By any measure, Lucas McKinney had a fantastic thing going. Last summer, the 29-year-old Mississippi-born chef, a veteran of Houston’s prestigious Underbelly Hospitality group, landed a seasonal job cooking at Jimmy Kimmel’s famed South Fork Lodge, in Idaho. The work was fun, the site stunning (“The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in my life,” says McKinney), and the owners (Kimmel and fishing guide Oliver White) appreciative. “Come back next year,” they told him. Around the same time, he had also taken a consulting job in Houston for a new restaurant in a soon-to-be-vacated location in Midtown.
For the Houston concept, McKinney had proposed an idea that merged Southern coastal cooking with the city’s multifaceted internationalism. As he got deeper into the project, though, he started having doubts about returning to Idaho. “Oh, man,” he thought, “I can’t put so much into this and then leave. This is what I grew up eating. It’s what I want to cook.” He’d realized (as had the owners of the Houston spot) that the ideal candidate for the position of executive chef was him. When he contacted Kimmel and White to let them know that he had an offer he couldn’t refuse, they were gracious. He got the feeling that they’d welcome him back if things didn’t work out.
Having made his leap of faith, McKinney now had to come up with a menu and ideas for transforming what had been an Asian restaurant, Izakaya, into a Southern one. (Izakaya will reopen in a new location.) “We got busy real fast,” McKinney says. “We redid the floors, painted the walls and the pressed-tin ceiling tiles in the back room, and stripped and stained the tables.” Many of the Izakaya staffers stayed on, and McKinney made two crucial hires: former Underbelly colleagues Sven Baldwin as sous chef and Emily Rivas as pastry chef. Only 58 days elapsed between the closing of Izakaya and the opening of Josephine’s Gulf Coast Tradition.
And speaking of Josephine, a photo of Althea Josephine Nicovich hangs in the cozy rear dining room. She is McKinney’s great-grandmother, and that he named his first restaurant after her indicates the extent of her influence. “My family is super big into cooking,” he says. “Things always seem to center around a party, with the whole family having crab boils, shucking oysters, and inviting neighbors and friends.” There are photos of other kin as well, including his great-great-grandfather, who was in the shrimping business in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The menu makes it easy to dabble, which is exactly what my friends and I did, sitting in a booth in the casual main dining room, listening to Hank Williams sing about filé gumbo. We started with superb house-smoked redfish, held together by a lemony rémoulade and served with ranch dressing–flavored fried saltines. Then we ordered the yellowfin crudo, which came accessorized with avocado, a tart crema, and a salsa macha–style oil bristling with the flavors of toasted peanuts, pepitas, and árbol chiles.
After that it was on to red snapper, specifically the collar (also known as the throat). This fatty cut behind the gills—which McKinney compares to the dark meat on a chicken—is more flavorful than the prized filets. “We do a lemon-and-thyme brine, grill them, and glaze them with apple butter,” he says.
Not through sampling seafood, we ordered the barbecued shrimp. Soon plump crustaceans arrived in a cast-iron cocotte awash in “worsh butter,” as the menu puts it, a mahogany-colored brew kicked up with Worcestershire, bay leaves, and salty-sweet Vietnamese fish sauce. Alongside were slices of toasted Leidenheimer French bread, straight from the Crescent City, but I think the shrimp are even better with an order of hush puppies.
Clearly it’s tempting to live by fish alone here, but if we had, we would have missed two of the most satisfying dishes on the menu. The first was the bavette steak, its deep red center set off by a lightly blackened crust, a disk of garlicky seafood butter melting on top. Even better was the delectably charred half chicken, roasted beneath a cast-iron skillet à la brick chicken.
Given how much we ordered, it was a miracle I had room to sample any of the four desserts. The Creole-style calas—little fritters composed of jasmine rice and wheat flour—were ethereally light and accessorized with whiskey-spiked cream. My favorite dessert, though, was the thyme-infused corn flan with a blueberry compote and a topping of teeny-tiny cornflakes.
God knows Houston does not lack for Southern cuisine or seafood. But McKinney’s particular combination strikes me as something new under the blazing Texas sun. What he is doing is threefold: He’s drawing on the traditions of the Deep South, which he learned from his family and from the places he’s worked, such as City Grocery, in Oxford, Mississippi. He’s filtering those through the modern sensibility of chefs such as Kelly English, in Memphis, and John Currence, the chef and owner of City Grocery. And, finally, he’s pulling in the game-changing techniques he picked up working at Chris Shepherd’s restaurants (most notably Georgia James), where the Houston chef made the city’s global cuisines the linchpin of his culinary philosophy.
The result is old and new, comforting and challenging. Lucky for us, it looks as if McKinney is staying in Texas. Sorry, not sorry, Jimmy.
Josephine’s Gulf Coast Tradition
318 Gray, Houston
L & D 7 days. $$$
Opened July 5, 2023.
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Out of the Woods.” Subscribe today.