It’s an exciting time to live and eat in Houston, Texas, so we are beefing up our coverage of all things food.
With that, it’s our pleasure to introduce the Houston Chronicle’s new restaurant columnist, Bao Ong.
Ong will focus on the intersection of food and culture, expanding our food team's coverage of the city's dynamic dining scene inside and outside the Loop. He'll report and write news stories, features, trends pieces, special projects, commentary and reviews, working closely with restaurant critic Alison Cook, as well as food editor Greg Morago and reporter John-Henry Perera.
He arrives in Houston after writing about food the past 14 years in New York City for local and national publications, including Eater and the New York Times.
RELATED: Ong: A case for why Houston's restaurants are more exciting than New York City's
Here, our veteran critic Cook asks Ong her burning questions so we all can get to know him a bit better.
ALISON COOK: You’re coming to the Chronicle from a job as editor of Eater New York, their flagship city site, which is kind of a big deal. Tell me a little about how you landed there and what your job entailed.
BAO ONG: I started my journalism career covering all sorts of news – bridges collapsing, floods, crime, school boards, the newly crowned princess of a winter carnival. Although I always had my eyes on covering food before my first daily newspaper job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, I felt it was important to be a strong reporter first and foremost. In 2008, after a few years of beat reporting under my belt, I decided to move from the Twin Cities to New York City to pursue food writing.
I didn't have a job lined up, so I enrolled in culinary school at night while working as an assistant to a financial columnist at Dow Jones and blogging for one of the early competitors to Eater New York and New York Magazine's food site Grub Street. I also worked for the legendary restaurant critic Gael Greene.
By the time I graduated from the French Culinary Institute (later renamed the International Culinary Center), the country was in the middle of a recession. I enrolled in a graduate program at Columbia University focusing on arts and culture reporting, partly to ride out a bad economy but also to focus more on this niche I was trying to carve for myself in the food media space.
While I was studying (and working on a thesis about Spam – yes, the canned meat), I also landed an internship at The New York Times on the metro desk. My internship kept getting extended, and I learned a lot covering breaking news all over the five boroughs of New York City. My heart was still in food, and a few editors and reporters helped me land a spot in the Dining section (The Times renamed it Food some years ago). That part of the internship turned into a steady freelance gig, which included writing a column that was a weekly roundup of food events around the New York. I learned a lot about the restaurant scene that way.
A.C.: What next?
B.O.: Once that column ended after a few years, I freelanced for a bunch of local and national publications before landing a job as a research editor at Bon Appetit and later as the food and drink editor at Time Out New York. This all led me to the job at Eater New York. I joined during the first year of the pandemic, working with two critics (Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema, the only restaurant critics at Eater these days) and a team of three reporters.
A big focus in the beginning was covering all the news surrounding the pandemic, but as time went on, we shifted our coverage to restaurant openings and the site's prolific line up of maps, from the hottest restaurants in the city to the top fried chicken spots. While our focus was primarily on news, we also worked on some enterprising projects – a project with 52 mini profiles of restaurants that closed during the first year of COVID and a more recent project where we ate at every restaurant along Canal Street in Manhattan's Chinatown.
A.C.: What was the light bulb moment that made you want to cover food? And restaurants?
B.O.: My first daily newspaper internship was in the features section at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I had a chance to work with the restaurant critic – working on everything from short chef profiles to larger features – and fell in love with covering food. I remember dining out with the critic for the first time and being blown away that this could be an actual job. It turns out this critic, Kathie Jenkins, also worked for the great Ruth Reichl. So I read all of Reichl's books and as much food writing as I could. I've been hooked on restaurants ever since.
A.C.: Working for Gael Greene must have been a trip. Were you her assistant when she left New York Magazine? How did that shape your view of the New York dining scene?
B.O.: It was a hoot working for Gael. She grew up in the Midwest, but she was a New Yorker if there ever was one. A straight shooter, fast moving, opinionated. I started working for her as an intern shortly after she left New York Magazine and was on “Top Chef Masters.”
I think the biggest lesson I learned from Gael was the history of NYC restaurants. She would always be one of the first writers to check out a new restaurant in town, but she also made it point to revisit the older ones, whether they were well established favorites like a Le Cirque or smaller places she loved in her neighborhood (the Upper West Side).
