First Bite: New Houston Restaurant From Top Chef Finalist Reflects City’s Diversity
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Jūn, located at 420 East 20th in the Heights, is one of the most-anticipated restaurant openings this year. This is, of course, because chef and owner Evelyn Garcia was on season 19 of Bravo’s Top Chef, which was mostly filmed in Houston. She didn’t win but certainly made the city proud as a finalist. Throughout the season, we learned more about her and her food perspective, and it built a growing anticipation among Houston diners to try the food in her own space and on her own terms.
Garcia is a Houston native with a Mexican and Salvadoran background. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and worked a number of years in New York City before returning home. She was chef of Decatur Bar & Pop-Up Factory, a would-be chef incubator that closed less than a year after opening. It would not be her only short-lived endeavor. After Decatur closed, she started KIN HTX in Politan Row, a Rice Village food hall that also closed thanks to the loss of business caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Afterward, she kept the KIN name for her own, independent business.
Chef and partner Henry Lu joined KIN in 2020. Lu is a New York City native, raised in the Bronx. He grew up around his parents’ Chinese restaurants, eventually attending the French Culinary Institute, and spent time working in other notable New York City restaurants before moving to Houston. Collectively as Kin HTX, Garcia and Lu have a product line of condiments and spice rubs, and, prior to opening Jun, held pop up events, including their popular Pupusa Lab at the monthly M-K-T Sunset Market. The name Kin comes from the Thai word for “eat”, but it also means “family”.
With Jūn, they build on the concept of family. The name is a tribute to the month of June, when many of those close to them were born. It’s also Garcia’s birth month. Jūn pays homage and celebrates their upbringings, differences and shared experiences through the food.
Jūn is located in the space that was once Steel City Pops. It’s worth noting that it is a welcome change for a restaurant to have self parking as opposed to valet. Whether that will change remains to be seen.
The white exterior and dark tinted glass front make for a very chic entrance. They worked with Gin Design Group (the firm behind The Lymbar, Saigon Hustle, and Daily Gather, among others.) on the interior design. The muted, warm colors of the interior reminded me of stepping inside a retreat in Sedona. It was comfortable and casual with a simple elegance. The woven bamboo pendant lamps warmly lit the space. Every detail worked together, from the wooden stools and chairs, to ceramic vases and stoneware dishes. The space is anchored in the middle by a half-circle bar. The separate dining room is to the left, and to the right is an expansive window that offers a voyeuristic, behind-the-scenes look directly into the kitchen. The coveted spots are the counter seats directly in front of the kitchen where you can watch Garcia prominently directing the kitchen staff and plating the dishes. The other half of the counter seats are far less desirable, as these face the front window with a view of the parking lot. What’s worse, this seating arrangement prevents diners from seeing the beautiful surroundings and the hustle and bustle of the room, all of which adds to the dining experience.
The concise menu is made up of small to large dishes that are meant for sharing. If you are a fan of Top Chef, you’ll know that one of the highlights of every season is Restaurant Wars, and one of the main critiques is often that the menu lacks cohesion. Jun would score well in this area. The menu reads like a well-written story, with ingredients and flavors that complement one another and crescendos as you get to the larger dishes.
The small dishes start with items to snack on. The roasted peanuts with kaffir lime, garlic and chili flakes, is actually a signature product that Kin sells at the markets. I ordered the pickled vegetables, a bowl of cauliflower and cucumbers brined in Korean pickling liquid, gochugaru (Korean chili flakes) and turmeric, the latter of which gives a hint of color and earthy curry notes. I went back to these throughout the meal. The pickled vegetables functioned as a banchan of sorts that either complemented dishes or was a palate cleanser between courses.
Next, I ordered the oysters, which were the least successful of the dishes I tried. The raw, East Coast oysters were topped with fermented mango, pickled butter and mignonette. Whether intentional or not, the butter had congealed and the whole bits of solidified butter were off putting. As for the mango, it was completely lost because of the overwhelming dose of cracked black pepper in the mignonette.
