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Food helping Austin-Houston romance blossom

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Trentino Gelato is one of the latest Houston food businesses to expand to Austin. Owner Marcelo Kreindel asked Austin food notables such as Bill Norris and Jack Gilmore, to come up with flavor combinations, which he's now selling through Central Market. Each of the pints has a sketch and small bio of the creator on it.

The major cities in Texas have an ever-evolving love-hate relationship with one another, and right now, Austin and Houston or at least our food scenes seem to be falling hopelessly in love.

Texans will always have a great sense of pride in where we live, often spurring friendly competition and teasing, but food seems to be bringing Austinites and Houstonians closer than ever.

And just in time for Valentine's Day, Austin's only James Beard Award-winning chef, Tyson Cole, is showing his love for the city in the form of Uchi Houston, his first restaurant outside of Austin, opening Thursday in the old Felix restaurant location at Westheimer Road and Montrose Boulevard.

"Almost daily we have customers at Uchi and Uchiko that drive in from Houston to dine at our restaurants," says Cole, who went to high school in The Woodlands. "We felt like our reach over time had extended to the point where the Houston community hopefully had an idea of who we were and what we do; and it wouldn't be like diving blindly into a whole new market as an outsider."

Torchy's Tacos opened its first Houston location late last year, and Farmhouse Delivery, which delivers locally sourced produce and artisan products to Austinites, is making its first Houston deliveries this week. The Austin-based Snap Kitchen now has two Houston locations.

But like any healthy relationship, it's a two-way street. Max's Wine Dive started in Houston and expanded to Austin in 2009. James Beard-winning chef Robert Del Grande of RDG + Bar Annie expanded his restaurant empire to Austin in 2010 with Cafe Express, a statewide chain that already had locations in Dallas, and Soleil, a restaurant overlooking Lake Travis. And dozens of farms and ranches between Austin and Houston provide produce and meat to restaurants, grocers and farmers markets in both cities.

Austin chef Ned Elliott hosted Houston chef Justin Yu at a special dinner at Foreign and Domestic last fall, and a few months later, Elliott and his team traveled to Paulie's on Westheimer for a Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes. When rising mixology star Mindy Kucan left Austin to work at Bobby Heugel's cocktail haven, Anvil, two years ago, the online food community joked that it was a fair trade only because nationally renown pastry chef Plinio Sandalio was moving to Austin right around the same time. Heugel is also a frequent guest bartender at the best Austin bars, and Heugel hosted an Austin bartender night featuring Austin's top mixologists at Anvil last summer.

Marcelo Kreindel, who owns Trentino Gelato, made a name for himself in the Houston food scene by making the kind of gelato he used to eat as a kid in Argentina and selling it to local restaurants and grocery stores. After the success of a chef series line featuring flavors created by Houston chefs such as Monica Pope, Kreindel decided to do a similar line in the Austin market; it launches next week. He asked eight local notables including Bill Norris of the Alamo Drafthouse, Parkside's Shawn Cirkiel, James Holmes of Olivia and Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo to come up with gelato flavors that he would then make and sell in pints. Starting next week, you'll find the gelatos — which come in flavors such as honey jalapeño, apple bleu cheese and coconut basil — at both Austin locations of Central Market.

Joe Phillips, a Houstonian who lived in Austin for 17 years before moving back a few years ago to start Oh My Pocket Pies food truck, said that many people who pass through Austin as college students take a certain nostalgia for the capital city no matter where they go.

"We love anything that says Austin," Phillips says. "Anything with a funky, relaxed dining experience that is open and feels free and super casual."

He points to the immediate success of Torchy's Tacos, which opened in December in the Montrose district, not far from the new Uchi. Houstonians "can't get away to Austin, but they want to seem like they are getting away," he says.

Chef Scott Tycer, whose Houston restaurants have included the now-closed Textile and Gravitas, is another one of those Austin-educated Houstonians who misses his college town. "I'm in Austin all the time. I went to (the University of Texas). I'm very familiar with the culture and how much it relishes a truly handcrafted, local product," Tycer says.

Tycer is well-known in Houston for the breads and pastries he sells wholesale through Kraftsmen Baking and at two Kraftsmen Cafes. A few years ago, he decided to start offering delivery to Austin restaurants and grocers that now include Eastside Cafe, the W Hotel and Royal Blue Grocery. His trucks leave Houston at 3:30 a.m. to make deliveries in Austin, but Tycer said he's hoping to add a second production facility in Austin and possibly a cafe similar to the ones in Houston.

Houston has a big advantage over Austin in terms of ethnic restaurants and grocers — and a diverse population with enough interest in niche cuisines to support them. But Tycer says that Austin chefs are more willing to push certain culinary boundaries because Austin has a number of adventurous, if less wealthy, diners.

For Austin food businesses, Houston is an attractive market because of its geographic size, population and economy. "There's always money in Houston," says Phillips, who has helped more than a few Austin food truck owners who were interested in expanding to Houston understand the city's complex mobile food regulations. "Plus, there's more space, more parts of the city that are growing."

The Austin-based Chi'Lantro BBQ truck recently entered the Houston market, but Phillips said that though taco trucks have been in Houston for more than 60 years, the nontaco truck scene is still relatively new. "We have the strictest rules in the country," says Phillips, who opened his truck in 2009.

Houston's fine dining scene has always been considered among the nation's most sophisticated, and that has certainly trickled down to Austin's top tier restaurants, but one of the biggest influences that Austin is having on the Houston dining scene is cooperation among the competition.

"We welcome newcomers. We need them to build the food truck community," says Phillips, who added that he hopes to start serving the Austin market through wholesale and retail outlets within the next six months. "I'm trying to teach other owners to support and even market one another. I learned that from Austin years ago."

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504