Where the Chefs Eat: Brandi Key, Monica Pope, Jamie Zelko

Categories: Chef Chat

Photo by Mai Pham
A chaat covered with yogurt, tamarind and cilantro chutney, at Pondicheri, a favorite of Brandi Key and Monica Pope
Family matriarchs the world over may dominate their household kitchens, but in the professional world of restaurant kitchens, women are still the minority, which is why the three chefs featured this week are so notable.

All three women in this week's Where the Chefs Eat have reached the top of the culinary food chain. Let's see where Brandi Key of Coppa, Monica Pope of t'afia and Jamie Zelko of Zelko Bistro like to eat when they're not working in the kitchen.

Brandi Key
Executive Chef at Coppa

Thumbnail image for Brandikeyhs.jpeg
Photo by Debora Smail
Chef Brandi Key
Standard go-to: If I have a day or night off from the restaurant, I am probably going to end up at Uchi. It is one of the restaurants where I continually crave the food. It is always so fresh and clean, and I always leave surprised by something new. I can't go without having mackerel -- Norwegian mackerel, horse mackerel, whatever mackerel they have at the time. Last week, I had bonita for the first time. Amazing! Also, the cantaloupe dessert is the best dessert that I have ever had! Perfectly balanced -- the perfect way to end a meal. That and a glass of tokaii, you can't get any better.

Cheap eats: One of our favorites is the duck salad at Huynh. Amanda [McGraw] introduced me to this salad (on the menu goi vit) about a year ago, and it is one of those things that I could eat every day. It is so light and crisp and fatty and acidic; it hits you on all points of your palate. And at $8.95, it is easy on your pocketbook. I am also a fan of Laredo Taqueria (the location on Washington close to Coppa). There is nothing better than a $2 picadillo taco from there to start your day.

Meatless Mondays: Pondicheri, for me, has some of the most interesting food in the city right now. Every time we try to get something different, but I can't go there and not have the poori and at least one thali. I am a big fan of Anita [Jaisinghani], and I love this restaurant. Walking in, you feel like you are in another city, and the food takes you to the streets of India. Meatless Mondays are usually when we end up there, and I'm not even vegetarian. But I don't miss meat at all, because there is always something so interesting with flavors that I haven't experienced that I can't wait to go back.

Monica Pope
Chef/Owner of t'afia and Beaver's

Photo by Tam Vo
Standard go-to: My go-to restaurant right now is Pondicheri, where my daughter Lili says, "Everything is yellow." She loves the butter chicken, and I usually get a glass of wine with a wrap. We always get the mango lassi if it is available. They serve breakfast all day on the weekends so my daughter gets their French toast. Also, the oatmeal chocolate cookies with cardamom are great to take home. Anita [Jaisinghani] also sells items to go, so we got the masala mix to try at home one day. 

Cheap eats: We keep finding ourselves at Smashburger or Little Bigs...both are great for burgers. I keep it pretty simple at both places -- just add cheese at Smashburger. The rosemary fries are a nice touch, and Josie [Pope's partner] and Lili get a shake usually, while I get the tiny airplane bottle of wine, of course. At Little Bigs, they always have a nice wine by the glass or great deals on bottles. I get one chicken with the pickles and one meat with the caramelized onions and load up on the Sriracha sauce, then we all share the four-minute fries.

For pizza: Our other go-to place on Mondays is Romano's Pizza. We get a large cheese, or half cheese and half pepperoni pizza to-go home, then pull something green out of the garden like some kale and make our kale caesar. Lili cranks the parmesan and we pull out the prosciutto and go to town!  

Jamie Zelko
Chef/Owner of Zelko Bistro

Photo by Mai Pham
Chef Jamie Zelko
Standard go-to: Jenni's Noodle House on 20th (All is Good in the Hood -- her motto on her 20th Street location).  My order depends on the mood; for example, a cold fall day I'll order pho -- the traditional style, or if I feel under the weather, it always helps me feel better.  On a hot summer day, I'll order the Scotty Steak Salad -- medium rare filet over lettuce, red onions and tomatoes with peppery vinaigrette and jasmine rice.  It cools the body, and it's got protein and all you need to face a busy day.  I know Jenni and Scott personally, and they're of amazing character, not only incredibly smart, but somehow, with three locations, can remain down to earth, be edgy and always in a great mood; they're a hoot. 

Cheap eats: Spanish Flower on North Main. We order guacamole salad -- guacamole over lettuce, along with a half dozen of corn tortillas made in-house, and an order of cheese enchiladas with a side of rice and ranchero beans (I prefer these over refried).  Great food for the price, and as you can tell, I stay close to the Heights, since it's not easy for me to get out often, being a restaurant owner. Spanish Flower, which is open 24 hours, is therefore a steady choice.

For comfort food: Verona's Italian on Westpark. I order the special sandwich, which is warm deli meats on a white bread roll with lettuce, tomatoes and vinaigrette. Les Givrals on Washington is also a comfort for me. I get the pork Sandwich and pho. And of course Dacapo's on 11th Street -- I go on Mondays, because even though we are closed, I still have to work and I like to pick up a chicken salad sandwich with a side of potato salad before I head over to the office.

If you missed our previous posts, click below to see more of Where the Chefs Eat:

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Location Info

Coppa Ristorante Italiano - CLOSED

5555 Washington, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


904 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


912 St. Emanuel, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Laredo Taco Place

915 Snover St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


2800 Kirby Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


2310 Decatur St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

T'afia - CLOSED

3701 Travis, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


2800 Kirby Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant


7811 Main, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Little Bigs

2703 Montrose, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Romano's Pizza

1528 W. Gray, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Zelko Bistro

705 E. 11th St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Jenni's Noodle House

602 E. 20th St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Spanish Flower Mexican Restaurant

4701 N. Main, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Les Givral's Kahve

4601 Washington Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Dacapo's Pastry Cafe

1141 E. 11th St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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My Voice Nation Help

who gives a fuck? what are Brandy key's qualifications?

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

Huynh's duck salad (goi vit) is, indeed, fantastic! 


@birchbeer Brandi is an amazing chef. Where have you been?

kshilcutt moderator editor

 @birchbeer If you're going to insult the chef, you could at least spell her name correctly.


 @Mai Pham Everytime I go to Huynh is like groundhog day.  I always get the filet tips over rice with a fried egg.

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