In late 2017, Nancy’s Hustle, Eater Houston’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year, opened its doors with little fanfare. After its quiet debut, though, the secret quickly got out. As diners and critics trickled into the restaurant, one thing became immediately clear: this restaurant is a Houston classic.
From its beginnings, Nancy’s Hustle was intended to fill a void in the up-and-coming EaDo neighborhood, which had grown dramatically in population over the past several years, but the restaurants, grocery stores, and other businesses to serve those new residents hadn’t yet materialized. “It didn’t look like anything was happening on the east side, but it was happening,” co-owner Sean Jensen tells Eater. “The residential part of that neighborhood had been growing for years now, but it didn’t really have the things it needed to really be a neighborhood. There are other really great establishments in this area that were here long before us, but we got lucky to get in when things really started to kick off.”
Nancy’s Hustle is located in an area that has been relatively underdeveloped in recent years, but that’s changing rapidly. It’s just one of many new restaurants and bars that have opened (or will soon) in EaDo, arguably one of the city’s hottest new dining neighborhoods. For years, though, it sort of resisted major development, which Jensen attributes to the types of buildings that dominate the neighborhood. “A lot of the buildings between EaDo and Downtown is a lot of old warehouse and commercial space that has been owned by families for a long time,” he says. “But generations are changing, people are selling, and they’re trying to develop that property instead of just sitting on it.”
With that growth potential and lack of neighborhood infrastructure in mind, Jensen and his co-owner and chef Jason Vaughan set out to establish a vibe that would cultivate a loyal crowd of neighborhood regulars, and it quickly materialized. “We wanted a place you could come into and feel comfortable, go in and have a good time, at any level of casual to formal as you want, and nobody’s going to care,” Jensen says. “We just wanted to make a place that was really comfortable for the neighborhood.”
But as Nancy’s Hustle began to draw more attention from both local and national dining critics, many of those regulars found that it was becoming more and more difficult to score a table at their new neighborhood gem. “It happens sometimes, but we have things we can do to help them,” Jensen says. “We have a waitlist and do require you to come in and put your name down, but once you’re a now neighborhood regular, you can call ahead and ask, and we’ll text you so that you can walk the few blocks to the restaurant. It makes it easier for people to get in knowing that we’re giving that leeway. They’ll complain about the crowds jokingly, but they’re just proud and happy for us. I think everyone understands.”
Paired with the restaurant’s inherent charm and the impeccable hospitality of its front-of-house staff, the food at Nancy’s Hustle rounds out a holy trinity of restaurant success. Its most iconic dish, the “Nancy cakes,” or a plate of pillowy corn cakes served with rich, creamy cultured butter and briny trout roe, is such a favorite that on a busy night, more than 75 orders fly out of the kitchen. “It’s an excuse to eat pancakes for dinner,” Jensen says. “We were getting corn from Barton Springs Mill in Austin, the smokiness and the saltiness of the roe with the cultured butter — it just kind of made sense to put it all together.”
Beyond those famous corn cakes, though, Vaughn is constantly developing new dishes for Nancy’s Hustle. Instead of just creating a staple set of dishes from the outset, Vaughn works with each ingredient that he’s hoping to feature in order to really showcase its flavor. “Right now, for example, carrots are in season and we have this awesome new carrot dish on the menu,” Jensen says. “But when that goes out of season, we won’t just substitute in a new vegetable with that dish, we’ll come up with something else. He’s changing the menu constantly, we’ve got five new items on the menu just in the past two weeks.”
Of course, a restaurant is more than just a place to serve and eat food and drinks. Restaurants are institutions, and members of a broader community, both in their neighborhood and among their fellow Houston restaurants. Jensen and Vaughn say that they are uniquely committed to ensuring that Nancy’s Hustle is a good citizen in that community, one that does right by their neighbors, their customers, and most importantly, their employees.
“We’re not the first ones to be doing any of this stuff, but we’re trying to do the best we can for our employees, and we want to encourage it in the community at large because it’s something we think is important,” Jensen says. “We’re dead-set on offering benefits for all employees, something not a lot of people are doing because of the broken insurance system in this country. We want to give people a quality of life, make it to where they only have to work one job, and creating a good environment for them to work in. Having worked in this industry for many years, I’ve worked for some of the better companies when it comes to taking care of their employees, I think it’s something we all should do.”
Now that Nancy’s Hustle is firmly settled in, it looks like the next year will continue to be business as usual. But don’t be surprised if Jensen and Vaughn don’t end up with a new restaurant venture in the works in the coming months. “We’re always keeping an eye out for the right space, but we have no hard plans. If there’s organic growth to happen, it will happen,” Jensen says. “No one’s pushing, no one’s trying, but we’re keeping our eyes and ears open for the right opportunity. At a year in, and with the management staff that we have in place, we are starting to have a little bit more free time and hopefully that will lead to something.”
This is the first in a monthly series of features on Eater Houston’s 2018 Eater Awards Winners. Stay tuned in February for the next installment.