Houston: A Visit to a Serious Food City

Houston Skyline

The folks in houston are serious about food, really serious. And the city, the fourth largest in the country, just received some long overdue recognition; Anthony Bourdain recently came to town to film an episode of his popular television show.

Houstonians went wild on social media, crowing over the fact that Bourdain declared Houston a place where the American dream still lives and where immigrants of all kinds have been welcomed and integrated. “The stereotype is that this is an intolerant state full of right-wing cowboys that don’t like foreigners.” Adds Bourdain, though “the economic downturn and the lower cost of living made Houston … much more welcoming to people with less means.”

Spaghetti, black pepper, parmesan and olive oil

All of this is excellent news for cheese lovers who find themselves in the Bayou City, where Houstonians have learned to excel at opening their minds and their mouths to new flavors. And restaurateurs around town have discovered that Houston’s finely-tuned taste buds are increasingly interested in experimenting with cheese.

The same culinary ingenuity that goes into award-winning restaurants around town is now being applied to a phenomenal spread of cheese boards that might have you convinced to book a ticket down south by the end of this article.

A Go-To Shop

Though you might be surprised to find out that Houston has an up-and-coming cheese scene, the most surprisingly thing I discovered is that, somehow, there is still only one go-to cheese shop for the town’s connoisseurs. And more surprising still, that shop is not a slick, glassed-in affair like you might find in New York City or San Francisco.

Rather, the center of Houston’s cheese culture is found in perhaps the most Houston of all locations — on a road linking freeway interchanges and lined with dilapidated strip malls. Across the street from the shop is a Mexican market, an avocado import company and a washateria. Next door is a seafood taqueria and an immigration lawyer’s office. Behind the shop is an old Houston working class neighborhood.

Agricole Hospitality Culinary director Vincent Huh and chef/owner Ryan Pera on the line at Coltivare Julie Soefer Photography

But when you discover what’s going on inside, the location of the shop becomes almost comical; it’s a gem of fine cuisine in a rough-around-the-edges setting. And, once you get to know this city, you’ll realize, that’s what makes it a quintessentially Houston shop.

Behind the counter at Houston Dairymaids is Lindsey Schechter, one of the most personable cheese personalities you’ll probably meet. But don’t let the friendly exterior fool you; when it comes to Texas cheese, Schechter is all business. Within minutes, her team has unveiled a tasting plate of six unique regional cheeses.

There’s a soft-as-heaven goat cheese from Pure Luck Dairy, perhaps the cleanest-tasting soft goat cheese you’ll ever try and one I’d highly recommend. Of course, since this is Texas, there’s a super smoky Scamorza from Paula Lambert, the Dallas cheese queen featured on the cover of a recent Cheese Connoisseur issue. A buttery local variety called Tomme de Hood from Eagle Mountain Cheese made for a luxurious addition, as did a smooth, Garrotxa-style San Isidro by Waco’s Caprino Royale.

Coltivare store front
Julie Soefer Photography

But for me the standouts were the Sharpshooter Cheddar by Veldhuizen Family Farm, a crunchy, extra-aged version of their Texas Gold Cheddar, and the Latte Da Cotswald, an onion-tinged aged goat cheese from Latte Da Dairy. Schechter made sure to print out descriptions of the sampled cheeses and offered up some for dessert with a spoonful of two types of local Cajeta, a Mexican-style caramel by Blue Heron Farms that simply cries out for a big bowl of vanilla ice cream.

But this lovely array of local Texas delights is not a case of special treatment for the reporter; Schechter and her staff offer this up to everyone who comes into Houston Dairymaids. It’s what happens when passion for high-quality cheese drives a business.

A Grass Roots Effort

And Schechter’s been passionate about cheese for a while. She got to know Texas cheesemakers not by having them mail her samples of her cheese, but by hopping into her truck, putting it into drive and heading right out to the farms herself.

