Two of Houston's most beloved restaurants have been honored by one of the country's most prominent food writers. Himalaya and Hugo's are the only two Texas restaurants included in GQ critic Brett Martin's list of 22 new classics, a designation he reserves for excellent restaurants from across America that are between 15 and 25 years old.
Martin's affection for the two establishments shouldn't come as too big a surprise; he's been a big fan of Houston for awhile. His 2018 article designating Houston as "the new capital of Southern cool" heaped praise on the city's food scene and took a couple well-placed shots at Austin and Dallas. The writer also included both Georgia James and Indigo on his list of 2019's best new restaurants.
After noting the numerous testimonials from other writers that adorn Himalaya's walls, Martin explains what he likes about Azra and Kaiser Lashkari's Indo-Pak restaurant.
"The menu is one of those outsider-art documents that overflow with ideas and tastes. Some are traditional Indian and Pakistani, some overtly 'fusion,' like smoked-brisket tikka masala or chargrilled steaks that are simultaneously a signature of India's Bihar region and a nod to fajitas (said to have been invented just down the road, at Ninfa's on Navigation)." he writes. "All of it, under Lashkari's hand in the kitchen, is electric, with a revelatory clarity, structure, and vibrancy that guaranteed from day one that the walls would be filled soon enough."
He heaps similar praise on Hugo's, the Montrose restaurant where chef-owner Hugo Ortega earned a James Beard Award for his exploration of the cuisine of his native Mexico. After subtly knocking the decor for being a little dated, he praises the restaurant's food.
"Staples like lamb barbacoa wrapped in a purse of banana leaves or lechón that is the very essence of pig stand alongside creations like a squash blossom stuffed with chipotle mayo and served with gooseberries that you may fear will be too fussy but soon reaffirm you're in the best of hands," he writes.
Presented chronologically, the list offers odes from Martin and a number of other chefs and critics, including Ortega, who writes about the joys of Thomas Keller's bakery and cafe Bouchon. Most of the restaurants on Martin's list are French and Italian-inspired establishments that have won multiple James Beard Awards such as Prune in New York City, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and Avec in Chicago. Others are true groundbreakers, like David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York City.
Other than age, Martin defines his new classics as follows: "I think of the generation represented here as Sam Cooke restaurants—determined to stay smooth, no matter what chaos and exertions lie beneath the surface," he writes. "By contrast, the modern era seems to breed Otis Reddings: often brilliant but intent on letting you know, with every grunt and drop of sweat, exactly how hard they're working."
Martin should be congratulated for his good taste. After all, both Hugo's and Himalaya rank in the top 10 on CultureMap's list of the Houston's top 100 restaurants.