Raffa’s Waterfront Grill, Kingwood
One of two Kingwood restaurants owned by Tony Raffa, the steak and seafood spot celebrated its 10-year anniversary a month before Harvey. A destination restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the San Jacinto River, it’s been considered one of Kingwood’s best for years. It had also, until Harvey, seemed impervious to natural disasters. In 2008, Hurricane Ike had blown through without causing damage. So had the 2015 Memorial Day flood and the subsequent “Tax Day” flood of 2016. Raffa’s did not sit on a floodplain. The normal water level lies 24 feet below the building; there had never been a need for flood insurance. But then again, Houston had never seen a hurricane like Harvey.
Raffa’s was open the Friday evening Harvey was supposed to hit but closed on Saturday and Sunday due to severe flooding. By Monday, when the water had reached waist level on the streets, Tony, his wife, and some friends braved the waters in an effort to salvage whatever could be saved. Among other things, he put 40 cases of wine on tabletops. He thought the restaurant might get 12 inches of water, but the reality was much starker. Video footage from across the street showed water inundating the entire King’s Harbor development at 6 p.m. that Monday, rising to about 5 feet. Everything stayed submerged for about 72 hours before the water began to recede, and he and his wife returned to a gut-wrenching sight.
Chairs were piled up, booths were overturned, and whole refrigerators were flipped over. Everything but the building’s frame was destroyed. Over the course of the next several days, as many as 200 volunteers—from friends to members of Tony’s church and volunteers from local businesses—showed up to help. The landlord had a restoration company on the ground within 24 hours. It took about a week just to remove the Sheetrock and debris.
Saigon House, Midtown
The trendy Vietnamese eatery debuted in the heart of Midtown in fall 2015. Owner Duc Dinh, who also owns Wrap & Roll in Pearland, hoped to attract theatergoers as well as nearby residents and Midtown professionals. But two years into the project, restaurant manager Lan Nguyen, Dinh’s mom, was running ragged. The 12-hour workdays were taking a toll. She knew she couldn’t keep it up and began looking for help.
When Hurricane Harvey hit, the floodwaters rose to approximately one foot inside the restaurant. Lan, whose home in Braeswood Place had taken on four-and-a-half feet of water, had enough things to worry about without the stress of what to do with the restaurant. By the time she got back into Saigon House three weeks later, the floodwaters had receded. With no flood insurance and little in the way of cash reserves, she cleaned up, aired the place out as best she could, and reopened for business.
On Nov. 1, Tony Nguyen, one of the founding partners in the gourmet food truck Wokker TX Ranger, joined family friends Dinh and Lan as chef-partner of Saigon House. A few weeks after he started, the restaurant had to be completely gutted to remove mold climbing up the walls after the flood.
The city is still struggling, but people still come to support us, and I'm really grateful.
Brasserie 1895, Friendswood
In late 2015, Kris Jakob—then a culinary instructor at French cooking school Culinary Institute LeNôtre and the man behind the Houston school’s successful on-site restaurant, Kris Bistro—left his eight-year, tenured post to open his own restaurant. The first chef-driven restaurant to open in the southeast Houston suburb of Friendswood, Brasserie 1895 was immediately embraced by the community as a scratch kitchen serving innovative global cuisine, with monthly rotating dishes ranging from nachos topped with cochinita pibil to curried wagyu beef tartare, and chicken-fried steak with foie gras cream gravy.
It was business as usual at Brasserie 1895 on Aug. 25. Jakob, who lives five minutes from his restaurant, drove home after closing. By the time he arrived, the water level had already risen up his driveway. “I could literally swim,” he says. “I was swimming with my dog on the street. It was sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., but everybody was out on the streets and playing in the water.”
The next morning, all the streets in Jakob’s neighborhood were blocked, and the water kept rising. “It felt apocalyptic,” he says. It was three days before he could drive to his restaurant, and even then, he had to take a roundabout route through the neighboring town of Alvin to get there.