She explains in detail about how she would pack up cheese from the farms in the back of her Toyota and drive back into Houston, where she would set up tables at farmers markets and start talking to Houstonians about the cheese that was being made just a few hours from their doorsteps. “The restaurant community and the general public were all really excited about Texas cheese,” recalls Schechter.

pickled butternut squash salad
Pickled butternut squash salad Courtesy of Coltivare

Though she has expanded her offerings now to include other American cheeses and even added a few imported cheeses, it’s the Texas producers that are at the heart of her operation.

Today, Schechter and her 12 employees offer free cheese tastings every day, with five to seven different varieties. During my lunch-hour visit on a Thursday, the shop was busy with bright-eyed customers. “Houstonians really appreciate good cheese and love it,” she adds.

It’s that kind of open-door policy that lures in consumers to this unlikely corner of Houston. “We’re not the most convenient place to get to,” admits Schechter, “so it’s great to see people seek out our shop for the tasting experience, for a place that will cut the cheese fresh and wrap it in paper, for the level of understanding of what that means for the cheese.”

But it’s Houston Dairymaids commitment to quality cheese mongering that has also made it an ally among the Houston restaurateurs working to put the city on the culinary map. And the best way to test whether they’ve achieved that goal is, of course, to pay a visit to some of the Houston dining spots that offer up great cheese selections.

Ryan Pera & Morgan Weber
Chef Ryan Pera and Morgan Weber, co-owners of Agricole Hospitali Julie Soefer Photography

Trendy & Progressive

The first stop, and the spot that Schechter recommends above all for finding great cheese in a restaurant, is Pass and Provisions, which sources her cheeses. Located at one of the trendiest intersections in town, between the progressive Montrose district and the old-school wealthy River Oaks neighborhood, this restaurant actually is two-in-one. On one side is Pass, a more casual pizzeria, where cheese oozes on most customers’ plates. On the other side of the wall is Provisions, a $4 tasting menu event. Both sides offer creative takes on using cheese.

But if you really want to test out the level of Houston’s cheese-love, you should hit up Houston’s happy hour scene, which has never been more hopping. That’s where some of the city’s best cheese plates shine.

A good place to start is right in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers, in the midtown neighborhood, at 13 Celsius. The architect-designed wine bar has an eclectic selection of vino that pairs divinely with cheese. It’s no surprise this also makes it the city’s number one bar for Tinder dates, as well.

A little farther down the road out of downtown is another standout wine bar, Camerata, which offers a nicely curated selection of French cheese. And if you’re not full enough with the happy hour offerings, there are two remarkable spots on opposite sides of town that offer up stellar cheese-entwined menu items. One is Coppa Osteria on the south side in the charming Rice Village, named for nearby bucolic Rice University. Coppa offers up a cheese board that changes weekly and a pizza and pasta menu that incorporates Texas cheeses. Then, on the north end of town in a historic, gentrified neighborhood called the Heights lies Coltivare. This  restaurant is famous for rustic pizzas, which are taken to new levels thanks to the addition of great cheese, as in the case of the Brussels sprouts pizza laced with Taleggio and the white pizza spiced up by some Point Reyes Blue cheese.

Revival Pepperoni Pizza
Revival Pepperoni Pizza Andrea Weir

But sometimes in Houston you don’t need silverware to have a lovely cheese experience. One of the best treasures in town for the lover of all things gourmet is Phoenicia, a Middle-Eastern grocery store that has expanded its offerings to include food from around the world. Most notably, behind a deli case is a variety of fresh Middle Eastern cheese that other cities lack entirely. Here, you can find everything from nutty Armenian string cheese to the ancient Touma Syrian village cheese to a green ball of spice-encrusted Shanklish cheese from the Levant. The array of international cheeses offered here is truly stunning.

