What’s in a Danish Gumbo? Why Houston chefs are mixing and matching cuisines more than ever

On a literal level, the answer is simple. The puff pastry crown I got from Koffeteria a couple of Saturdays ago had a treasure of jellied, spicy roux sprinkled with chunks of sausage and chicken.

I couldn’t resist when I went online to place an order the night before – always the best way to ensure you get Chef Vanarin Kuch’s latest concoctions at this popular bakery-café in EaDo. Some items sell out quickly, and the bolder the idea, the more likely it is to catch on with early risers.

That’s how it is in Houston these days. Food obsessives seem increasingly bent on ostensibly consuming the most outrageous examples of the gender-swap that has become the heart of Houston cuisine. Instagram feeds are full of these hybrid dishes, challenging us to eat them and then brag about them to our friends.

I am not immune. Just a few weeks ago, I was led to taste – and then celebrate – the coasting quesadilla that has become a signature dish at Cobos Que, the birria and barbecue specialists who set up shop equidistant downtown baseball, football and basketball venues. We’re talking barbecue breast meshed with macaroni and cheese mixed with smoked blood sausage, folded into a flour tortilla and grilled until the cheese pulls and oozes very satisfyingly.

Cafeteria

1110 Hutchins, Suite 102


It’s kinda crazy and crazy good.

So, in its own way, was my Danish Gumbo, which offered the flavor profile of the Louisiana soup so popular in that city as a solid at room temperature rather than a hot soup. Yeah, I could have reheated the Danish pastry when I brought it home and produced a runny effect, but I couldn’t wait that long to try it.

It worked, in its own particular way. And that left me wondering how the Crawfish Rangoon Danish that Koffeteria featured on their Instagram feed a while ago had tasted. It looked wild: its short, cylindrical base protruding from two dramatically swirling claws of puff pastry. He slyly referenced not only the Cajun and Creole strain of our local food culture, but also Kuch’s own Asian roots, as the son of Cambodian immigrants.

One of the specials last week, a Cambodian pesto roll, used French croissant dough as the cradle for the pesto made with Thai basil and meka leaves, or pork plum leaves, “which have a delicate citrus flavor,” the Instagram caption advised, with peanuts as the nut base. Earlier, Kuch dove into a bit of Americana that has become quintessentially Texan, thanks to our barbecue culture: a Tex-Czech kolache filled with mashed potatoes topped with cheddar and Oaxaca cheeses.

Since the 1980s, if I remember correctly, Houston chefs have been mixing and matching the city’s staple foods with our rich array of international cuisines. This cross-fertilization is key to our distinctive regional cuisine in the 21st century.

But lately I’ve wondered why the mixing and matching seems to have reached fever pitch here in early 2022. What’s really about this Gumbo Danish, or below, that calls it to existence?

I have a few theories, both related to the pandemic now entering its difficult third year.

The first is how Instagram has fueled the current wave of experimentation. Over the past two years, the platform has grown in prominence as a marketing tool for struggling, and suddenly underemployed restaurants for chefs, bakers, and cooks of all kinds. The more outrageous and blustery the idea of ​​mix-and-match, the more “OMG!” comments and the traffic it attracts. Check it online and you’ll see – the experimentation feeds itself.

My second theory is that dishes that overturn culinary traces, that shake our sense of “normality,” make us feel something in a way that all the pandemic-friendly comfort food in the world can’t. To consume a Danish Gumbo is to remind you that you are alive, if you will. It’s a promise that surprise and even amazement can be found around any corner.

AT Cafeteria — and in Houston food establishments of all stripes right now — they do.

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About James Almanza

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