It’s an thrilling time to stay and eat in Houston, Texas, so we’re beefing up our protection of all issues meals.

With that, it’s our pleasure to introduce the Houston Chronicle’s new restaurant columnist, Bao Ong.

Ong will concentrate on the intersection of meals and tradition, increasing our meals group’s protection of town’s dynamic eating scene inside and outdoors the Loop. He’ll report and write information tales, options, tendencies items, particular tasks, commentary and evaluations, working carefully with restaurant critic Alison Cook dinner, in addition to meals editor Greg Morago and reporter John-Henry Perera.

He arrives in Houston after writing about meals the previous 14 years in New York Metropolis for native and nationwide publications, together with Eater and the New York Instances. 

Right here, our veteran critic Cook dinner asks Ong her burning questions so all of us can get to know him a bit higher. 

ALISON COOK: You’re coming to the Chronicle from a job as editor of Eater New York, their flagship metropolis web site, which is sort of a giant deal. Inform me a little bit about the way you landed there and what your job entailed.

BAO ONG: I began my journalism profession masking all kinds of stories – bridges collapsing, floods, crime, faculty boards, the newly topped princess of a winter carnival. Though I at all times had my eyes on masking meals earlier than my first day by day newspaper job on the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I felt it was necessary to be a powerful reporter firstly. In 2008, after a number of years of beat reporting beneath my belt, I made a decision to maneuver from the Twin Cities to New York Metropolis to pursue meals writing.

I did not have a job lined up, so I enrolled in culinary faculty at evening whereas working as an assistant to a monetary columnist at Dow Jones and running a blog for one of many early opponents to Eater New York and New York Journal’s meals web site Grub Avenue. I additionally labored for the legendary restaurant critic Gael Greene. 

By the point I graduated from the French Culinary Institute (later renamed the Worldwide Culinary Middle), the nation was in the course of a recession. I enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia College specializing in arts and tradition reporting, partly to experience out a nasty financial system but additionally to focus extra on this area of interest I used to be attempting to carve for myself within the meals media area. 

Whereas I used to be learning (and dealing on a thesis about Spam – sure, the canned meat), I additionally landed an internship at The New York Instances on the metro desk. My internship stored getting prolonged, and I discovered loads masking breaking information everywhere in the 5 boroughs of New York Metropolis. My coronary heart was nonetheless in meals, and some editors and reporters helped me land a spot within the Eating part (The Instances renamed it Meals some years in the past). That a part of the internship was a gentle freelance gig, which included writing a column that was a weekly roundup of meals occasions across the New York. I discovered loads concerning the restaurant scene that approach. 

A.C.: What subsequent?

B.O.: As soon as that column ended after a number of years, I freelanced for a bunch of native and nationwide publications earlier than touchdown a job as a analysis editor at Bon Appetit and later because the food and drinks editor at Time Out New York. This all led me to the job at Eater New York. I joined in the course of the first yr of the pandemic, working with two critics (Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema, the one restaurant critics at Eater lately) and a group of three reporters. 

An enormous focus to start with was masking all of the information surrounding the pandemic, however as time went on, we shifted our protection to restaurant openings and the positioning’s prolific line up of maps, from the most well liked eating places within the metropolis to the highest fried hen spots. Whereas our focus was totally on information, we additionally labored on some enterprising tasks – a challenge with 52 mini profiles of eating places that closed in the course of the first yr of COVID and a more moderen challenge the place we ate at each restaurant alongside Canal Avenue in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

A.C.: What was the sunshine bulb second that made you need to cowl meals? And eating places? 

B.O.: My first day by day newspaper internship was within the options part on the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I had an opportunity to work with the restaurant critic – engaged on every part from brief chef profiles to bigger options – and fell in love with masking meals. I keep in mind eating out with the critic for the primary time and being blown away that this could possibly be an precise job. It seems this critic, Kathie Jenkins, additionally labored for the good Ruth Reichl. So I learn all of Reichl’s books and as a lot meals writing as I may. I have been hooked on eating places ever since.

A.C.: Working for Gael Greene will need to have been a visit. Have been you her assistant when she left New York Journal? How did that form your view of the New York eating scene?

B.O.: It was a hoot working for Gael. She grew up within the Midwest, however she was a New Yorker if there ever was one. A straight shooter, fast paced, opinionated. I began working for her as an intern shortly after she left New York Journal and was on “High Chef Masters.” 

I believe the most important lesson I discovered from Gael was the historical past of NYC eating places. She would at all times be one of many first writers to take a look at a brand new restaurant on the town, however she additionally made it level to revisit the older ones, whether or not they had been effectively established favorites like a Le Cirque or smaller locations she liked in her neighborhood (the Higher West Aspect).

I admired how ladies like Gael and Florence Fabricant, whom I labored with on the Instances, had this aggressive drive to cowl eating places even after doing it for many years. They had been wanting to cowl the trendiest openings, however there was respect for institutions that many individuals would take without any consideration or neglect. In different phrases, having that context issues loads, and I at all times purpose for that in my very own work.