As if all these in-store offerings weren’t enough to blow the mind of any cheese connoisseur, the downtown location of Phoenicia offers a restaurant within the store called MKT, which takes cheese tasting to another level. The menu here includes fried Fontina cheese with a roasted pepper chutney and a Gruyére-laced version of Texas Queso and a cheese board that brings the unlikely pair of Greek Kefalograviera and Dutch Beemster together on one plate. No doubt about it, the cheese and meat board at Phoenicia may be the most international cheese tasting experience you will ever have.

And if international cheese tasting experiences is what you’re looking for, Houston is perhaps the best place to find it. At many of the ethnic grocery stores around town, it’s easy to find a taste of Mexico in the cheese aisle. The brand La Vaquita, for example, lines cheese cases with their mild Oaxacan cheese or piquant Queso Fresco. And even at the super-stylish Japanese restaurant Uchi, their Brie Ringo, a tempura-fried, chutney accompanied trio, is a slam dunk.

A Case Of Queso

I would be remiss if I did not detour into the world of Queso, which is perhaps the preeminent and most beloved cheese experience in Houston. Brace yourself, because if you don’t have experience with Houston Queso, this is probably going to sound a tad disgusting to you.

Queso in Houston is close to a religion. Most Houstonians are faithful to one version and refuse to frequent other houses of this cheese. But what is this Queso we’re talking about? It’s melted down cheese, highly processed cheese often works best, spiked with peppers and served in a bowl with a generous accompaniment of tortilla chips on the side. Think of this as Houston’s version of guacamole, only it’s much more of a big deal here.

A Tex-Mex restaurant without a good Queso doesn’t stand a chance in this town. And that’s why, when we talk about the cheese culture in Houston, it really begins with Queso, a sloppy internationally-amalgamated food that most Americans look down on, but that Houstonians take pride in. If you can understand Houstonians love of Queso, you’re well on your way to understanding Houston.

grilled chicken
Wood grilled chicken

As for recommendations on where to try Queso, here’s a good starter set of tips: Lupe’s Tortilla or Pappasito’s for thin Queso, Ninfa’s for a thicker version; Escalante’s or Berryhill for the white version; El Tiempo for a spicier kick; Molina’s for ground-beef mixed in; and Torchy’s Tacos for an Austin-style Queso with a plop of guacamole in the middle. Remember the part where I said Queso is like a religion in Houston? That’s what makes drawing up this list a controversial act; someone’s definitely – and passionately – going to disagree.

Just because Houstonians love fattening themselves up with a bowl of cheese 
and chips, doesn’t mean that they don’t also love the subtle flavors of fine cheeses. And since we’re Texans, after all, Houstonians increasingly are looking close to home when it comes to cheese. And they’re in luck. A clutch of high-quality Texas 
cheesemakers have started to break through the Houston market, thanks in large part 
to their exposure via Houston’s burgeoning farmers market scene.

On a smallish side street every Saturday morning, cars flock around the block as shoppers pass by piles of kale to get in line for a taste of some of the Texas cheese their makers have driven in that morning. And often at the front of the line is Schechter, ready to explain how a natural rind works and the best ways to serve Mozzarella for maximum meltability.

And putting Texas in the name has been a good ploy for many of these local 
cheesemakers. “Texans really like things from Texas,” points out Schechter. That’s the reason why the Veldhuizen farm’s Texas Gold Cheddar is her best seller, which is made with local Shiner beer. That farm seems to have done the best at marketing to a Texas-loving crowd. “We have a reputation for liking things spicy,” adds Schechter, as she points to the flavorful Veldhuizen Jalapeño Cheddar.

She says that customers often come in asking for the farm’s Redneck Cheddar, both for its dependable taste and sassy name. Other Texans have caught on, as well. Lambert’s Scamorza is smoked over native pecan wood. Houston Dairymaids have made it easy for consumers to find their favorite Texas cheeses, too; these are all listed on a special website page.

But the best way to find out about Texas cheeses is to head to Houston and up that unlikely strip, where, across from the washateria and next to the taqueria, you’ll find the heart and soul of the Houston cheese scene.

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