I admired how women like Gael and Florence Fabricant, whom I worked with at the Times, had this competitive drive to cover restaurants even after doing it for decades. They were eager to cover the trendiest openings, but there was respect for establishments that many people would take for granted or forget. In other words, having that context matters a lot, and I always aim for that in my own work.
A.C.: What was the niche you saw for yourself? How did you arrive at Spam as a subject for your Master's thesis?
B.O.: I was getting into food writing more seriously as bloggers started taking over. The niche I wanted to fill, at least early in my career, was one of a food writer who was a trained journalist first. The anti-thesis of a blogger or influencer – although some do a very good job and I respect their work. I looked up to reporters like Julia Moskin and Kim Severson. I read reviews by critics outside of New York like you, Jonathan Gold, Tom Sietsema, and others to get a sense of what was happening around the country.
Columbia's journalism school has two masters program: the MS, which is geared toward new reporters, and the MA, which catered mostly to journalists with at least a few years of experience in the field that wanted to focus on a specialty. I got into the arts and culture program because I knew I could write about food easily that way.
I landed on Spam because it seemed so wacky and it had a connection to my home state of Minnesota (Hormel had its headquarters, I believe, in Austin, Minnesota, where there's also a Spam museum). In my thesis, I argued that Spam, an all-American food stuff made its way to Asia – mainly during various wars but it's prolific in Korea, the Philippines, China, and parts of Southeast Asia – and took on its own identity as an Asian ingredient. It was all very academic.
A.C.: What cuisines are you most drawn to? I am not going to say "favorites," but the ones that speak to you most powerfully?
B.O.: Thank you! It's way too difficult to have a favorite. That could change any given day or at any meal. I feel like being open minded about food is important in this job.
But when I am asked about favorites, my de facto answer is always Asian and Italian food. Maybe it's because I grew up eating rice with virtually every meal and that's why I love carbs and basically every type of noodle. That said, even "Asian" as a food category is so complex and wide ranging. I love pho, anything with Sichuan peppercorns, sashimi, curries and that's only the beginning. If we're talking Italian food, the seafood dishes you'd find in Sicily are as enticing to me as a bowl of hearty polenta with truffles.
Luckily, Houston's restaurant scene is as diverse as places like New York and LA. I can't wait to explore more of the city because I truly love trying all food.
A.C.: My sister and I, daughters of a Minnesota Swede mom and a Texas dad, always said we could have been South Indian in a previous life, based on our cravings. And in my case, Mexican food has such a huge role in my psyche. It's fascinating how those preferences take hold. What brought you to Italian food? My guess is that it is your time in New York, where there is such a wide range of really good Italian restaurants. Although, as my Hibbing-born mom like to remind me, the Chef Boyardee brand, which packaged Italian-American for a broad swath of this country in the 20th midcentury, was born in Minnesota.
B.O.: Funny you should mention Chef Boyardee! I wanted to eat it as child. It seemed like everyone else at school was eating it but me and my siblings. My parents never bought processed foods because they thought even items like Chef Boyardee were too expensive. My parents emigrated from Vietnam and worked blue collar jobs, so they tried to save every penny raising four children.
Also, the Chinese gave Italians their pasta. Maybe that's my emotional connection?
That's a great point, though, about all the Italian restaurants in NYC. There are so many that you find great ones that are affordable, even if you're a broke college grad.
A.C.: So what qualities do you prize most in a restaurant experience? I noticed when we were emailing the other day you mentioned a fun vibe and an interesting clientele, which aren't always high on my list. I have always tended to be a Food First person, but as time goes on I realize great hospitality or a transporting setting makes a huge difference.
B.O.: I definitely think food comes first when I try to pick a restaurant for myself. I could care less if it skews fine dining (though my bank account may differ) or if it's a random spot in a strip mall. If the food is good, I want to be there. That said, I think the theater of dining out can be a big part of the experience. That may be the bartender with a big personality that remembers your drink order when you come back, the people watching at a trendy spot, the decor, etc.
There's a French bistro near Lincoln Center I started going to a few years ago because a bartender there was so friendly and the service was always on point – not too pushy, chatty but not too much in your business, a little extra pour in the glass when he knew you were a regular. But because this spot (Cafe Luxembourg) used to have late hours pre-pandemic, you'd also meet some really interesting people. A musician from the New York Philharmonic, a Broadway actor, an architect, other writers.
A.C.: Were you familiar with Houston before you took this job?
