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Restaurants

Famed Chef Comes Home to Houston and Defies the Food Critics to Make What He’s Always Loved

Ford Fry Plots More Heights Restaurants, Including a New Seafood Haven on Washington Avenue

BY // 04.02.19

It’s 3 pm on a Friday, and celebrity chef Ford Fry sits at a small table at his Tex-Mex restaurant in The Heights, Superica. The Houston native’s back faces the wall where an immense longhorn skull hangs.

Outside, the patio is peppered with diners enjoying a late lunch in the sunshine.

Fry’s dressed for it, in blue jeans, a Superica baseball cap — this one bearing the original Atlanta outpost logo — and a white T-shirt. The crisp tee could be a scoop neck, could be a v-neck. It’s hard to tell, since the neck’s weighed down by a pair of hipster tortoise shell glasses like the ones you’d find at the Warby Parker not too far away.

Either way, Fry looks laid-back and casual, relaxed after a long evening of tastings. The man behind 14 restaurants, and a mysterious new one on the way, is about to say something about the restaurant when he glances around. The music’s a little on the loud side, so he gets up and moves over to his adjoining restaurant, the San Jacinto Inn inspired La Lucha.

Fry winds his way through the back of the restaurant, through the kitchen with its smell of simmering fajitas, all the way to La Lucha’s bold bar. He pulls up a stool, this time his back to a sizable old-school painting of two young boys playing on a hobbyhorse, like you’d find in your grandmother’s den.

That was intentional, of course. When it comes to Ford Fry, memory has served him well. His latest two buzzy Houston restaurants — following River Oaks’ State of Grace — opened just last year, and they’re all about nostalgia.

“I think, as you get older as a chef — I’ve gone through these different phrases,” Fry tells PaperCity. “I can look back at when I was artistic with plates and ingredients. The more I get older, I’m going back to my memories as a kid, and what I really like and what do I crave. I think where I lean is I want to cook food that I want to come back and eat over and over.”

La Lucha, a true Texas-born restaurant, is tailored around that iconic inn, boasting a menu heavy with crispy fried chicken and wood-grilled oysters. The Gulf Coast-centric bar, lounge and eatery is a true bit of Bayou City déjà vu. Superica is an ode to Ford Fry’s childhood favorite, El Felix.

And Ninfa’s. And Armandos. You can find fajitas, enchiladas and so much more.

Every ounce of La Lucha and Superica are grounded in Fry’s boyhood. It’s like he took a stroll down memory lane, stopping to have a picnic at several stops along the way.

The 49-year-old may have relocated to Atlanta, but his Houston love has stayed strong.

Over the course of our conversation, Fry name-drops classic Space City institutions where he ate regularly as a child — Armandos, Goode Co. Taqueria, Whataburger, even James Coney Island, where one of his six best buddies could down a dozen dogs in one sitting.

Ford Fry’s Houston Roots

Let’s take it from the top. The former River Oaks resident — his sister and brother-in-law, and his parents still live in the area — kicked off his education at St. Johns School. “I was a terrible student. Most chefs — you do find chefs that are really smart, book smart. But for the most part, chefs like to do things with their hands,” Fry says.

He moved over to Lamar before too long. “I made C’s and D’s. I never studied or did anything like that,” he admits. But that’s not to say his hands weren’t full.

“I always cooked. I love food. My parents and grandparents always took us traveling, traveling all over Europe and all over the United States. We always had really great food. That’s what got me interested,” Fry notes.

His parents took note before too long. “My parents saw the writing on the wall while I was in college. ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school?’ I saw this one pamphlet from Vermont, I saw this guy skiing. I thought, I’ll go there. So the skiing picture is what drew me in,” Fry laughs.

“But once I got in there and started doing it, it just clicked.”

He carried Houston with him all through culinary school and beyond. You can find hints and nods to his old Houston haunts throughout the La Lucha and Superica. Some of them are intentional, such as the 1950s-style decor, but not all.

“It’s something to make you feel comfortable when you come in — the food kind of has to do the same thing. There are some memories. Some things we planned, other things our guests have told us,” Fry tells PaperCity.

La Lucha’s Pharmacy Burger is a juicy, shining example. “If Avalon Drug Store and Whataburger had a baby, this is what you’d get,” Fry laughs. “I love the burger. I really love the burger — it’s that double patty with American cheese and mustard.”

La Lucha
La Lucha is one of Houston’s more anticipated new restaurants. (Photo by Johnny Autry.)

