First Look at The Hay Merchant

Thumbnail image for HayMerchantchixliver.jpg
Photos by Mai Pham
Fried chicken liver and waffles. Oh. Yeah.
It's Wednesday afternoon and rainy, and I must be one of the only people who doesn't know where The Hay Merchant is, because after looping around several times at the intersection where it's supposed to be, I don't see a sign anywhere. And I don't see any parking either, just a couple of police cars parked at the corner, as if to say, "I dare you to park somewhere you shouldn't."

I knew that The Hay Merchant had opened at 3 p.m. that day (it was 5 p.m. when I got there) and I finally spotted a few people sitting on a covered patio on the side of the building bearing the sign "Chances Bar," so I got down to the not-so-fun business of finding parking in the rain, which I did, three blocks away on a small side street.

When I walked through the front doors, I was greeted by a thriving, packed scene, with barely an open seat in the house and a packed bar with standing-room only.

Bobby Heugel, wearing one of his cool new "Westheimer" silk-screened shirts, was immediately on hand with a wide smile of greeting, confirming the lack of signage. "We'll put up a sign soon," Heugel reassured me. "For now, until our second parking lot opens on the other side of the building, it's probably better if we don't have a sign just yet."

HayMerchMain.jpg
5pm on opening day with nary a seat open.
And I agree. Bobby Heugel, of Anvil Bar & Refuge fame, and his long-awaited The Hay Merchant temple to craft beer, are a huge draw for Montrosians and beer lovers, and if opening day is any indication, it's definitely going to be one of those places that will draw crowds.

First of all, there's the beer list. Now, I'm admittedly not much of a beer drinker, but if I were, I'd be completely gaga over the long list of 78 beers (I counted) available on the menu -- grouped in the following categories to help make the selection easier: Sociable and Refreshing, Hop-a-licious, Sweet and Sticky, Sour and Fruity, Belgian Inspiration, Malty-Toasty-or-Nutty, Dark and Flavorful, Not for the Faint of Heart, and Kevin's Cask Selections.

HayMerchBar.jpg
The Bar area is attractively appointed with taps built into the wall
In the bottom corner, as a concession to non-beer drinkers, no doubt, was a section labeled "Yes, We Have Wine Too," to which I would have added "but not a lot," since there were only two wines listed.

The Hay Merchant is definitely all about the beer, and to that end, the food menu was created with beer-drinking in mind. Executive Chef Antoine Ware, formerly at Catalan, has developed a comfort-food-driven, eat-while-you-drink or eat-after-you-drink menu with cool items like the fried pig's ears and oxtails in gravy, along with comfort food selections that include the house burger, house-made hot dog, and fried chicken liver and waffles.

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Exec Chef Antoine Ware created the menu at The Hay Merchant
I just wanted the fried chicken liver waffles, but we wanted to give the menu a spin, so we ordered a whole bunch of things to try.

First up were the crispy, french-fry-like fried pig ear strips. Salty and a bit sweet, with a hint of cartilaginous texture of the pig ears in each bite, these were so popular that by 6 p.m. the kitchen had sold out of them. And I could see why. Put a bowl of those in front of anyone and it would be impossible not to nibble away, like I did. They were definitely hard to stop eating.

HayMerchPigEars.jpg
Better than french fries? Crispy pig ears.
Our knowledgeable, smiling server recommended the "beef chips," basically rectangular pieces of short ribs that could be eaten by hand, as his favorite. They were one of mine too, reminding me of Korean-style barbecue short ribs minus the kimchi.

Served on on a bed of lettuce, with some pickled red onions and cucumbers, they had a small piece of bone attached -- all the better to pick up with your hands -- and were savory and sweet at the same time. "They were inspired by a Vietnamese recipe," said Chef Chris Shepherd, who was on hand to help Ware in the kitchen. Indeed, the marinade involved fish sauce and sugar, but I felt like the flavors were decidedly Korean, and could picture washing down a plate of them with some beer and kimchi.

HayMerchMeatChip.jpg
Meat chips. They weren't crunchy like potatoes, but they were dang good.
The dish I wanted to try the most ended up being my favorite. Chicken-fried liver and waffles, with a sweet honey syrup, were just what the doctor ordered with my Belgian dubbel. The batter was light, the liver flavor hearty, the waffle, fluffy yet crisp. It came out tasting exactly as rich and decadent as I'd envisioned, and had I not been bent on trying mores dishes, I could have happily reveled in this single dish alone.

