A young chef and his sommelier wife have an ambitious plan to change the way Houstonians think about barbecue. Chana and Johnny Rhodes are making plans to turn their well-received Jensen Chronicles pop-up series into a brick and mortar restaurant that will open in January.
Dubbed Indigo, the restaurant will defy conventional wisdom in a number of ways, starting with its location. Rhodes has chosen a long-shuttered Chinese buffet in North Lindale (just east of I-45 and north of 610) as Indigo’s home. An area best known for its taquerias may seem like an unusual choice for a fine dining restaurant, Rhodes tells CultureMap the neighborhood is an important part of his overall concept.
“It’s a neighborhood that’s trying to change. This entire area, how it is now, it wasn’t like this 10, 15 years ago when I grew up here,” Rhodes says. “This neighborhood is very heavy on Latinos and blacks. That’s the food we want to try to represent. A lot of places have a lot of European feel to it. I’m definitely not that, and I want to showcase what this neighborhood offers: what taquerias and these people are cooking in their homes, just at a more refined level.”
Rhodes says he intends to serve a five-course tasting menu (plus a snack inspired by street food) that incorporates the flavors of Texas barbecue — everything from saucy East Texas to pepper-heavy Central Texas and the barbacoa of the Rio Grande Valley — while also focusing on the vegetable-oriented dishes he learned to prepare while working at high profile establishments like Oxheart, The Inn at Dos Brisas, and New York City’s acclaimed Gramercy Tavern. As one would expect for a barbecue restaurant, smoking will be one of the cooking methods, but Rhodes also plans to incorporate preservation techniques including brining, hanging, trussing, and soil-curing into Indigo’s dishes.
“Even though Texas isn’t known for its acidic barbecue, one of the best things you can have with barbecue is pickles. You can’t really have one without the other,” Rhodes says. “We want to take away the meat and the pickles (as separate items) and try to bring them together.”
As an example, he produces a jar of smoked, pickled turnips that he’s been developing for a year. They have the familiar sweet tang of East Texas barbecue, but Rhodes say he hasn’t used molasses, ketchup, or brown sugar to achieve the flavor. It comes from the pickling solution and time.
In addition to its location and its cuisine, Rhodes plans to defy convention in the restaurant’s design. Outside, plots of land on two sides that will allow Indigo to operate what Rhodes calls a “micro-modern farm” where he’ll grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers to use in his dishes. He also aspires to raise his own chickens and rabbits (although how that will fly with City of Houston regulations is unclear).
Inside, Rhodes envisions a dimly lit dining room of only 16 seats with a chef’s counter and elevated tables. The open kitchen will be brightly lit to allow diners to watch their meals being prepared. Chana will serve as sommelier, but staff members will rotate between working as servers or cooks.
“We want to it to be theatrical, we want it to be dramatic," Rhodes says. “Everything is going to be set up so people can see over one another and be able to see into the kitchen. The kitchen is going to be a stage.”
A skeptic might counter that these plans sound like a hodgepodge of trends plucked from Netflix’s Chef’s Table documentary series or the restaurants that populate the World’s 50 Best list. If barbecue fans react with skepticism to Pappa Charlies serving masala-spiced tri-tip, how likely will they be to embrace smoked yams? Justin Yu has incorporated barbecue into some of Oxheart’s dishes, but it’s only one component of that restaurant’s flavors — not its sole focus.
Clearly, it will be up to both Rhodes to execute at a high-level to convince diners that their money is well-spent and return visits are warranted. The Jensen Chronicles pop-ups attracted some buzz, but a few scattered nights of service isn’t nearly the same thing as running a restaurant day in and day out.
Then again, the chef does have that high-flying resume and a track record of pleasing diners. Whether the Rhodeses succeed in making Indigo a high-profile destination restaurant is anyone’s guess, but the idea that Houston will soon be home to such an ambitious concept is certainly exciting.