You could say Fry bookended his Houston childhood with burgers way back when. In the mornings before school, he’d drive to Whataburger, grab a burger to go, head to campus and put it in his locker. “Lunch time, we would go sit on the lawn and I’d bring my Whataburger bag out. It was cold, but it was still great,” Fry chuckles.

In the evenings, he’d head to Avalon for a burger and fries.

Another fast food favorite muse that made its way to La Lucha’s list of goodies: Jack in the Box tacos.

“And also probably tying into not being a great student, I was out late a lot and Jack in the Box was open before I went home. The tacos at Jack in the Box — I don’t know what kind of meat they use in them, but they were something I craved,” Fry says.

“So we do a spicy shrimp taco, with a slice of American cheese in there. It’s like oh my God, this reminds me of a really good version of what Jack in the Box is doing.”

It’s for that very reason that some may call his cuisine elevated, updated and refined twists on the traditional eats. Fry gets where that designation could come from, but he doesn’t agree with it.

“Superica next door — it’s not taking anything too seriously. We’re not trying to elevate anything by any means, I’ve read that a few times. It’s more I think I understand where it’s maybe natural elevated. Sometimes you go to Mexican restaurants and they’re buying cheaper ingredients,” Fry says.

“We only know how to cook the way we cook. Maybe that’s where elevated comes from,” he adds. Not to mention the high-end techniques and improved equipment.

Houston’s Daunting Tex-Mex Pressure

Fry spawned Superica in Atlanta, where there was a little less pressure doing Tex-Mex than in the Lone Star State. In Georgia, it was about filling a void, filling his belly with the cuisine he’d eaten several times a week in his formative years.

“Living in Atlanta, we didn’t get that,” Fry says. Bringing it here was a calculated risk. “It was a little nerve-racking. People said ‘Why are you bringing sand to the desert?’ But so far, so good.”

Superica is a homage to no single Houston Tex-Mex restaurant. It’s Fry’s take on many.

“I’ve learned in the process of asking people where their favorite Tex-Mex is that no one could tell me just one. They’d say I go here for queso, I go here for the margaritas, I go here for the enchiladas, I go here for the fajitas. So I just thought, let’s just do the best of everything we like, and pull it all in one box,” Fry says.

His version of queso is threefold, coming with either chorizo, mushrooms and poblanos, or shrimp. It’s a delicate process — the raw shrimp is mixed in with the cheese and then baked, so the shrimp flavor and cheese meld together as it cooks.

“That’s fantastic as an appetizer. Entrees, I’ve kind of gone from growing up with always the fajita thing to desiring that classic Tex-Mex plate: cheese enchilada, crispy beef taco, that puffy tostada with chile con queso. It’s over the top,” he says.

“So my grandmother made super-strong shrimp remoulade sauce. So our remoulade sauce, we toss the shrimp in it. It’s fantastic because it’s really cold and really pungent with the horseradish. I think that could be my favorite dish. Super classic, in-your-face horseradish with just the right amount.”

Superica’s sope de tortilla

Fry’s taking it back to basics, but he’s noticed a trend with food critics over the recent years, and diners, too.

“Critics are looking for you to really push the envelope and take some chances. And I’m like well, I don’t like that kind of food that I remember that I need to go back to the restaurant because I’m going to eat it again,” Fry says.

“I also think diners sometimes, they’re eating a little too much with their eyes than their taste buds, in a way. So many restaurants these days, they’re trying to do — in my mind— trying to go too far interesting, where interesting overpowers delicious. But I think we’re at the point where the pendulum is going to swing back.

“For me, I’m going to project that more of the classic kind of stuff is going to be more popular. But I might just be showing my age here.”

Fry laughs. He plans to keep it classic in Houston — specifically The Heights — more and more. It looks like he has more fish to fry, or grill, or blacken, whatever he chooses. Fry’s plotting a seafood-centric restaurant at 1818 Washington Avenue, set to open late 2020.

He’s keeping largely tight-lipped on the details. “I definitely think there’s more to be had in Houston,” Fry says. “I love coming back to Houston and I think it’s really grown. I think it’s cooler now than it was when I was here. Feels like L.A. to me. Everyone says ‘Hotlanta.’ Well, they’ve never been to Houston. Houston is hot.”

Whatever the next restaurant is, it’s clear Fry will be looking back just as much as he’ll be looking forward.

“I look at restaurants like a really long-term thing. I get really excited when I look on Instagram and see pictures of kids. A lot of restaurants don’t like having kids, or whatever. We’re almost opposite,” Fry says.

“I remember myself now, as a kid, and I go back to all these restaurants. There’s something nostalgic. Something strong ,something about memories that really make me feel good. They make me smile.”

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