HayMerchHotDog.jpg
The house-made hot dog. Big and beautiful.
The humongous house-made hot dog was another hit, but by the time it came out, I really couldn't eat more. Ditto for the queso with blood sausage, a heavy dish that I barely took a bite of, and the sweetbread po boy, which was overwhelmed by a too-thick bun that dwarfed the ingredients inside. They were just both too heavy for me to eat in addition to the other items we'd ordered.

"How was it?" Heugel asked me at the end of the meal. Flavor-wise, the dishes were tasty and hearty, but the overall effect of several dishes in one sitting ended up being a just too heavy for me, and I told him so. "I would have loved something light, like a salad or crisp vegetable, to balance out the heaviness and savoriness of the fried foods," I told him.

HayMerchQueso.jpg
Queso with blood sausage was on the heavy side
"We were really focused on creating a menu that went with beer, and we were thinking of it as a place for beer first, with food if you wanted it," he told me. "But maybe we can explore doing at least a couple of light dishes."

I certainly hope so. While Hay Merchant's target demographic is probably tipped towards males, there's somewhat of a gender bias in the way that the current food menu reads because it lacks lighter fare. It's kind of like how the movie Old School or The Hangover was written with male humor in mind -- it felt like the menu was created for the hearty male appetite.

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The sweetbread po-boy
But then, I'm looking at it from female-who-doesn't-really-drink-beer perspective. There's bound to be people who don't see it that way. In fact, Houston Press food critic Katharine Shilcutt tweeted this about the menu: "Oh my. The @HayMerchant menu has my heart aflutter...Oxtail and mushroom gravy over biscuits with poached eggs? I die."

So whether you go there for the beer, the food menu, or to hang out with friends, The Hay Merchant is supposed to be a place for people to gather and enjoy beer -- a social gathering hub in the 'trose -- and it succeeds on all those fronts.

And with that, I'll leave you with one of the more memorable first impressions someone posted about The Hay Merchant this weekend: "OMG it's raining straight men at Hay Merchant." What was yours? Comments welcome.



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The Hay Merchant

1100 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Music

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41 comments
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Chris
Chris

ehhh, no thanks 

Josh
Josh

So to change the pass from crapping on mai, what changes if any do you think we will see once underbelly opens? Is it going to be musical chairs with chefs?

Also, with shepard ware and bento in the hay merchant kitchen now, do you think we'll see a vastly different menu once underbelly is open?

Josh
Josh

Jesus I hate autocorrect. "To change the point..."

John Seaborn Gray
John Seaborn Gray

I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU DIDN'T WRITE ABOUT THE BEER. AS THIS IS A "FIRST LOOK," IT IS OBVIOUS TO ME THAT THIS IS THE ONLY TIME HAY MERCHANT WILL EVER BE WRITTEN ABOUT BY THIS BLOG AND WE WILL NEVER SEE A SINGLE WORD ABOUT IT EVER AGAIN. THIS IS CLEARLY THE DEFINITIVE, LAST-WORD REVIEW FROM EATING OUR WORDS AND THAT MAKES ME FURIOUS. SOMETIMES WHEN I'M DRINKING I LIKE TO CRUSH UP SOME LIGHT BULBS INTO MY BEER BECAUSE I AM THE ONLY ONE IN MY CIRCLE OF FRIENDS WITH GOOD ENOUGH TASTE TO TRULY ENJOY A NICE HOPPY, GLASSY SCRATCHINESS.

KING
KING

Ain't that serious, bruh, bruh. This is the internet. The sarcasm window is 18 hours. You late, b.

Terry Alexander
Terry Alexander

Damn all this anger because she had the gall to write about food. Get over it.

Nothing pisses me off more than all these Beer Snobs that have come out of the woodwork since the beer movement started gaining momentum. Beers foundation has always been the working sector who championed the beverage as the perfect after shift relaxation. As such most beer drinkers are known as casual people who are actually fun to be around. However these new snobs who are adopting the same attitude that have given many wine drinkers a bad reputation among the blue collar crowd are really ruining the fun. Who gives a fuck if she went to a beer place and ordered food and then wrote about it? God forbid she didn't go into detail about the nuances she found in the new IPA being cask tapped and instead chose to highlight the menu choices. Get over yourselves. If it's really that big a deal then go cry to the other elitist beer drinkers who seem to find you interesting.

Give me a Beer Nerd over a Beer Snob any day of the week.

Rant over. TA out!

