In October 2014, chefs Ross Coleman and James Haywood opened their Houston restaurant, Kitchen 713, with an $8,000 investment. The H-Town natives leased a squat, blocky structure that they had spotted listed on Craigslist, located in the Second Ward district of the city’s East End. A church owned the building, which meant there would be no liquor license. The dining room fit eight tables. From the location, on a corner lot surrounded mostly by single-story midcentury homes, you could gaze west at the downtown skyline filling the unending Texas horizon. Coleman and Haywood hung a canary-yellow sign outside to announce their business hours, and they set out small, cherry-red benches. Against the building’s gray façade, these rectangles of colors popped like a streetscape imagined by Mondrian.
In the beginning, Haywood would hustle out to the restaurant’s front counter to take orders and then rush back to the kitchen to work the stoves with Coleman. They were cooking a kind of inspired-by-Houston cuisine they’d been developing for six years, plotting over drinks in bars and refining in one another’s kitchens.
Some of the dishes centered on favorite ingredients from their African-American culinary heritage. Many spun out of meals shared across the sprawling, global, ever-dynamic collage that is Houston’s dining landscape. (The city, anchoring a nine-county metropolitan area, comprises one of America’s most racially diverse populations.) Crisp shreds of turkey-neck meat came cradled in Bibb lettuce leaves with a side of nuoc mam cham, a Vietnamese fish sauce dip that Coleman and Haywood sweetened with a splash of Steen’s cane syrup. Their rendering of chicken and dumplings included sweet potato gnocchi with an al dente bite that echoed Korean rice cakes, and they amped the bird with gochujang (Korean chile sauce) and fried chicken skin. Pancakes received a caramel-tinged tres leches treatment at brunch.
Their ideas crystallized on the plate, flavors familiar to food-loving Houstonians but also unique to the pair’s collaboration. Both the community and the city’s critics embraced the place almost immediately. Kitchen 713 did such steady business that, after two years at that original location, Coleman and Haywood began hunting for spiffier digs to accommodate a table-service restaurant. They moved out of the Second Ward building in June 2016, and on December 26, the restaurant reopened in a 4,700-square-foot stadium of a space in a strip mall on the other side of downtown, at the edge of the Rice Military neighborhood.
Kitchen 713’s cavernous new home certainly delivers on size, if not so much on distinctive design. It features all the basics of the modern mid-scale restaurant —distressed concrete floors, curving bar (at last, Coleman and Haywood can serve alcohol), long bare light bulbs with their burning tongues hung all through the dining room — without much more. In the daytime, at a slower lunch service, the staff rightly tends to cluster diners together at tables near the picture windows, so no one feels too out in orbit. The huge space primarily works to the restaurant’s advantage during Saturday and Sunday brunch, its most popular service, when every seat fills, and even then people trail out onto the sidewalk.
In any case, the food more than compensates for the atmosphere. Coleman and Haywood prove exceptionally adept at distilling a worldwide array of tastes and textures into dishes that leave you invigorated. Of course, modern American cooking is largely predicated on a continuous sift through the global pantry in search of fresh inspiration. And looking specifically to Houston’s culinary breadth for ideas is a specialty of local celebrity chefs like Bryan Caswell of Reef and Chris Shepherd of Underbelly. But Coleman and Haywood are coming at their craft like re-upped ball players in the first weeks of spring training. They’re energized by their creative possibilities, and it translates to the plate.
Beyond the mainstay Southern flavors threading through their menu, the chefs told me in a phone interview that every few months they choose five countries upon whose cuisines they primarily focus. Right now they’re meditating on Thailand, Ethiopia, Mexico, Italy, and China. (China, they acknowledge, is enormous to consider; they’ll be mulling over regional variances in its many provinces throughout the year.) As we talked about the current roster of dishes, they referenced even more nations and their culinary traditions. Ultimately it may not be so important to keep track of their muses; it’s more vital to simply go and enjoy.
Plunge into Coleman and Haywood’s worldview with a starter of kitfo, the Ethiopian staple of raw beef tossed in butter dyed orange with mitmita, a fiery-sweet spice blend. They chop the meat so it still has pleasant chew, mix in a hint of mustard along with the spiced butter, and grate over preserved egg yolk. In a nod to ye’abesha gomen (Ethiopian-style spiced greens), they finish the dish with furls of fermented collards. The whole thing comes together: It surprises, it excites, it soothes, it compels one bite after another.
