American cuisine

(Almost) Top Chef Garcia Brings Celebrity, New Asian American Cuisine to Heights | food drink

She had envisioned her first restaurant as a modest casual place for families, a “neighborhood staple in the highlands”, but now that the business has been sprinkled with generous amounts of stardust from Evelyn Garcia as a finalist of Bravo’s longtime “Top Chef.” competition, “Jūn by KIN” seems destined to become a Mecca for gastronomy.

Evidence: The appearance of Garcia and his business partner/chef Henry Lu last Sunday at the Heights Mercantile Farmers Market, where they sold fragrant, steamed Asian street food and their range of neatly packaged KIN spices and condiments – one of many regular stops for them on the Houston-area outdoor market circuit.

Fans of the TV show, which aired its finale two weeks ago, made their most popular stand with a steady stream of customers looking to sample the food and catch a glimpse of the celebrity chef. Garcia did not disappoint, beaming and chatting as she prepared and served.

“We can’t wait for you to open! gushed Lin Miller, who had driven in from The Woodlands and swore she would make the trip to try the new restaurant and “everything Garcia does.”

That excitement for the future Garcia’s Heights restaurant was echoed by LT Cargill of the Memorial area, who posed for a photo with Garcia as he waited for his order of brisket bao, which he gave a hearty thumbs up.

“She showed a lot of talent and creativity on the show and came across as down-to-earth and loving what she does,” Cargill said. “She made Houston proud.”

Garcia, 33, was the only chef from Houston among 15 to take part in the 19th season of Top Chef, which was filmed in and around the city last November with the final two episodes filmed in Tucson, Arizona. She narrowly missed out on the title and her $250,000 prize, but her ability to tackle complex challenges showcasing the diverse cultures of the Houston area, her poise and her humor impressed the judges with a a way that, based on the show’s history, makes her a likely candidate for future appearances as a Top Chef pundit or an “all-star” contestant — or both.

Among her winning dishes along the way was a beef brisket curry to which host/judge Padma Lakshmi asked, “Where have you been all my life?” A bright magenta mini-sop (masa “bowl” with garnish) was a tribute to his late grandmother, enhanced with mashed beets; a Thai-inspired seafood tower won the Galveston Challenge, and its chili relleno-style nopales (cactus) earned it a spot in the bottom three.

Garcia and Lu are aiming for a fall opening of Jūn at the former Central City Co-op location at 420 20th St. in the Heights, a walkable neighborhood dotted with various small restaurants offering Asian, Mexican and French-Moroccan cuisines.

Lu is handling the commercial end, Garcia says, and he says their hoped-for fall opening is in the hands of permit and license issuers and vendors. In the meantime, their restaurant business has taken off, and with market visits they find themselves stretched and constantly busy. In addition to cooking elegant dinners at the Houston Botanical Gardens, she still makes time for the occasional pupusa workshop like the one she did in the Heights on Thursday night, teaching how to make the traditional Salvadoran cake.

Though they’re extremely multitasking these days, their vision for the restaurant is clear: New Asian American cuisine rooted in their diverse backgrounds come together. Plans for Jūn – named after the month in which Garcia and his two relatives were born – are to be open for brunch and dinner seven days a week, serving wine and beer and “fun cocktails” using these drinks instead of hard liquor, says Lu.

“It’s who we are,” Garcia told passers-by on Sunday as she served a nifty bowl of coconut rice pudding for a toddler. Garcia’s family is food-centric, Mexican and Salvadoran, and she grew up in northwest Houston. Lu is the son of Chinese restaurateurs and grew up in the Bronx. Both are classically trained chefs – she at the Culinary Institute of America in New York where she obtained associate and license degrees, he at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Both honed their skills at popular Asian restaurants in New York, and she has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia to further her knowledge.

Top Chef wasn’t Garcia’s first glimpse of stardom. In 2014, she won a burger challenge in The Food Network’s “Chopped” contest, winning a $10,000 prize. She returned to Houston after a decade in New York, created her KIN HTX concept in 2016 with pop-ups and catering, and suffered bad timing to open a stand in a Rice Village food hall four months before. the COVID-19 lockdown.

Garcia recovered by adding the product line to her restaurant and pop-up business when conditions improved, and old New York friend Lu joined her in Houston to pursue the dream of a restaurant.

She seems to be taking her newfound fame with ease, and Lu keeps her grounded with sweet teasing. They told patrons on Sunday how super secret her attendance at Top Chef was, leaving Lu to explain her absences.

“He told some people I was ‘gone to find myself,'” Garcia said with an eye roll. “I guess that was kind of true. I have.”