A.C.: What was the area of interest you noticed for your self? How did you arrive at Spam as a topic in your Grasp’s thesis?

B.O.: I used to be entering into meals writing extra severely as bloggers began taking on. The area of interest I needed to fill, at the least early in my profession, was certainly one of a meals author who was a educated journalist first. The anti-thesis of a blogger or influencer – though some do an excellent job and I respect their work. I appeared as much as reporters like Julia Moskin and Kim Severson. I learn evaluations by critics outdoors of New York such as you, Jonathan Gold, Tom Sietsema, and others to get a way of what was taking place across the nation.

Columbia’s journalism faculty has two masters program: the MS, which is geared towards new reporters, and the MA, which catered largely to journalists with at the least a number of years of expertise within the subject that needed to concentrate on a specialty. I acquired into the humanities and tradition program as a result of I knew I may write about meals simply that approach. 

I landed on Spam as a result of it appeared so wacky and it had a connection to my house state of Minnesota (Hormel had its headquarters, I imagine, in Austin, Minnesota, the place there’s additionally a Spam museum). In my thesis, I argued that Spam, an all-American meals stuff made its solution to Asia – primarily throughout numerous wars nevertheless it’s prolific in Korea, the Philippines, China, and components of Southeast Asia – and took by itself id as an Asian ingredient. It was all very tutorial.

A.C.: What cuisines are you most drawn to? I’m not going to say “favorites,” however the ones that talk to you most powerfully?

B.O.: Thanks! It is approach too tough to have a favourite. That would change any given day or at any meal. I really feel like being open minded about meals is necessary on this job.

However when I’m requested about favorites, my de facto reply is at all times Asian and Italian meals. Possibly it is as a result of I grew up consuming rice with just about each meal and that is why I really like carbs and mainly each sort of noodle. That stated, even “Asian” as a meals class is so complicated and large ranging. I really like pho, something with Sichuan peppercorns, sashimi, curries and that is solely the start. If we’re speaking Italian meals, the seafood dishes you’d discover in Sicily are as engaging to me as a bowl of hearty polenta with truffles.

Fortunately, Houston’s restaurant scene is as various as locations like New York and LA. I am unable to wait to discover extra of town as a result of I actually love attempting all meals.

A.C.: My sister and I, daughters of a Minnesota Swede mother and a Texas dad, at all times stated we may have been South Indian in a earlier life, based mostly on our cravings. And in my case, Mexican meals has such an enormous function in my psyche. It is fascinating how these preferences take maintain. What introduced you to Italian meals? My guess is that it’s your time in New York, the place there’s such a variety of actually good Italian eating places. Though, as my Hibbing-born mother prefer to remind me, the Chef Boyardee model, which packaged Italian-American for a broad swath of this nation within the twentieth midcentury, was born in Minnesota.

B.O.: Humorous you need to point out Chef Boyardee! I needed to eat it as baby. It appeared like everybody else in school was consuming it however me and my siblings. My dad and mom by no means purchased processed meals as a result of they thought even gadgets like Chef Boyardee had been too costly. My dad and mom emigrated from Vietnam and labored blue collar jobs, so that they tried to avoid wasting each penny elevating 4 youngsters.

Additionally, the Chinese language gave Italians their pasta. Possibly that is my emotional connection?

That is an amazing level, although, about all of the Italian eating places in NYC. There are such a lot of that you simply discover nice ones which can be inexpensive, even when you’re a broke school grad.

A.C.: So what qualities do you prize most in a restaurant expertise? I seen after we had been emailing the opposite day you talked about a enjoyable vibe and an attention-grabbing clientele, which are not at all times excessive on my listing. I’ve at all times tended to be a Meals First particular person, however as time goes on I notice nice hospitality or a transporting setting makes an enormous distinction.

B.O.: I positively suppose meals comes first when I attempt to choose a restaurant for myself. I may care much less if it skews high-quality eating (although my checking account could differ) or if it is a random spot in a strip mall. If the meals is nice, I need to be there. That stated, I believe the theater of eating out could be a large a part of the expertise. Which may be the bartender with a giant persona that remembers your drink order whenever you come again, the individuals watching at a classy spot, the decor, and so forth.

There is a French bistro close to Lincoln Middle I began going to a couple years in the past as a result of a bartender there was so pleasant and the service was at all times on level – not too pushy, chatty however not an excessive amount of in your corporation, a little bit additional pour within the glass when he knew you had been a daily. However as a result of this spot (Cafe Luxembourg) used to have late hours pre-pandemic, you’d additionally meet some actually attention-grabbing individuals. A musician from the New York Philharmonic, a Broadway actor, an architect, different writers.

A.C.: Have been you conversant in Houston earlier than you took this job?

