On 20th Street east of Heights Boulevard, Jun opened in February as one of this year’s most anticipated new restaurants. It’s led by chefs Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu, who turned out some tasty and interesting southeast Asian-inspired fare at Kin in the Politan Row food hall in the Rice Village before the pandemic. Then Garcia had a star turn last year on the Top Chef season filmed in Houston, drawing a great deal more attention.
There’s quite a lot more here than at Kin, in all regards. The prime draw, the menu, has about fifteen savory items ranging from snacks to starters to larger entrée-sized preparations. There are identifiable notes and inspirations from Thailand, India, Spain, France, the Middle East and, maybe more so, Mexico, a mash-up that works very well in a testament to the insight and experience of the principals and skills in the kitchen. It’s a menu that should resonate with dedicated local diners, of which there are many now in the neighborhood. As with many fairly ambitious restaurants in recent years, items are described mostly by the significant ingredients. These can necessitate explanation from a server. “Lamb curry, pickled daikon, pistachio” is one. This is a lamb shank on the bone in a light curry sauce with some thin slices of daikon radish and a scatter of pistachios, served without accompaniments. Sharing is encouraged for that and all dishes, and a good way to go here. It worked well for my friend Robbin and I.
We started with aguachile with Gulf shrimp, a refined take on the piquant Mexican ceviche preparation, also with avocado, taro and shrimp oil. Though a light on the shrimp, the dish was delicious – if not quite like the fiery version once served nearby at Tampico on Airline – and I found myself trying to spoon up the last of the broth in the bowl. Our other starter, a quaint tartlet of small pieces of the beef tartare with toasted rice and egg yolk, was also enjoyable. Roasted heirloom carrots coated in a nutty salsa macha dotted with pieces of a fresh Salvadoran cheese and a couple halves of a tiny, fully cooked quail egg was one of the larger preparations, and the most enticing carrots I’ve had in a while. The lamb shank was the other. Moist and flavorful meat came easily from the bone without need of a knife. The sauce was more-than-pleasant if without the oomph of the Rogan Josh I had at Surya on Durham later in the week; to be expected, actually. Bread would have been welcome with that and the other dishes, but since it didn’t make an appearance, not available, we ordered a side of coconut rice that helped some. We quite enjoyed all four of the dishes, each exhibiting excellent technique with high-quality ingredients and appealing, sensible compositions. Though the portions are on the smaller size, the four items between the two of us left us satiated. And prices are fair.
Robbin’s mocktail with a cheeky name, Ginger She Hot, made with ginger, Thai basil, lime, agave spirit and sparkling water was terrific. Surprisingly so. Two were in order and probably a better match for the food than the wines I ordered. Just mocktails and wine- and sake-based cocktails as Jun has only a beer and wine license.
On the downside, I found the selection and service of wines to be disappointing. It’s a small list without many wines that I thought were that food-friendly. It was tough to pair any of the dishes with any of the wines, and not because of the diversity of dishes. Odd choices, too. There are a handful of offerings from Mexico including one from Guanajuato for $20 for a glass. I didn’t even know there was wine production there. That was unknown when visiting when my brother lived in the city a couple of decades or so ago and working in the beverage industry. Definitely not worth a flyer for me at the price. My Provencal Peyrassol rosé was expectedly inoffensive to start but not aiding the aguachile or tartare mch. And the second glass, a Spanish garnacha-heavy blend, was little too rough and simple to complement the lamb very much nor the carrots. Then, the wine pours are easily the least generous I’ve encountered in a restaurant in memory. Each seemed like three ounces, maybe, and certainly appeared smaller than the half-pours I had at Camerata later in the week. Full-sized prices at Jun, though.
The wine service was a far cry from a recent visit to the also new PS21 where we had a few excellent pairing suggestions from a waiter from a similarly concise, but conversely, nicely chosen list. Its Frenchness is probably part of the wide difference with wines, but a very noticeable one.
Most importantly, the food is well-done here and compelling, and served in an attractive and inviting setting. Service is earnest, attentive and proficient enough. Though the preparations are mostly suited for sharing, the bar near the entrance provides a number of seats for the single diner. I’m looking forward to a second visit to sample some more of the menu, and maybe with a mocktail.
20 E 20th Street (between N. Main and Heights), 77008, (832) 469-7664
The lamb and carrots the other night at Jun