GRAG
GRAG

I never like to see a restaurant review of an establishment that just opened.  It just isn't fair to anyone, the owners or the readers.  I suppose it's all about getting out there and being the "First Review".  On the topic of lighter fare, they are who they are and appreciate that.  If you want lighter fare head out to another venue.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

Guys, come on now. This is just a first look, not a review. And, like Mai, I'm a bit baffled by all the negativity over what is a largely positive first look.

Don't fret: We're going to tackle the wonderfully immense beer list at The Hay Merchant soon enough. Hell, I started "tackling" it myself last Friday when I tasted half the IPAs and half the barleywines on tap... :)

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

The title is "First Look," not review, read the title again, please. It is nothing more than a snapshot of what you'll see when you go to a new place -- which I covered. I gave a snapshot of the parking, the great servers, the many beers on the menu, about the packed scene, and about the food.

The purpose of the blog is to generate talking points, and while I certainly succeeded in that, I don't understand how commenters are reading this blog as negative. On the whole it is positive. On the whole it is complimentary, with one small suggestion for something that I thought would be a "nice to have," that to me would make the menu more well-rounded. Get a grip, already.

Josh
Josh

Double edged sword here, I do find it fairly laughable sending someone who A. Doesn't know where Hay Merchant is/Chances was(Cmon, it was an institution 1 block from one of the most prominent intersections in all of Texas.) and B. Doesn't like beer.

However the idea of reviewing the beer aside from the ultra rare (of which in the first 5 days there have really only been a very small handful, rarely on at the same time) seems pointless and near impossible. Besides, if you want to actually read "beer reviews" at any length you should be on ratebeer or BA with the other self important dickholes. Drink it and shut up.

Now the fact you weren't even pairing things, now that's back to the don't like beer thing and its a pretty big glaring miss here. There are contributors to this paper that clearly do know and enjoy beer so sending someone who doesn't, that's editorial failure.

Also, big thanks for focusing on the food, that's exactly the kind of assholes I want clogging up a beer place. :)

I'd argue out of both sides of my mouth further but I'm going to Hay Merchant.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Josh - There are bound to be people who can't find Hay Merchant, and the whole point of me including that in the article was to forewarn people of the difficulty in case they, like me, make the 45 minute drive -- in the rain -- into town to try it out.

Hay Merchant is a big draw all around, and there will be plenty of Anvil patrons who will come to Hay Merchant as a show of support, even if beer is not their thing.

And in case you haven't noticed, this is food blog, we blog about food! That beer place has a full menu with a well-known and well-respected Chef on board, so even if the beer comes first, the menu was bound to be up for discussion. If not by me, then someone else. 

Josh
Josh

All valid points and I can see you've gone into full on defense mode for probably valid reasons so I won't retort.

dissenting observations are what I do best and if you read between the lines I wasn't all that critical about the exclusion of a beer review as I find them pointless and self indulgent. My issue was the fact the first look ignores the point of the place. And again, its simply a valid opinion.

Your honesty at not liking beer was good journalism. Its still fairly amusing though.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

 Thanks Josh. I wish I had thicker skin but truth is, I don't.

Kylejack
Kylejack

I kind of agree that a few light dishes are a good idea, because there's bound to be a tag-a-long or two that would like an alternative, but it's you that are gender-biased, not Hay Merchant. Women can eat this food and men can eat light food and the world isn't going to stop turning.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Touche, Kylejack!

I wish we could do a poll and see which gender prefers light vs. heavy. To support my case, I have already received a few private messages -- all from female friends -- that echoed my sentiments about the fare being a bit too heavy for them also. Thanks for being the guy who is willing to say he wouldn't mind lighter food.

KING
KING

"Now, I'm admittedly not much of a beer drinker..."

That's about where I stopped reading.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I did notice while I was at The Hay Merchant on Friday afternoon that Chef Ware had added a dish to the menu called "For That One Person In The Group." It was Gulf amberjack and Swiss chard.  :D

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

I should probably get myself a t-shirt that says "That One Person In The Group" the next time I go in. :) Love that they added something lighter that would still go well with beer.

thelittlebaker
thelittlebaker

i need a "that one person in the group" tee too, but it is because i am a long time veggie. before this causes an uproar, i completely understand it is a craft beer bar and the food is bar food. 

there is no way to please everyone all the time and i am not asking the bar to scramble about in effort to feed "that one person in the group." what it means is that i drink less because i don't have anything there to soak up all that tasty beer.

honestly, they really should make that tee. it would be hilarious - and i would wear it.

Gramps3
Gramps3

Or maybe "Her Savoriness" if you actually used that word in conversation ; ))

WineLush
WineLush

 well bugger i meant light dishes, they have a smoked chicken option for a salad I forgot about.  It still shouldn't be on the menu

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

 LOL I can see a picket line forming already...