Narcotic fried chicken wings come doused in Thai flavors: garlicky hot sauce, frizzled shallots, sweet chile dipping sauce, and a clump of sticky rice to quell the burn. A grilled beef and glass noodle salad bumps the flavors to Vietnam, the dressing pungent with fish sauce and minty herbs; a melee of fermented eggplant, cherry tomatoes, long beans, and cucumber creates a fun textural free-for-all. Gumbo shifts course completely: Coleman and Haywood toss earth, land, and sea into their version; each spoonful yields some combination of shrimp, chicken, sausage, okra, and lump crabmeat. Their broth thrums with an unusual depth charge of umami: Its source is the addition of smoky dried fish to the stock, an addition inspired by thiéboudienne, the national dish of Senegal, where gumbo’s predecessor originated.
If so many zigzagging flavors sound like the makings of culinary whiplash, the kitchen’s skill provides a through-line that unifies the meal. Seasonings show balance. Jolts of acid keep the palate attentive. Plenty of ingredients huddle on these plates, but the final effect never feels too busy or fussy.
Look for dinner entrees that go big on universal comforts. Spaghetti with “boy big meat sauce” an Italian-American Sunday gravy of dreams: a mound of marinara-slicked noodles surrounded by long-braised short rib, seared house-made sausage, and a giant veal meatball. Chinese black vinegar infuses the gravy covering oxtails with its signature smoky-malty sweetness. Oxtail meat shows up again at lunch in a brioche grilled cheese spread with oxtail marmalade and pickled collard stems. (Collards in sandwiches are happening in this stretch of the country. This Southerner thinks it should be a craze everywhere.) Noontime is when you can also savor a smart riff on tikka masala that features fried catfish. It’s served alongside spinach and potatoes scattered with puffed rice, the main ingredient in bhel puri, the famous Mumbai street snack.
Dinner and lunch at Kitchen 713 impressed me more than brunch, despite the restaurant’s local renown on weekend mornings. The staff, poised and efficient on non-brunch visits, felt overwhelmed by the continually cresting waves of customers on a sunny Sunday. I can see the overall appeal: Brunch is when Coleman and Haywood veer most toward straight-up Southern classics. Alas, my fried chicken and biscuits were tepid, and hoecakes draped with smoked salmon were dry and spongy. Their penchant for global joyrides saved the afternoon.
The clear standout for me was a production number of a brunch dish called the “Thai Jewel” omelet, which included shrimp, crab, nam prik ong (a Thai dipping sauce that includes ground pork and a handful of potent chiles), fried beech mushrooms, and a smothering of sauce choron, the tomato-enriched Béarnaise sauce here also zinged with roasted chiles. Underneath all that was a fluffy, correctly blond rolled omelet capable of containing the multitudes. I’d sit in the quietest nook of the bar again for the Thai jewel and maybe a finale of tres leches cake, which, although generously sopped and milky, still tastes of an honest slice of pound cake.
Coleman and Haywood’s game-changing relocation arrives at a busy moment among some of Houston’s dining power players. Ronnie Killen — whose barbecue restaurant and steakhouse singlehandedly put Pearland, a small town south of Houston, on the national meat map — recently launched his first Bayou City proper place called Killen’s STQ, a hybrid of his previous successes. Chris Shepherd opened One Fifth, a restaurant with a five-year lease that will change its theme annually (first up: his take on a chophouse), just in time for the Super Bowl. Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, who run Hugo’s (named one of Eater’s Best Restaurants in America in December) and its seafood counterpart Caracol, recently began service at the ode to Oaxaca, Xochi. And Ryan Lachaine, named a 2013 Eater Young Gun when he worked under Shepherd at Underbelly, explores his Ukrainian heritage (the pierogi and borscht cocktail will blow your mind) at brand-new Riel.
Any of these starry entrants are worthy of a reservation. But if you’re looking for something a little more personal — perhaps the most recent and exciting example of the way Houston can nurture individualistic talent — I’ll give you an extra nudge to include Kitchen 713 among your priority dining plans.