B.O.: I had visited about half a dozen times but never in the summer or for more than a long weekend. I had maybe three friends here before deciding to move. It does feel a little bit like I took a nose-first leap, especially after 14 years in NYC. But there's so much happening in Houston and the restaurant scene is exciting. There's a lot to learn and experience. I'm so excited to be here.
A.C.: What are some of the biggest differences you’ve experienced between the dining scene in Houston and the one in New York? Are there any notable parallels or similarities? I know that is a sweeping question, but I am interested in your first impressions.
B.O.: The biggest difference is that I need a car to crisscross the city if I want to visit multiple restaurants in a night. Whenever friends ask what I’ll miss the most about New York, it’s probably the walking, but in this summer heat wave, I’m perfectly happy to be in a car with the AC on full blast. So yes, it’s changed this part of the job that involves staying on top of the restaurant scene and requires more planning.
I’ve also noticed fewer restaurant workers wearing masks. I don’t think this is only happening in Houston. I’ve been in Detroit, Minneapolis, and Boston recently and noticed a similar trend.
People are definitely going out to NYC restaurants and there's a sense that everyone wants to “make up” for the past two years. But I think the pandemic brought some changes to the hospitality industry. I feel like NYC restaurants are packed but for a shorter amount of time. It’s a challenge to find restaurants serving food after 10 p.m. these days – which makes sense given the challenge of finding employees, a movement for restaurants to re-examine how they operate, people cooking more at home, etc. New York’s reputation as a city that never sleeps had been fading before the pandemic but it seems like the nail is in the coffin these days.
In Houston, however, I’ve seen packed dining rooms and bars from happy hour to the later hours of dinner service. If my memory is right, we sat at the BCN bar for a few hours and saw at least two rounds of tables turned. The dining room looked like it was packed. I think this speaks to how much Houstonians want to be out in restaurants and the excitement the city has about going out.
A.C.: Have you been struck yet by anything we’re lacking here? Anything or any restaurants you particularly miss?
B.O.: On Bastille Day, out of curiosity, I did a quick Google search for French restaurants and casual French-leaning bistros and didn’t have much luck. NYC has a long history of fine-dining French restaurants and that’s trickled down to the city having more casual spots all over the city where you could get favorites like a steak tartare with French fries, a tuna nicoise, pate with a crusty baguette. So I’m looking for suggestions.
I’ll miss my favorite NYC spots to grab a martini and burger, but that’s OK. I don’t think New York City should be used as a standard or as the main point of comparison. That may have been more helpful 20 years ago or so, but there are so many great restaurants across the country. I can’t wait to find my new go-to spots in Houston.
A.C.: Is there something you've come across that you think New York is lacking?
B.O.: Coming into this job, I already knew Houston’s Vietnamese food scene is hands down much better than New York City. It’s not even a competition. We can also add to the list barbecue, Tex-Mex, and I’m expecting the same can be said about Mexican food.
A.C.: Do you cook at home? What do you like to cook best?
B.O.: I do cook at home, though I’m not sure how much of it I’ll be doing as I try to catch up to speed on Houston’s restaurants.
Like many people, I did much more home cooking at the onset of the pandemic. This was refreshing after going out to eat at least four or five nights a week for dinner for more than decade. I’m always happy to put my culinary school experience to use – it was expensive! I’m hoping to find some farmers markets and stores — I hear Central Market is a must visit — in town.
I probably end up cooking more Asian food and anything that’s fresh or seasonal from a market — sometimes just some sort of in-season vegetable with a filet of fish or another protein is all I want. I plan to get much better at cooking Vietnamese dishes now that I live in Houston. I can’t wait to hit up 99 Ranch and was already head over heels about the sprawling Hmart in Katy.
A.C.: Are you discerning any differences in the collective palates of Houston and New York yet? We have a definite propensity for heat, and I wonder if that or anything else has struck you.
B.O.: I definitely need to dine out more, but if I had to generalize, big and bolder flavors seem like a theme so far. Maybe this dovetails with your point that Houstonians love heat, but I tried two dishes recently that used a lot of black pepper – more than I typically see. I happen to love black pepper, even if a chef is heavy handed with it. At Squable, the Dutch baby pancake, which I think is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, holds this pool of black pepper honey. You swirl that all together with the dollop of ricotta and the preserved kumquats but the heat of the pepper still stands out.
I noticed this at Cleburne Cafeteria, too. A country steak the size of a pizza slice came with a crispy breading that was covered in black pepper. I finished the entire thing.
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