B.O.:  I had visited about half a dozen occasions however by no means in the summertime or for greater than an extended weekend. I had possibly three mates right here earlier than deciding to maneuver. It does really feel a little bit bit like I took a nose-first leap, particularly after 14 years in NYC. However there’s a lot taking place in Houston and the restaurant scene is thrilling. There’s loads to study and expertise. I am so excited to be right here.

A.C.: What are a number of the greatest variations you’ve skilled between the eating scene in Houston and the one in New York? Are there any notable parallels or similarities? I do know that could be a sweeping query, however I’m concerned about your first impressions.

B.O.: The most important distinction is that I would like a automotive to crisscross town if I need to go to a number of eating places in an evening. At any time when mates ask what I’ll miss essentially the most about New York, it’s most likely the strolling, however on this summer time warmth wave, I’m completely comfortable to be in a automotive with the AC on full blast. So sure, it’s modified this a part of the job that entails staying on high of the restaurant scene and requires extra planning.

I’ve additionally seen fewer restaurant employees carrying masks. I don’t suppose that is solely taking place in Houston. I’ve been in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Boston just lately and seen an analogous development. 

Individuals are positively going out to NYC eating places and there is a sense that everybody needs to “make up” for the previous two years. However I believe the pandemic introduced some modifications to the hospitality business. I really feel like NYC eating places are packed however for a shorter period of time. It’s a problem to seek out eating places serving meals after 10 p.m. lately – which is sensible given the problem of discovering staff, a motion for eating places to re-examine how they function, individuals cooking extra at house, and so forth. New York’s popularity as a metropolis that by no means sleeps had been fading earlier than the pandemic nevertheless it looks like the nail is within the coffin lately. 

In Houston, nevertheless, I’ve seen packed eating rooms and bars from comfortable hour to the later hours of dinner service. If my reminiscence is true, we sat on the BCN bar for a number of hours and noticed at the least two rounds of tables turned. The eating room appeared prefer it was packed. I believe this speaks to how a lot Houstonians need to be out in eating places and the joy town has about going out. 

A.C.: Have you ever been struck but by something we’re missing right here? Something or any eating places you notably miss?

B.O.: On Bastille Day, out of curiosity, I did a fast Google seek for French eating places and informal French-leaning bistros and didn’t have a lot luck. NYC has an extended historical past of fine-dining French eating places and that’s trickled all the way down to town having extra informal spots everywhere in the metropolis the place you possibly can get favorites like a steak tartare with French fries, a tuna nicoise, pate with a crusty baguette. So I’m searching for recommendations.

I’ll miss my favourite NYC spots to seize a martini and burger, however that’s OK. I don’t suppose New York Metropolis must be used as a typical or as the principle level of comparability. Which will have been extra useful 20 years in the past or so, however there are such a lot of nice eating places throughout the nation. I can’t wait to seek out my new go-to spots in Houston.

A.C.: Is there one thing you have come throughout that you simply suppose New York is missing?

B.O.: Coming into this job, I already knew Houston’s Vietnamese meals scene is palms down significantly better than New York Metropolis. It’s not even a contest. We are able to additionally add to the listing barbecue, Tex-Mex, and I’m anticipating the identical may be stated about Mexican meals.

A.C.: Do you cook dinner at house? What do you prefer to cook dinner finest?

B.O.:  I do cook dinner at house, although I’m undecided how a lot of it I’ll be doing as I attempt to catch in control on Houston’s eating places.

Like many individuals, I did far more house cooking on the onset of the pandemic. This was refreshing after going out to eat at the least 4 or 5 nights every week for dinner for greater than decade. I’m at all times comfortable to place my culinary faculty expertise to make use of – it was costly! I’m hoping to seek out some farmers markets and shops — I hear Central Market is a should go to — on the town.

I most likely find yourself cooking extra Asian meals and something that’s recent or seasonal from a market — generally just a few type of in-season vegetable with a filet of fish or one other protein is all I would like. I plan to get significantly better at cooking Vietnamese dishes now that I stay in Houston. I can’t wait to hit up 99 Ranch and was already head over heels concerning the sprawling Hmart in Katy.

A.C.: Are you discerning any variations within the collective palates of Houston and New York but? We’ve a particular propensity for warmth, and I ponder if that or anything has struck you.

B.O.: I positively must dine out extra, but when I needed to generalize, large and bolder flavors appear to be a theme up to now. Possibly this dovetails along with your level that Houstonians love warmth, however I attempted two dishes just lately that used loads of black pepper – greater than I sometimes see. I occur to like black pepper, even when a chef is heavy handed with it. At Squable, the Dutch child pancake, which I believe is among the restaurant’s signature dishes, holds this pool of black pepper honey. You swirl that each one along with the dollop of ricotta and the preserved kumquats however the warmth of the pepper nonetheless stands out. 

I seen this at Cleburne Cafeteria, too. A rustic steak the dimensions of a pizza slice got here with a crispy breading that was coated in black pepper. I completed the whole factor.

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