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Esquire critic admits Houston is underrated as a food city, places it above Dallas

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John Mariani, food critic for Esquire John Mariani
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Every city argues that its food scene is unique, its chefs are the best and that its local specialties are more delicious than anyone else's. But lately Houston's foodies have argued that this is more than just boosterism, and that the Bayou City is experiencing a culinary coming-of-age to put it on par with not only the best food cities in the country, but the world.

That's the sentiment behind prolific blogger Misha Govshteyn's cover story in the February/March issue of My Table. In "Houston: The Next Great American Food City?" Govshteyn argues both that the traditional arbiters of what makes a city great for food — Michelin stars, James Beard Award winners, Zagat ratings — are irrelevant in a city like Houston, where strength and vibrance comes from not only the diversity and quality of the ethnic food offerings, but the degree to which they are "entwined in city life." 

This is the Houston I know: Pupusas share the menu with banh mi and pho in a restaurant near my home in Southwest Houston. An Ethiopian place is next door, with an Israeli-owned coffee shop a few doors down, followed by a tortilleria and a birreria. An old family-owned Korean restaurant is a few bleak shopping centers away. Boiled New York-style bagels, the best posole in the city, Salvadoran-and Mexico City-style tamales, Honduran baleadas (folded and filled tortillas), Oaxacan moles, schmaltz herring, Cajun-style fried chicken, a barbacoa truck, goat brain masala, along with Lebanese, Russian and Turkish grocers are within a two-mile radius."

It's not just the ethnic restaurants that make Houston special, though. Last year StarChefs.com editor Will Blunt told CultureMap he was surprised by the level of sophistication in Houston restaurants and declared the city a rare haven for chefs.

Now Esquire contributor John Mariani has weighed in on Houston's strengths on his website. Citing the My Table article, Mariani agrees that Houston lacks a superlative restaurant, like a French Laundry or a Jean-Georges and even argues that the city lacks much in the way of distinguished French or Italian dining. And yet Mariani, citing Philippe, El Real and Quattro as examples of new excellence, agrees that Houston's culinary prowess is underrated.

I have always been a big booster of Houston's restaurants, because for the last decade the evolution towards more and more serious (I did not say "formal") dining has been steady and sure, which includes the re-configuring of longtime standard bearers like Tony's and Robert Del Grande's RDG Bar Annie, along with exciting Mexican restaurants like Hugo's, civilized steakhouses like Pappas Bros., and ethnic eateries of every stripe. ... On occasion, when asked what are America's best restaurant cities, I have sometimes surprised people by putting Houston just behind New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and L.A., and ahead of Boston, DC, Miami, and its rival Dallas."

I think it's this sense of momentum that fueled the outrage about Houston being skipped over by Top Chef. To make a season all about Texas and ignore its most vibrant food city isn't just a snub, it's a slap in the face.

Do you think Houston has what it takes to be a great food city? And do you think it will ever be recognized widely as such?

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