“Simple, responsible comfort food” is as common a mantra for Houston restaurants as it is rare in reality. Plenty of hip cafes check one or two boxes, serving southern-style comfort food with locally sourced ingredients only to drown out the natural strengths of their dishes by squeezing every trendy flavor possible onto the plate. Likewise, “responsibly sourced” food all-too-often becomes a marketing ploy, with many restaurants doing little more for sustainable farming than talking about how much they do. Enter Zelko Bistro, a longtime favorite in the Heights known for what chef Jamie Zelko and Manager Dalia Zelko describe as “new American comfort food.”
The bistro’s menu stays true to the phrase. Local greens, house-filleted fish and a variety of meats are supported by seasonings that, while never overbearing, stay true to Houston’s eclectic dining scene. The excellent shrimp and grits are typical of Zelko’s style. The usual southern ingredients such as bay shrimp, cheddar grits and bacon all satisfy, but a streak of garlic soy agave sauce around the rim of the plate steals the show. The sauce is sweet and thin with just enough tang to cut through the grits and perfectly complement the sauteed shrimp. The watermelon salad also showcases Zelko’s knack for restrained seasoning. The vibrant chunks of Texas watermelon are good enough to carry any salad, but a dab of honey hibiscus vinaigrette and smoked paprika round the dish into a superb balance of sweet and smoky.
When the food falters, it is usually because such details are absent. The chocolate mousse, while plenty rich, seems ordinary in a way that doesn’t quite justify its $9 price tag. The chopped bleu salad also comes off as comparatively dull. The addition of apples, bacon and pecans all help, but none quite redeem the bland bleu cheese or unremarkable romaine that form the core of the salad.
Still, many other seemingly ordinary dishes like the Boss Burger and lamb tacos rank among Zelko’s best. Sharp cheddar, hearty bacon and a wonderfully light brioche bun put the boss burger head and shoulders above other local burgers. On the tacos, toasted cumin, raita slaw and a side of candied plantains add nuanced Middle Eastern and South American flare to the tenderly cooked lamb.
Zelko’s bar keeps a rotating stock of domestic beer and wines. However, the bistro’s main focus is its signature brunch drinks: the Mimosa Rossa and the Geisha Zing, a Bloody Mary made with sake rather than vodka. Beyond the bar, guests can purchase honey from the Zelko duo’s award-winning Heights Honey Bee Project. Part apiary, part conservation effort, the project relocates bee hives that would otherwise be exterminated in order to harvest their honey and preserve the rapidly vanishing population of honey bees. The project’s honey is used in a number of Zelko’s dishes and has a smooth, fragrant character that pairs especially well with fresh fruit.
Between their conservation efforts and locally sourced ingredients, the Zelko duo present an outstanding template. There’s no pretension in their dining room, just sustainable cooking true to its southern roots.
Address:705 E 11th St, 77008
Phone number: (713) 880-8691
Price range: $$
The ‘Boss’ Burger, $12
Cheddar, lettuce, caramelized onions, bacon, tomato, pickles, dijonaise on brioche with fries
Lamb tacos, $12
Toasted cumin, raita slaw, side of candied plantains