The beef tartare, on the other hand, was successful in adding a new life to a dish we’ve seen so often. The presentation was beautifully done. The tartare is covered completely by a savory, black sesame buñuelo (a crispy snowflake-shaped fritter, typically a dessert dish, dusted with cinnamon and sugar). Whipped quail egg is piped into the crevices on the bottom side of the buñuelo. I took a spoon and cracked into the crispy fritter, using each piece to scoop up the beef. The tartare itself had bits of chopped, pickled red pepper and slivers of Thai basil throughout. The dish was seasoned perfectly, and toasted rice powder gave it a silky texture and mild nutty flavor.
Next up were carrots with salsa macha (a Mexican salsa made of dried chile peppers, nuts or seeds, and oil), Salvadoran cheese and quail egg. This dish hit every taste bud. The roasted rainbow carrots were naturally sweet and smoky, making the slightly bitter salsa macha the perfect flavor companion. The whipped Salvadoran queso fresco balanced the dish with tang and acidity, and the pickled quail egg gave an element of sourness. This dish exemplified that the humblest of ingredients can be elevated.
For my entrée, it was tough to decide between the lamb curry with pickled daikon and pistachio, and the fried chicken, but I went with the latter. One of the ingredients was fermented shrimp paste, which intrigued me. My mother loved to cook with it, but my father couldn’t stand the smell. I personally grew to love it, and my mom would cook meals separately for us. I was curious about how Garcia incorporates shrimp paste into fried chicken.
It turns out that the fried chicken is sous vide before being dipped in a batter with the fermented shrimp paste, ginger, thai chili and herbs. The chicken was incredibly tender and juicy, and the skin was crisp and flavorful. The herbs and chili contributed mild heat, and the fermented shrimp paste made its way into the chicken, where each bite had a hint of pungency. It was a surprising flavor that you would not think you’d find in fried chicken. The lime and ginger sauce that accompanies it is reminiscent of the side of sauce that comes with Hainanese chicken rice. The combination of chicken and ginger is so common in Southeast Asia that it made sense. I had also ordered a side of coconut jasmine rice, which went mostly uneaten. I expected flavorful sticky rice. Instead, the rice was dry and had no discernable coconut flavor. I ate the chicken with the pickled vegetables and carrots and marveled at each bite.
I did save room for dessert and ordered the tapioca pudding with coconut milk, passion fruit gelatin and sesame cookie crumble. It was the perfect, light ending; anything too heavy or sweet would have been too much on top of all the strong flavors throughout the meal.
The sake- and wine-based cocktails here are just as interesting as the food. The Open Sesame has sparkling Junmai sake, toasted black sesame, lime and yuzu tonic. Jūn’s version of the Michelada has fish and hoisin sauces, along with the requisite chili and lime. The two mocktails on the menu sound equally playful. The Thai Lemonade (a play on the Brazilian version) is made with condensed milk, piloncillo (raw cane sugar) and Thai chili. The Hole Mole, made with almond mole, condensed milk, dulce de leche and Mexican coke, could double as a dessert. Jūn also offers an extensive wine list, with wines from California to Spain, and a selection of local craft beers including Eureka Heights, Urban South and 8th Wonder.
While Jūn describes its food as “New Asian American”, to me, it resonates as “New Houston Cuisine”. When describing Houston’s food culture, we can’t pinpoint one type of cuisine that truly defines it. Instead, it is an amalgamation of flavors from different cultures and backgrounds. With its Southeast Asian, Latin and Southern roots, Jūn is serving creative food that speaks to the diversity of our city. It is off to a great start.
Jūn is currently open for dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m.
Minh Truong is an avid lover of the Houston food scene and has written about it since 2011, starting as a freelance contributor for the Houston Press. She never stopped exploring all that Houston has to offer, and after a seven-year hiatus returned to writing about it, this time with Houston Food Finder.