Texas-native Aarón Sanchez has found success with his unique style of Latin cuisine in New York with Paladar and Centrico, earning acclaim and a James Beard nomination in the process. He's also established himself as a television personality, competing on The Next Iron Chef, judging Food Network show Chopped and co-hosting Chefs vs. City and Heat Seekers.
But his revamping of the Houston House of Blues restaurant — redubbing the concept as Crossroads at the House of Blues and changing up the menu — marks the first time Sanchez has made a culinary mark in his home state.
I think the shrimp and grits really indicative of what we're doing here, the Yummy chicken is really awesome, the sliders are really cool — there's short rib meat in there as well — and the street tacos are awesome, that's a little bit more my style.
CultureMap's Sarah Rufca caught up with Sanchez before he headed back to New York to ask about his inspiration, designing a menu for everyone and where he ate in Houston.
CultureMap: What made you want to work with House of Blues? How has the partnership come together?
Aarón Sanchez: House of Blues is sort of a culmination of a lot of things that are dear to me, spirituality, music, art — this is the largest privately-owned collection of folk art — and you know, tattoos and all these things that are in line with my personality and what I love, House of Blues represents.
And they've been able to do their thing and not sell out and become corporate. They still have that individual feeling which I enjoy. It was really like nine months in the making with all the training and recipe development and assessing what needed to change — this is our sixth venue.
CM: Where does the name Crossroads come from?
AS: It really breaks down to the whole myth of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil to be the best blues player ever. So Crossroads is sort of the cross-section of music, food, art, all the things that House of Blues encompasses.
Really it's also about understanding now that this is a restaurant that we are committed to opening. Before the food didn't have an identity. Now it does, and with Crossroads, we're super-committed and the service is going to be on par with the food.
CM: So what should people expect from the new menu? What are your favorites?
AS: This is my take on American classics, reinvented and re-imagined. Most importantly this is the kind of food I like to eat, like burgers and flatbreads and sliders, this is what I order, and I needed to create something that had an appeal to a large and diverse audience that House of Blues attracts.
You've got everything from families to corporate guys here on lunch to young people that want to eat something before they go to a show. So you want to have something that's at a sweet price point, that's accessible, easy, at the same time that's raises the standard and the bar a little bit.
I like it all, really. I think the shrimp and grits really indicative of what we're doing here, the Yummy chicken is really awesome, the sliders are really cool — there's short rib meat in there as well — and the street tacos are awesome, that's a little bit more my style.
CM: House of Blues always had a Southern focus, are you shifting it to your El Paso and Mexican flavors?
AS: Not really, no. That's what people think that I always do but I think it's a little shortsighted and it closes the door on a lot of foods that I really enjoy. I've worked in all sorts of restaurants and I have travel experience from all over, so why should my cooking be that limited?
CM: So what about House of Blues did you want to keep and what are the biggest changes?
AS: We kept the jambalaya, the smoked pulled pork sliders, some of the burgers we kept. That's it, really. The rest of it was sort of Southern-inspired and we wanted to get away from that because it's too limiting, like I said.
Everything's different because we're making everything in house, which wasn't done before. We're making all the vinaigrettes, all the purees, all that stuff is made in-house and it's a fundamental shift, it's a change in the culture in how people were used to doing things. And it has to have big flavors, that's the only way I know how to cook. I like subtlety in food but at the same time it has to sing on your palate and be something that's memorable.
CM: Have you had a chance to explore any food in Houston?