Not even an Old Testament natural disaster could keep Houston off the world stage.
You’ll have to pardon us Houstonians for our frayed nerves. 2017 opened with all the pomp and pageantry that comes with staging the Super Bowl. Then, in the late summer, Hurricane Harvey arrived as a biblical downpour -- nearly a year’s worth of rain in four days -- turning Houston’s famous bayous into garbage gumbo. Not long after those flood waters finally receded, the Houston Astros became the city’s first World Series champions in their 56th try. It’s been a trip.
We’ll remember this as the year when Houston actually got comfortable with the world watching it, through thick and thin. The city dominates a major international industry (energy) and boasts an internationally elite healthcare facility (the Texas Medical Center). What the downtown lacks in architectural splendor, it makes up for in high-brow cultural attractions -- theater, ballet, opera, and orchestra -- while adjacent neighborhoods each have their own funky mix of galleries. If the city looks increasingly like the future, well, it’s not a coincidence that our demographics reflect the future of American cities: Latino residents outnumber white residents. We’re about 20% black and 7% Asian-American, the demographic growing fastest.
These diverse Houstonians are bringing the best from around the world and seizing the opportunity of sprawl-cheap rents and a strong economy. So someone like Hugo Ortega can immigrate to Houston from Mexico and go from washing dishes in a café to a culinary arts school and then, in 2017, win a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest on the strength of his newest restaurant, Xochi (so-chee), showcasing flavors from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Another celebrated chef, Kaiser Lashkari, came to Houston from Karachi, Pakistan, with almost no money. But because retail space is so cheap, he was able to open a small restaurant in a shabby strip mall on the southwest side, and today Himalaya combines South Asian seasonings with Southern classics, like his famous fried chicken, earning him a visit in 2016 from Anthony Bourdain.
David Chang recently mused that Houston may be the “next global food Mecca” on the strength of chefs like Chris Shepherd, who named his restaurant Underbelly in reference to the Creole flavors beneath the city’s surface and whose latest venture, One Fifth, occupies an old church built in the 1920s. It received raves when it opened as a steakhouse in 2017, only to close in August and reopen in September with new décor and a new menu of French, Spanish, and Italian cuisine. Shepherd intends to repeat this feat for the next three years. This is a city that can get on-board with a rebirth.
We eat well here, is what I’m saying, and you will, too, for much cheaper than on the coasts. Considering Harvey inflicted nearly $200 billion in damage, however, visitors are encouraged to spend generously -- the better to speed Houston’s already rapid recovery. By all means, make it rain! Just, yeah, don’t make any rain jokes. It’s still too soon. – Thomas Francis