Foodie News

Houston's underground food scene takes off: Reality TV star's pop-up dinner is chaotically compelling

Houston's underground food scene takes off: Reality TV star's dinner

Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 chefs in kitchen
Chef James Nelson, left, Chris Chambers and Vicente Blasco in Brave Kitchen Project's inaugural pop up dinner. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 tacos
Tacos crafted with aloo parathas. Squash blossoms and nopal masala, left, barbacoa, middle, and carnitas, right. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 taco
Mexican dosa filled with black beans and chickpeas, a vegan and gluten-free option. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 sandwich
Indian torta (Mexican sandwich) with tandoori chicken, dal, cilantro, queso fresco and avocado. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 man
Everything ran smoothly in the kitchen. Chef James Nelson wasn't shy about enjoying himself in the process. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 meat
Six-hour slow roasted beef barbacoa. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 grilled chicken meat tofu
Tandoori-style chicken without the unnecessary red dye often used in Indian restaurants. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 Mango's Houston crowd venue
The event was so popular that supplies ran out two hours prior to the 11 p.m. closing time. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 Mango's restaurant exterior day
Mango's offered an underground setting for Brave Kitchen Project's inaugural pop up dinner service. Photo by Joel Luks
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 chefs in kitchen
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 tacos
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 taco
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 sandwich
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 man
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 meat
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 grilled chicken meat tofu
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 Mango's Houston crowd venue
Brave Kitchen Project's first pop-up dinner June 2013 Mango's restaurant exterior day

No lights. No noise.

The few cars in the parking lot revealed that something was taking place at Mango's on Westheimer Thursday evening, but this otherwise hipster grunge music venue was dark, quiet — the only sign of life was some inked dude leaning against a tree taking short drags of a cigarette.

This is as close to underground as the food scene gets. It's as if I was about to consume some endangered, outlawed delicacy only available on the black market.

But you didn't need a covert passcode or a secret handshake to gain access to Brave Kitchen Project's inaugural pop up dinner. Anyone could walk right in to this makeshift dining hall that seated 30 ish, a room of mismatched high tables whose tops were devised from reclaimed wood, coupled with industrial stools and wicker outdoor chairs. Yet it wasn't too terribly long before friendly faces poured in to chit chat with strangers as if they had just bonded over a bong fuming with Jamaican grass.

Behind this clandestine venture is James Nelson, who you may know as either one of the fellows that started Bravado Spice Co. or the long-haired, bearded, tattooed chap who's making Houston proud in this season of Gordon Ramsay's MasterChefNelson was supported by chef Vicente Blasco and a close circle of pals, including Chris Chambers, Jeremiah Tallerine, Jessica First and Ryan Harcourt.

Their quest was to find the intersection between Mexican and Indian cuisines and craft a one-night only menu, but things didn't quite go as planned. The kitchen was 30 minutes late to open, ice was not available, utensils were missing — as if any of that mattered, really. Nelson has already amassed a fan base that doesn't mind waiting, one that understands kitchen takeovers often come with some risks.

 As for the food, it did exactly what it set out to do: Offer unexpected flavor combinations that aren't hoity-toity.

The cooking operations caught up rather quickly to the growing line of guests. An hour or so into dinner service, seating became available for the next round of visitors. The event was so popular that supplies ran out two hours prior to the projected 11 p.m. closing time.

As for the food, it did exactly what it set out to do: Offer unexpected flavor combinations that aren't hoity-toity. Dishes like the Indian-style tortas (Mexican sandwiches) were simple to explain and appreciate, yet still teeming with complex layers of spices. In between a bolillo bun slathered with a smear of lentils were tender, juicy pieces of tandoori chicken (without the unnecessary red dye frequently used at Indian eateries), cilantro, queso fresco and avocado slices. If anything was missing here, it was a crunch element for texture.

Tacos were interpreted with aloo parathas, a potato-filled, unleavened wheat Indian flat bread commonly eaten for breakfast. The thick, soft shell was a hefty repository for one of three well-balanced variations: Fried pork chunks, coriander flowers and raw onion; a six-hour slow roasted barbacoa beef with queso fresco; and a vegan version with squash blossoms plus fried cactus tossed in a spicy  masala — a personal favorite.

Dosas, also on the menu, aren't the easiest pancakes to execute. The batter is a fermented melange made from rice and lentils. They stick easily during cooking. Heating the griddle to the right temperature and using the perfect amount of vegetable oil is the  key to achieving a crisp outer side offset by a spongy inside. Putting them on the menu was a gamble, one that didn't fully pay off. Not in terms of spirit, but in terms of what makes dosas fun to eat and share with company.

Filling them with chicken mole, barbacoa or, for a vegan and gluten-free alternative, black beans and chickpeas was definitely a good idea. Had they been served in their traditional rolled up fashion with the good stuff in the middle — now that would've been something to talk about. 

Nelson promises that these pop dinners will be held on a monthly basis, which is surely a welcome addition to Houston's thriving restaurant community.