Side Order of Chaos

eatZi's may know how to cook, but convenient? Forget it.

In every sense of the phrase, eatZi's is a happening kind of place. The high-class take-out at the corner of San Felipe and Post Oak has been open for just over a month now, and all indications are that Houston's haute have warmly welcomed the newcomer. The lines are long, the crowds are dense and the hubbub approaches what you might find in, oh, a mosh pit.

The hordes are flocking to the mecca of what's known in the trade as Home Meal Replacement, a concept that developed from the fact that there's a whole generation of folks out there who don't know how to cook and another that's too time-poor to even try. It's the same market that Yapa and its ilk have been catering to for a few years, but eatZi's is to Yapa as a Randalls Signature Store is to a mom and pop grocery. They basically do the same thing, but at a vastly different scale.

In eatZi's case, what they do is offer up restaurant-quality food that you then take home and reheat. But having visited this Dallas import (the first eatZi's opened 18 months ago in our neighbor to the north) often in the past few weeks, I find myself pondering two questions: Is it possible to be too popular? And is it possible to have too many choices? My answer to each query, at least as far as eatZi's is concerned, is a resounding yes.

At eatZi's, the pace is frenetic, the wait for service lengthy and the parking lot impossibly small -- all, I suspect, by design, and all to add to the ambiance of takeout food emporium as circus. (Want opera at 7 a.m. or chefs behind the grill who shout a merry refrain about the chickens they prepare? EatZi's offers both.) I wonder if, once the novelty diminishes, customers will continue to endure such things. Maybe so -- the Dallas eatZi's is still going strong a year and a half in.

It's not that eatZi's is always chaotic; after a while, I learned that the best time to visit is early in the morning or late at night. At these times, you may actually be able to walk around and get a feeling for what's available, might actually be able to notice the fine selection of wines, beers and fresh flowers and linger over the beautifully displayed produce and other specialty items. You can even enjoy a simple breakfast of cappuccino and croissant. And in the late of the evening, most of what's left (if there is anything left) in the refrigerated counter goes for half price.

Alas, every time I visited at more normal hours, I found more cacophony than convenience. It wasn't simply the lines, though they're everywhere -- to get in, to get served, to pay. It was also that the aisles are narrow and crowded with gawkers who know they should buy something but aren't sure just what. The more than 30 toque-wearing chefs add to the hubbub. You can be sure that every time you stop to examine something or ask for a sample of any of the multitude of foods available, you'll be blocking someone. I contemplated that in the amount of time I spent getting in and getting out, I could probably have eaten at a nearby restaurant.

The dazzling arrays of available stuff make decisions hard, a difficulty best seen at the deli counter. On my first visit to eatZi's I was on a tight schedule, and decided to zip in and grab a quick sandwich. Wrong. You don't zip anywhere at eatZi's. Since there were eight people ahead of me and only two servers, I decided to forgo the wait and instead grabbed some teriyaki spring rolls along with some shrimp spring rolls, which were disappointingly dry, as if they had been sitting in a refrigerator for hours (which they had). At the checkout, I asked how early in the morning I could get a sandwich. "As soon as we open," was the reply. Fine. The next day I entered at 7:30 a.m. and headed for the sandwich counter. "We're not quite ready," a server told me. "No problem," I replied. "When will you be ready?" "At ten." And so I left.

When I finally made it to the head of the line on my next visit, I understood why it took so long to be served. There are more than ten different choices of breads and ten different kinds of spreads to put on them, as well as 100 different cheeses and easily 50 different kinds of meats. There is no apparent end to the permutations available. Well, there is some: When I asked for liverwurst as my meat, I was told they didn't have it. When I pointed it out in a deli case just a few feet away, I was informed that I would have to purchase it from the deli counter (one line) then bring it to the sandwich maker (another line). I settled for a pastrami on rye with Swiss, with an ancho chili spread. It was large, and it was delicious. But I still longed for some liverwurst.

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