Acclaimed chef and bar baron spill details on new Heights gathering spot
With its opening less about a month away, Anvil owner Bobby Heugel and former Oxheart chef Justin Yu — arguably Houston’s highest-profile bartender and its most-acclaimed chef — are ready to reveal their plans for the "neighborhood business" they're opening in the former Dry Creek space in the Heights.
Better Luck Tomorrow will be a neighborhood bar with a food menu created by Yu. The space will allow both partners to display a more casual side of their skill sets while still delivering dishes and drinks that match their prodigious reputations. Training should begin April 12, with an eye to opening by the end of the month.
Heugel tells CultureMap that he and Yu have had a long-standing friendship that has finally manifested itself into a business. “When I was working at Beaver’s, Justin was my first regular as a bartender in Houston,” Heugel says. “We always talked and bounced ideas off each other. Over time, he invested in Anvil and Underbelly. I invested in Oxheart. We’ve always supported each other and felt like we could turn to each other for advice.”
Once Heugel decided to transition away from his partnership with Kevin Floyd and Yu decided to close Oxheart, they realized they had the opportunity to work together. Joining them will be Anvil general manager Terry Williams, who will serve as operations manager for both Better Luck Tomorrow and Anvil, bar manager Alex Negranza, who’s been working at Heugel’s formal cocktail bar Tongue-Cut Sparrow, and chef Matt Boesen, who worked for Yu at Oxheart and most recently served as a sous chef at Hunky Dory.
In addition to being, in Yu’s words, “a well wish and a sarcastic comment,” the letters that begin each word in "Better Luck Tomorrow" are also an acronym for a popular sandwich, but Heugel says diners will have to look elsewhere for a BLT.
“It’ll be like The Pastry War without pastries," Heugel says. "We just thought it was a funny joke.”
While Yu promises BLT's food won't be as subtle as Oxheart's — it will have more umami richness and acidic elements to stand up to the cocktails — the menu will depart from the fried, heavy, fatty items that are traditionally associated with the term "bar food."
“I think between Bobby and I (we have experienced) places in the U.S. where you can sit down and have really good cocktails and the food is good as well,” Yu says. “For me, I’m the type of guy who would love to have a Tom Collins and a really nice salad. I know that may sound stupid to people, but I’m probably not the only one.”
Instead of a burger, Yu has created a patty melt, which will be listed on the menu as a “party melt.” Yu explains that he’s a fan of thin-patty burgers, cooked medium well with a lot of caramelization, that’s served on a heavily-toasted bun with no vegetables on top. That level of detail will apply to all 10 items on BLT’s food menu.
“I’m super excited to take the things we were super-obsessed about at Oxheart and apply it to things people may find a little more approachable,” Yu says. “We’ll obsess about how we caramelize the onions, the way we grind the meat patty, things like that.”
The cocktails will have a similar level of attention to detail and also a culinary focus. Heugel says he will utilize Yu’s expertise to select citrus options beyond the typical lemon and lime and to craft garnishes that are pleasing to both the eye and the palate.
“I think you’ll see fewer cocktails but cocktails that rotate more frequently,” Heugel says. “At the same time, we’ll still be focused on classics, because that’s who we are in a lot of ways. We’ll be able to make all the classics we do at Anvil.”
A veteran crew will execute those drinks. Heugels says he’s completed the hiring process, which will include Josh Ibañez (Johnny’s Gold Brick), Anna Wilkins (Eight Row Flint, Julep), and others. In the kitchen, Boesen may not have the same reputation as some of his colleagues, but his resume in Houston and San Francisco makes him well-prepared for the role. Yu expects to be there frequently in the first month, before he transitions to dividing his time between BLT and the restaurant that will replace Oxheart.
“Every time (Boesen) made a staff meal you could tell he was going to be a really great chef,” Yu says. Later adding, “you get that juxtaposition of a cook who’s very serious about his technique but also a guy who has fun and a great personality.”
BLT will join places like Eight Row Flint and recently opened Presidio as bar-forward establishments that take their food seriously. Given the popularity of both places and the reputations of its principles, BLT seems poised to be another high-quality addition to The Heights' bustling bar and restaurant scene.