a Neapolitan pizza restaurant from Coltivare chef-owner Ryan Pera.
The concepts are operated by airport operations company OTG, and items from any of the restaurants can be ordered via the thousands of iPads located at seats throughout the terminal. That means no long waits in line or trying to carry a tray of food while dragging a suitcase. It’s a program that many travelers may be familiar with from stops in United’s terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Together, the five restaurants both provide travelers with an authentic taste of Houston’s acclaimed culinary scene and serve as a highly welcome alternative to the bad old days of eating greasy pizza or a generic turkey wrap.
Both Pera and Shepherd tell CultureMap they’re satisfied with the way the program will deliver their food to diners. Part of that confidence stems from OTG’s decision to hire chef Dax McAnear, who has worked for Pera, Shepherd, and Pope at their various restaurants and also the procedures all of the chefs developed for making sure the food meets their standards.
“You set people up for success. You give them the recipes. You get them the plate specs and show them what to do,” Shepherd says. “These guys are really good at this. The unique thing is they’ll source from who we want them to.”
Sourcing is key, because it ensures the dishes are made with the same quality ingredients used at the chefs’ various restaurants. For example, Pala’s pizzas use Coltivare pepperoni. Pera adds that he’s still tweaking the dough recipe to meet his standards.
“Pizza dough is one of those items where how you make it, where it’s stored, and how it’s cooked all make a difference,” Pera says. “Even if I took Coltivare dough and tried to do it in another location, it would still be different. We’re going to start from the ground up with these ovens that are on-site.”
Star of the new terminal
Ember is clearly the star of the new terminal. It has a stand-alone space with a Lone Star-themed sculpture hanging over it. Inside, the tavern features a massive, wood-burning grill along with a full selection of craft beer and cocktails. With choices that include burgers, a Korean fried chicken sandwich, roasted beet salad, and even a tomahawk ribeye, the menu blends all three of Shepherd’s restaurants — Underbelly, Hay Merchant, and One Fifth — into one new package.
“When we were talking menu, they said they wanted to put a tomahawk on the menu. I was, like, ‘Really?’,” Shepherd says. “But if I had the time, why wouldn’t you? The menu is pretty aggressive but it’s awesome.”
Premier stopping point
Expect Vida’s tacos and ceviche and Olio’s sandwiches to be popular, but Bam-Bam could be the one that emerges as a premier stopping point for savvy travelers. Although Nguyen only offered a standard shrimp boil for Thursday night’s preview party, he tells CultureMap that he plans to serve the same Viet-Cajun crawfish that he does at his restaurant. As amusing as the thought of someone trying to peel tails and suck heads while squeezed into an airline seat is, that dish is one that’s probably better consumed in the terminal.
Ultimately, the new facility is only one part of United’s stated goal to make IAH Texas’s top airport. Upgrades to baggage handling, a new terminal operations center, and renovations to the international terminal all need to take place, too. Still, when it opens in the next few weeks, this first step will represent major progress towards the goal.