Winelush
Winelush

Right.....????? I think it's an issue anytime a chef bends to the TGIFriday crowd.

Twistedalpaca
Twistedalpaca

I've tried everything on the menu. The salad is fantastic.

WineLush
WineLush

I went to the Hay Merchant last night, I had the onion rings, pigs ears & sweetbread sandwich shared with my friends.  It's beer food sent to the edge, and it was perfect.  Mai if it was a regular restaurant yes a lighter dish might be in order with a full bar, however this is a beer bar with nothing but draft.  The food & menu was pin point perfect.  And the sweetbreads sani was a revelation, the oversized bread was the highlight of the sandwich, crisp against the richness of the sweetbreads.   And the sweetbreads not being overwhelming, which they can easily become.  If you're a critic you need to learn about all foods & drink & while it may not be your first choice when going out, know enough to understand what it's supposed to be about & that its correct when it is.  Beer is heavy, Americans became obsessed with making it light so the chicks can have a 60 calorie replacement bevvy with their salad with oil & vinegar.  If Chef Antoine & Bobby put a salad on that menu, I'm going to picket the bar out front.   

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Which is why I asked for comments. Loved this one!

And, I didn't say that I didn't understand it or that it wasn't correct, just that it leaned towards one side. I respectfully disagree with you on the sweetbread sandwich, but I'm glad you enjoyed it.

HE ON THE TOILET
HE ON THE TOILET

I find it astounding that Quest with blood sausage can be on the heavy side! Usually such light-fare. 

Feedkd
Feedkd

Chef Ware specifically tweeted "I'm putting out bar food." This isn't the place for composed dishes. To take a craft beer bar & have a first look done by someone who reviews the food & doesn't eveb like beer is like sending someone to Uchi who doesn't like fish. "The list of fish was long, 22 types! If I liked fish, I'd be in heaven."

Nicholas L. Hall
Nicholas L. Hall

Just a question:

With a tap list that long, and with taps being polished off at seemingly breakneck speed, what would you prefer to have seen, in review of the beer offerings? Would it have been helpful to try all of the cask offerings, for example, and review each of them? They'd have been gone before the ink hit the page (metaphorically speaking).

I haven't actually had the pleasure of visiting Hay Merchant yet, but I struggle with the notion of how to provide a meaningful glimpse of the place, in terms of beer. Perhaps that's just me.

Since I'll be there eventually, and will likely write something about it, are there any suggestions for how to appropriately handle a more beer-centric discussion of Hay Merchant?

SirRon
SirRon

Please don't go to HM and give us a beer review. Just write some romance-y sht about your experience and we'll luv it!! 0.02

KING
KING

1. Start with how it compares overall to similar establishments. Quality of service, location, accessibility, presentation, quantity/quality of beer available, services (growler fills, tastings, etc.). Some of this was already touched on by Mai.

 

2. The reviews of the day's cask offerings, as you suggested, would be a good start. But judging by their Twitter account, the cask offering literally change more than once during a single day. Still would be a good read.

 

3. Review beers that aren't readily available at similar establishments or have been tapped at this establishment before other places get them. I had Southern Star's Pro-Am 2011 dark cascadian ale here on Friday. Didn't recall that brew at many other places aside from Petrol. I'm sure you could used Taplister as a base reference point for what is comparatively available.

 

4. If you're going to review the food, review it in terms of how it actually PAIRS WITH THE BEER. Not a standalone food review or a wine pairing.

 

This is what I personally would be interested in reading.

KING
KING

#LUVITMAYNE

John Seaborn Gray
John Seaborn Gray

 Oh, man, I know, King. I'm always really upset whenever I get exactly what I want, too.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

So you did read more of my post, KING! This is good roadmap. Run with it, Nicholas!

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Feedkd, If I said everything was great, someone would no doubt criticize me for saying everything is great. All I can do is try to be honest, speak to the experience that I had and frame in it such a way that the people who read it know where I'm coming from.

Like I said, the long beer list was impressive, someone else who is better-qualified to write about it will wax poetic about it, I'm sure. Being a food writer, the menu was compelling enough for me to go there specifically so I could try it, especially with Chef Ware at the helm.

At no point did I say that I wished for composed dishes or that I didn't like the food. In fact, I loved the chicken and waffles, the meat chips, the pig ears. The menu is a good one, but for balance, it would've been nice if there was at least one light dish on the menu.

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