Last week, Esquire food writer John Mariani named Atlanta restaurant The Optimist the best new restaurant in America. Optimist chef/owner Ford Fry is a Houston native who graduated from Lamar High School before setting out on his culinary career. Given that Fry will also be appearing at Eater Eve in New York next month, it seemed like a good time to ask the chef about his Houston roots and whether he might be opening a restaurant in his hometown. Read on to see which restaurant is a must visit when he's in town visiting his parents, and where he's been scouting in Houston for a restaurant space.
What are your roots in Houston? I grew up in River Oaks. Went to St. John's. Switched over to Lamar. I graduated from Lamar and pretty much been gone since then.
When were you at St. John's? Kindergarten. Left St. John's 84 or 83. I was kinda like the kid in Rushmore. Maybe not the worst student. I was a C student and then went to Lamar.
How did growing up in Houston get you to where you are now? I think being close to Louisiana (helped). Once I moved to Lamar, I had friends from West U. We did a lot of hunting and fishing. One of my friends, Charlie Christ, we'd go fishing and we'd cooked the fish. He had some Louisiana ties. I always loved food. My family we went out to eat a lot. We traveled all over the country, even Europe, too. I always hung around the kitchen in my grandmother's house. That's always kinda where I naturally gravitated towards. Then I went off to college to major in business, joined a fraternity, didn't study or anything like that. At that point, there were a bunch of articles in the Wall St Journal about culinary school ... so I packed my bags, moved to Vermont and that was it.
Are there specific Houston restaurants that were favorites of yours? Every time I go back to town, I'm always at Goode Co. I love Goode Co Taqueria. I typically stick to the ones off Kirby and going towards West U. Growing up as a kid, I lived right down the street from the original Armando's, right on Shepherd on the outskirts of River Oaks. I loved that. I think when I was really young Maxine's was something I went to as well. I think Houston's full of awesome casual restaurants. The early days of Ninfa's were great; we went there a lot. After church, we'd go to Demeris Bar-B-Q. As time went on, Robert Del Grande started Cafe Annie ... I was pretty intrigued with that. Always James Coney Island on Friday, Saturday nights with me and my buddies to see how many hot dogs we could eat.
Last time I was in town we went to Underbelly and tried some of the new places. Afterwards, I had to make a run to James Coney Island no matter how full I was.
The San Jacinto Inn, down by the San Jacinto Monument, I think it was on stilts. You could get all you can eat. They'd keep bringing out shrimp. The girls would get Shirley Temples and the boys would get Roy Rodgers. Your parents would offer you a dollar to eat an oyster. I think that's where all my seafood stuff came from.
Do you still have family here? My parents and my brother in law who's my main partner lives there. He's in oil and gas. His name is Wil Van Loh. We were there looking at some potential locations in Houston. We've kinda got a location in mind that's gonna come available in a year. We turned it down cause I've got so much going on here, but they said they'd wait for us.
What kind of restaurant would it be? I don't know, but it could be something similar to The Optimist that we're doing here. Atlanta's a little different, because you can find these old buildings that have a lot of soul to them. Houston's ok, but a lot of the restaurants are in these strip centers unless you go down in Montrose like Bryan Caswell did.
I think it's great. It's near where I grew up. I think it's probably about time for kind of a new (generation of restaurants) ... Bryan Caswell dong his thing. Underbelly, I didn't get a chance to meet (Chris Shepherd), but it sounds like it's kind of a changeover of chefs coming to town.
When do you think you might open a restaurant in Houston? I'd say I'm 50/50 really from a timing perspective. I think the economy in Texas is really amazing. Just cause I grew up there, it'd be fun to come back and do something there. Maybe even more than just the one. Some of the hurdles also is that no one in Houston really knows us. In Atlanta, the locations kind of know us. In Houston, the landlords don't necessarily know us. The deals we get in Atlanta are so much better. We're thinking let's just kinda get in to a restaurant: just because my family is still there and Wil is there. It's our number one choice as far as our secondary city.
Where have you looked? We looked at a really cool space. Where the sculptures are off Washington. They're stored in front. There's a building there we looked at. That was the space I liked best for the feel of it, but I just wasn't sure if we could get enough traffic.
What are you serving at Eater Eve? Kimchi spiced Spanish octopus with chicken "drippings." We will probably throw a little herb topped salad with chicken chicharones on there as well.