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King of the Curve
Nick Esquer | Photo: Julie Soefer | May 28, 2013
Parlaying a gritty empire of vintage boutiques and gourmet food trucks into a string of ’hood-defining hot spots, Bermudez may just be the lord of Lower Westheimer.
A freshly shorn Shawn Bermudez, who usually sports long hair and scruff, waves his arm at the inside of one of his new bars, the tequila-tippling Pistolero’s (1517 Westheimer Rd., 281.974.3860), which opened last month. “Everything is new inside. I took over this place last September and just replaced it all,” he says during a tour of the kitchen. “We put in everything but the kitchen sink.”
It’s true that the kitchen sink was used by three different sushi restaurants before the new bar, but it really is just about the only piece Bermudez didn’t bring in. From haircuts to the latest hot spots, everything is fresh and new for the nightlife impresario who seems intent to take over the section of Montrose known broadly as the Westheimer Curve, one spot at a time.
It’s surprising to think that when he first arrived in H-Town from his native Southern California by way of Austin in 2004, the tall and rakish Bermudez, 34, the product of a Mexican dad and Bolivian mom, intended on staying just a few months. That was nine years ago, and now he sits atop a growing neighborhood empire of sorts.
He helped firm up the gritty-cool vibe of Lower Westheimer, or “LoWes” as Bermudez calls it—now booming with pubs like artisan-cocktail capitol Anvil Bar + Refuge and nationally renowned new restos such as Underbelly and Uchi. He hit first with his popular resale/vintage clothing stores, and then he jumped into the nightlife scene, here, building the popular dive bar/music venue Boondocks (1417 Westheimer Rd., 713.522.8500) from the ground up in 2007.
Now, with the booming 3-year-old Royal Oak (1318 Westheimer Rd., 281.974.4752) pub and patio as his flagship, the brand-new Pistolero’s and yet another new bar on the way, not to mention a couple of high-concept food trucks taking to the streets, and a recent total overhaul of his clothing shops, he’s kicking his plans for Montrose 2.0 into higher gear.
The scheme seems to be to mesh the neighborhood’s innate, famously bohemian energy with his own take on Capital City cool. “Houston has a crush on Austin,” he observes.
It all started with the resale clothing stores originally run by his uncle. Bermudez took over as manager of the shops—Taxi Taxi, Leopard Lounge, Blackbird and Pavement, all dotting the 1600 block of Westheimer—when he first arrived in H-Town. The shops continually greet hoards of loyal shoppers who come in on the regular, pulling items like trendy jeans, ’50s house dresses, and vintage tees not unlike the 1980s Corvette shirt Bermudez is wearing today.
This spring he and his partner-cousin Nico Cid oversaw a complete revamp and rearranging of his stores, putting Pavement in the spot formerly occupied by Taxi Taxi, which moved a few doors down, and renovating the former to feel more high-end. Imagine lacquered furnishings and designer duds and accessories with labels such as Michael Kors, BCBG and Marc by Marc Jacobs.
But Bermudez—a bachelor who also lives in Montrose, where he rooms with a pit-bull-mix pup named Tommy—didn’t stop at bringing lightly used hipster fashion to the masses. For one thing, the entrepreneur, harking back to his California roots, was a forerunner and huge proponent of H-Town’s co-opting of one West Coast trend. “In L.A., there’s like a thousand food trucks,” he says, “so I wanted to bring that here.”
Bermudez’s trucks are inventive and fun. The fire-engine red Koagie Hots proffers Korean-inspired hot dogs, like the K Dog with kimchi, aioli and Asian slaw, and cheesesteaks, like the Kimchi Koagie with sliced ribeye, kimchi and, yup, classic Cheese Wiz. His other food truck, The Golden Grill, which launched last summer, flips gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches with extra ingredients like bacon jam, prosciutto or fried eggs. Both trucks have Twitter accounts that update their whereabouts, which are often near Royal Oak.
The sprawling Oak, which bowed in 2010 with its front and back patios and two inside floors of pub space, touts cold beers, fun pub food like truffled fries and buffalo-chicken pizza, and a mimosa-drenched Sunday brunch. The interior is a mesh of hardwoods, tufted leather booths, and an antler chandelier that hangs in the foyer. Whiskey Wednesdays nod to the bar’s preoccupation with the brown spirit as more than 100 types are on offer—a note of great interest at the upstairs “whiskey bar.”
Royal Oak is also notable for its mixed clientele of both straight and gay party people, unique even in a neighborhood long known as progressive. This month, in fact, when the Gay Pride Parade rolls east on Westheimer, making its way toward Downtown, it will pass a packed house at Oak, where Bermudez, who is heterosexual, annually hosts one of the largest and most raucous Pride parties in town. “I see it as celebrating the spirit of the neighborhood,” he says.
The revelry will carry over to Pistolero’s as the bar will host a margarita-happy Pride party featuring a full menu of frozen-drink specials. The front patio and, especially, the warmly open interior should be ideal. “I wanted it to fit in somewhere between a restaurant and a bar,” Bermudez says of the newly overhauled space. “I want people to come in and eat and not be closed off from the bar with some huge partition in the way.”
On the leading edge to the city’s trend toward tequila-forward gourmet taquerias, Pistolero’s has large, dark-upholstered banquettes, Dio de los Muertos-inspired folk art and a copper mini-tiled bar, a glamorous accent that cheekily contrasts the walls swathed in reclaimed wood and panels of rusty corrugated metal for a kind of Latinized House of Blues feeling. There are infused tequilas aplenty—including those with berries, peppercorns, pineapples and capers—and tacos stuffed with oxtail, beef tongue, beef cheek and much more.
Another unique nosh is the fried nibs of nopales cactus. “Our version of beer nuts,” says Bermudez.
The awning-like, dramatically angular overhang over the front entry, which many will recall from the old sushi places that used to be here, got a new look, too. “At first I wanted to chop it off,” says the restaurateur, “but it’s so distinct that if you tell people to come to the place with ‘the point,’ they know exactly what you’re talking about.”
Just a stone’s throw away is, well, Stone’s Throw, which Bermudez describes as “just a classic American bar.” Set for a late-summer opening, the other new spot, which shares a wall with Boondocks, will be home to 16 Texas-based brews and seasonal cocktails served from behind a floor-to-ceiling bar. The bar will be a neighborhood hangout with a small but inviting interior with intimate seating and copper-topped tables.
Three balconies will complete the second story that overlooks the crooked street below, and inside, barmen will educate patrons on craft beers and artisan drinks. “If someone has ‘their drink,’ that’s fine,” says Bermudez, “but we want to suggest other possibilities for them.”
Indeed, Bermudez has made it his mission to suggest new possibilities to one of Houston’s hottest emerging neighborhoods, helping define Montrose for its new role as a trendy district for food and fun. But, even as he thinks big, the actual road to success on the Westheimer Curve is a much more intimate affair. “What I want people to ask themselves when they come to my places is, ‘What kind of experience do I want?’” he says. “Whether it’s tacos or drinks, we want to create a personal experience."