It's a measure of how much the Houston food scene has changed over the past two years that the most memorable dish I tasted last week came from two moonlighting Oxheart chefs cooking for the evening at Grand Prize Bar. The dish in question was curry laksa, the Malaysian noodle soup that inspired Willet Feng to work on perfecting his own version after a recent trip to Singapore.
Feng and his colleague Austin King, who hopes to parlay his Yaki Snack Attack business into a food truck, stood in the pint-size Grand Prize kitchen fielding orders from a long line of bar patrons who started queuing a little before 7:30 p.m. They could choose from a short lineup that included a Korean-style oyster pancake, an oxtail banh mi and the curry laksa, its golden broth crowding a styrofoam bowl that brimmed with poached shrimp and chicken and slow-cooked egg, dusted with a flurry of King's magic red-chili powder seasoning.
The soup cost eight bucks. I spent another five on a pint of beer from Grand Prize's taps (you'd be amazed how well Jacobins Rouge, a Belgian sour ale, goes with curry laksa), and it was as fine a meal as anyone ate in Houston that night. I could have brought the food to a table, but instead I ate my soup standing up at a chest-height shelf attached to a pillar, which meant the slippery noodles didn't have to travel quite so far to my mouth.
I made a mess of it anyway. A glorious one, I am happy to say, savoring the deep tang of fish sauce under the sweetness of coconut and that sunny curry warmth. Kaffir lime, lemongrass and rau ram leaves piped up in the mix, and the heat of red chile peppers rolled through it all like a tidal wave. I squeezed on the wedge of lime for a bit of tart bounce.
Drops flew everywhere as I fished for the satiny hunks of chicken, glossed with a bit of oil after poaching; and for the firm curls of shrimp and tender little fish balls Feng had made. The only dissonant element was a few cubes of fried tofu that were too bitter even for a bitterness fan like me. I shoved them aside and slurped on.
By the bottom of the bowl, I realized that curry laksa can be just as dynamic as the vibrantly hot-and-sour Assam Laksa — based on tamarind and fish — that is served at Banana Leaf Malaysian restaurant. And, in the right hands, even more complex. Feng does honor to the genre.
I want more. Which doesn't mean I'm going to get it whenever I choose. You have to jump quickly to chase down one-off dishes like this, following the Twitter feeds and Facebook updates of the chefs who cook them.
A tweet by Willet Feng (@willetcooks) the day before his Wednesday night guest appearance with Austin King alerted me to the special menu; but I could have found out through Grand Prize Bar's Twitter feed (@GrandPrizeBar), though King's @YakiSnackAttack feed, or on King's YakiSnackAttack Facebook page.
Grand Prize Bar, in an old Craftsman-style house just off Montrose Boulevard, has turned into not only a restaurant-industry hangout but an experimental food lab of sorts. Instead of installing an in-house kitchen staff, owners Ryan Rouse and Brad Moore have invited some of the city's most interesting food trucks and fledgling food entrepreneurs to guest-chef on various nights of the week.
Austin King's night recently has been Wednesday; bone-marrow king Josh Martinez of the well-regarded The Modular (@themodular) tends to do Tuesdays; and the interesting new La Sirena Seafood truck (@SirenaSeafood) is on hand Thursday. The schedule changes, but you can keep posted on the available eats at Grand Prize Bar's Facebook page.
Think eating at a popular bar might not be for you? Rest easy. Grand Prize is wonderfully easygoing except on the very crowded weekends, so you'll feel comfortable.
And if you're into chef-spotting, you're in luck. On curry laksa night, Oxheart's Justin Yu and Mark Clayton came by, Hubcap Grill's Ricky Craig was at the bar with Lea McKinney of El Gran Malo, and Jean-Philippe Gaston was talking up his new project, Cove, the small raw bar that will open soon inside Haven restaurant.
And that was just early in the evening. Which is the smart time to go if you set your sights on a particular dish, because these small operators make limited quantities and serve until they run out.
Grand Prize Bar: 1010 Banks, 713-526-4565. Open 4 p.m.—2 a.m. daily.