In the days leading to his return, his partner, Sky Lyn Gibbons, had turned Brasserie 1895—which sits on a hill and was spared the widespread flooding in the area—into a makeshift shelter. Air mattresses covered the dining room floor, along with trash bags filled with personal belongings. The patio outside the restaurant served as a pet kennel. The temporary residents had made the kitchen their own, using the restaurant’s on-hand resources to cook for themselves. It was a disaster but a harmonious one. People had shelter. They had food—and each other.
When the water receded, the restaurant cleared as people returned home and began to tear out all the wet Sheetrock and address the physical damage left in Harvey’s wake. The hurricane had absolutely devastated Friendswood. Around 3,000 homes—nearly a quarter of the homes in town—had been flooded. More than 100 properties, many in a 100-year floodplain along Clear Creek, were substantially damaged.
There’s more positive that came from the flood than negative, in my opinion.
One of Houston’s first bona fide “celebrity chefs,” the 6-foot-5 Bryan Caswell gained national attention when he famously competed on season three of Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef. The busy restaurateur oversees REEF, Little Bigs, Third Bar, El Real Tex-Mex, Bryan Caswell Catering, and El Real in Terminal B at Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport. Caswell and his wife, Jennifer Caswell, co-owner and chief operating officer of his restaurant group, closed all of the restaurants in potentially affected areas on Aug. 24 and kept tabs on them as Harvey ravaged not just Houston but areas like Seadrift and Rockport, where they had close ties.
REEF, Caswell’s flagship restaurant in Midtown Houston, sustained significant damage from water that broke through the ceiling. An estimated 4 inches of water sat in the restaurant for five days.
When the rains stopped, the Caswells went to the George R. Brown Convention Center—which functioned as a temporary housing shelter—to donate supplies. Jennifer, whose brother is a firefighter, wanted to help. The water damage at REEF had spared the kitchen, so, after conferring with the downtown division of the Houston Police Department, the Caswells offered to provide hot meals to the police force. The Caswells also signed on to prepare meals for flood victims temporarily housed at the convention center.
Operations at the restaurant ramped up thanks to social media. Within three days, Caswell, his crew of 25, and an army of more than 100 volunteers were cooking for 15,000 people from Rockport to Port Arthur, from victims stranded in makeshift shelters to Houston police and other first responders. Donations poured in from purveyors like Brothers Produce, D’Artagnan, and Martin Preferred Foods.
José Andrés, whose nonprofit World Central Kitchen had helped with disaster relief in countries such as Haiti, was one of the first of several celebrity chefs on the ground, arriving while Houston was still flooded, and people were scrambling.
Other celebrity chefs who joined the Caswells in their relief effort included Ming Tsai, who flew in from Boston, bringing 20,000 pounds of donated chicken from Perdue Farms. James Beard award-winning chef John Currence from Oxford, Mississippi, and chef Kelly English from Memphis, Tennessee, borrowed a trailer, filled it with food and supplies, and made the drive to Houston.
Houston’s CULINARY CACHET
Houston has more than 75 categories of cuisine, 600 vegan-friendly restaurants, and 150 farm-to-table restaurants, as of 2017.
The number of Houston-based restaurant and chef semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation awards has been rising each year since 2015: That year, it received five nominees. In 2016, eight. In 2017, nine and in 2018, 12.
Houston chefs won James Beard’s Best Chef Southwest competition three out the last five years, taking home the region’s top prize in 2014 (Chris Shepherd), 2016 (Justin Yu), and 2017 (Hugo Ortega).
Houstonians dine out almost more than any other city—6.9 times per week, compared with the national average of 4.9, according to Zagat.
Houston has more than 700 food trucks and is ranked among the top 10 food truck cities in the U.S., according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
*2018 honorees were announced May 7, after press time.
Visit the Restaurants
3101 Main St, Houston
607 S. Friendswood Drive, Ste. 11, Friendswood
Raffa’s Waterfront Grill
1660 W. Lake Houston Parkway, Ste. 103, Kingwood
2600 Travis St., Houston
Eric W. Pohl