It was a dark and stormy night . . . but soggy disappointment makes way for 'course after course of exquisitely delicious food'.
It was a grey, unseasonably cold day, when I landed in the Bayou City but I was determined to make the most of my overnight stay. I grabbed the winter coat I had packed for New York, called an Uber and made the half-hour drive into the city.
Just how I found myself eating what is possibly the best meal of my life on this cold wet night, in a small villa behind a car wash and next to a car yard, was a moment of sheer serendipity, one of those random things that make travelling so much fun.
Most people put the Space Centre top of their list of things to do in Houston but I was more interested in what was happening with food and art.
The crew on my flight had given me a great list of places to eat and things to do, including visiting the Museum district, heading to Wild West for line dancing and margaritas, checking out the Texas barbecue scene, visiting the Galleria shopping mall and seeing some of the city's street art.
Houston has fully embraced street art and you could spend an entire day touring its murals. At the Graffiti Building in downtown (less of a building than a series of walls) a line-up of cars blaring competing hip-hop songs from their windows, were lined up waiting for their selfie moment of glory by the Big Moe and Pimp C wall—painted by artists Lee Washington, aka The One Lee, and Cease MZK. The antics of the people posing and break-dancing in front of the murals here while they have their photos taken gives this place the air of live theatre.
Although the Graffiti Building has all the feel of a run-down gangster hangout, the glitter of high-rise hotels and offices lies just across the freeway. A young, monied crowd live and work in this part of the city so the night life is lively. You can find lots of high-end hotels, bars and restaurants here, including the currently No. 1-ranked shrine to Oaxacan food, Xochi restaurant, in the Marriott Marquis Houston. Nearby Discovery Green is the venue for live events, with a Creole festival in full swing on the day of my visit.
It's no surprise really, being in Texas and all, that Houston has a predilection for "bigger and better". Among its bragging rights - the world capital of space exploration, the world capital of air conditioning (in summer the heat and humidity here is unbearable), and the world capital of petroleum exploration - Houston is the only place in the world you can fork out $192 for a hot dog. Not surprisingly, this isn't just any old hot dog. The "Break the Bank Frank" created by B&B Butchers features an A5 Japanese wagyu fillet, Maine lobster sauteed in a truffle mustard beurre blanc, and 24-karat gold edible flakes in a truffle-butter toasted bun.
The New York Times recently proclaimed Houston as one of the great eating capitals of America. We're not talking steakhouses and pit barbecue, although certainly this is one of the best places to eat both. But the amazing array of Gulf Coast ingredients, combined with a surprising multiculturalism, and a burgeoning population who to love to go out at night and spend money, creates a formula that is escalating the Houston restaurant scene to giddy heights.
uck doesn't usually play its hand when you turn up in a major foodie city without a booking but the goddess of goddamned deliciousness was definitely sitting on my shoulder on this wet and stormy night, waiting to guide me to food heaven.
It was 7pm, it was dark and I was hungry. I remembered a restaurant I had enjoyed on a previous trip to Houston. Pax Americana is in the Montrose district, not far from the museums and is one of those modern American bistros with a play to local market cooking, a terrific wine list and a bar where, if you are on your own you don't feel out of place eating by yourself. Or rather it was. As my driver whizzed away and I made my way to the front door, I saw that there were no lights on inside. It was closed.
I cursed myself for not being better organised, tucked my head into my coat in the now deluging rain and headed for a neon sign, twinkling away a few doors down, advertising a bar. Victor turned out to be a very nice French-style bar and the barman was able to fill me in with all the local eating spots as I sipped down a delicious chablis.
Pax was closed forever but there was a French place on the corner, a great pit barbecue joint nearby and further out, an amazing Spanish tapas place - pricey but very good. All were within a mile radius.
I headed back out into the weather. The French place looked too fussy, the Pit Room was packed and meaty. On through that black, wet night I ploughed. Google Maps was not looking after me and I simply couldn't find the place. Back and forth I sleuthed until finally, in the most unlikely spot behind a car wash building and next to a car sales yard, I spotted a small sign - BCN - attached to an old villa.
On entering I was greeted by a beautiful Miro painting on the wall. The softly-lit room was filled with the most glorious aromas. Above the bar I could see five beautiful Picasso plates. It was like stepping into Aladdin's cave, and I knew that somehow I just HAD to eat here. Never mind there was a three-week waiting list . . . could I see the manager please?
After an hour's walking in the rain I looked something the cat dragged in. A elegant man by the name of Paco came to greet me and, after I had explained my circumstances, he said if I didn't mind waiting he would see what he could do - but it would be quite a wait.
I perched, dripping, next to the cashier as wave after wave of elegantly attired guests arrived. A glass of delicious albarhino was offered along with a small simple tapas of bread and tomato. The minutes clocked by into hours but I waited patiently, knowing in my heart of hearts that there was something special here. Finally at about 10pm a gap appeared in the bar and I was in. And out it came, course after course of the MOST exquisitely delicious food. Nothing froufrou or fiddled with, just honest ingredients exceptionally well executed.
Chef Luis Roger's (who did a stint at elBulli) contemporary menu at BCN Taste and Tradition features classic Catalan flavours. On the night I was there I enjoyed an incredible degustation menu.
Fresh seafood arrives daily from Spain and the flavours are richly authentic - think char-grilled sand squid with caramelised onions, parsley garlic and squid ink, perfectly cooked branzino, pink grapefruit, pine nuts and micro greens, melt-in-the-mouth suckling pig with the crispest, thin, golden crackle. The entire menu was flawless, sheer perfection in every mouthful.
If you are a foodie, pop Houston on your list this year, you won't be disappointed. When you check out Houston's restaurant guides, you'll see that BCN Taste and Tradition is just one of a number of restaurants that come very highly recommended. Next time, I'm staying for a few days.
HOUSTON MUST-SEE: MUSEUMS
From downtown, it's less than a 10-minute drive to the museum district - home to 19 museums within a 2km area, divided into four walkable zones. There's something for everyone here, including an interactive children's museum. The Contemporary Art Museum and the Fine Arts Museum house a range of international exhibitions, currently there's a Van Gogh show running through to June this year. Check out the new Anish Kapoor sculpture "Cloud Column" (locally known as "El Frijole" which translates to "bean" - a reference to his famous work in Chicago). Installed outside the new Glassell School of Art building, it stands nearly 10m tall and weighs more than 12,000kg. Made of stainless steel, it reflects the giant cumulus clouds for which Texas is justly famous.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Houston, with one-way Economy Class fares from $899.
This is a great route to take if you're heading to Mexico. Houston is the access point to 25 cities in Mexico, with Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula just a hop an hour and a half south.