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The Inkblot Test

Do you prefer old greasy diners? Or imitations of old greasy dinners?

There are eight customers in the Triple A Restaurant at 10:30 in the morning; all of them are men, and four sport comb-overs. The wood-grain Formica on the tables and the orange vinyl on the chairs are a little worn. There is a picture of a 1935 high school football team hanging on one wall. My waitress is named Betty; she grew up in the Heights and has been working at Triple A for 18 years.

I am interested in a menu item that occupies almost half the page: "Two Farm Fresh Eggs (Any Style) with…." The "with" options include a pork chop, a breakfast steak, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy and bacon or ham or choice of sausage. The sausage choices constitute another sublist. All of the above include grits or country-style potatoes and toast or biscuits. Betty describes the three kinds of sausage available: The homemade pan-style is a free-form patty that's been spiced up hot; the country sausage is a big link like kielbasa; and the little links are the regular kind. I order two eggs with chicken-fried steak and hash browns and biscuits. And I get a side order of that homemade sausage, just out of curiosity.

"How do you want your eggs?" Betty asks.

Century Diner: Charmingly retro-chic? Or just an artificial, synthetic imitation of real New York diners?
Troy Fields
Century Diner: Charmingly retro-chic? Or just an artificial, synthetic imitation of real New York diners?
Triple A: A greasy truck stop? Or a rustic old diner?
Troy Fields
Triple A: A greasy truck stop? Or a rustic old diner?

Location Info

Map

Triple A Restaurant

2526 Airline Drive
Houston, TX 77009

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Heights

Details

Triple A Restaurant, 2526 Airline Drive, (713)861-3422. Hours: Monday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Two eggs with chicken-fried steak: $5.99
Two eggs with bacon or ham or choice of sausage: $3.79
Side order of sausage: $1.99

Century Diner, 1001 Texas Avenue, (713)223-0602. Hours: Sunday through Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, open 24 hours.

"The Total New Yorker": $7.95
"Eggs N' Hash": $6.25
Two eggs with potatoes: $3.95
Biscuits and gravy: $3.25
Breakfast meats: $1.95

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"Over easy and greasy," I smile.

"It's going to take a while," she says. "We batter the chicken-fried steak from scratch; it's not the frozen kind."

Neither are the crunchy potatoes; they are big pieces of fresh spuds fried crisp. The eggs are just right. The chicken-fried steak is piping hot with a wrinkly brown crust and a peppery tan cream gravy on the side. The biscuits are average. The biggest problem with Triple A's breakfast is the vehicle on which it is served: The oval platters are too small for the portions. I end up eating from three plates. I split my biscuits on the right-hand plate and pour a little cream gravy on them, while I eat the eggs, potatoes and chicken-fried steak from the middle plate. From the left, I sample the homemade sausage, which is extremely spicy and fried extra-brown.

Betty is gabbing with the other waitresses, and it takes a lot of gesturing to get my coffee refilled. But it's a sunny day outside, and from the window by my booth I can see the farmer's market next door. I also see an old black shoe-shine man working on Triple A's front porch. His customer is sitting against the wall, so I can't see his face, just his brown brogues. The shoe-shine man is spreading the polish with his fingers. I linger over my coffee until 11:20 and leave just as the lunch rush begins.


If the scene above were an inkblot test, how would you characterize it? Inviting? Depressing? Boring? Charming?

Before you answer, consider the following inkblot:

At 11 in the morning, almost all the tables are occupied at Century Diner on the corner of Main Street and Texas Avenue. There are some young, hip guys lingering over books and magazines, and a lot of downtown business folks in nice clothes eating lunch.

The vinyl booths by the window are two-tone, pastel green and off-white. The tables are covered with brand-new Formica in a bright pattern of circles and shapes, a design that was called "modern" 40 years ago. The waiters wear black-and-white bowling shirts with slogans such as "Something Superior for Your Interior" on the back. The menu is sprinkled with little nuggets about old diner lingo, such as the fact that "Adam and Eve on a raft" once meant ham and eggs on toast.

But ham and eggs on toast is not on the menu. Instead, the place offers a contemporary take on diner food, including "The Total New Yorker," a bagel with Nova Scotia salmon and cream cheese, and "The Health Kick," an egg-white omelet. Although two eggs with ham, bacon or sausage aren't offered, the menu does feature "Eggs N' Hash," two eggs with hash browns and New York-style corned-beef hash.

My waiter is a young guy with dyed black hair. He's too busy to chat, so I don't get his name. I order two eggs. They don't have hash browns at lunch, so I settle for french fries. The waiter doesn't know what the breakfast meats are, but he checks. I order the sausage and a side of biscuits and gravy.

"How do you want your eggs?" he asks.

"Over easy and greasy," I smile.

Coffee comes in a little stainless-steel Thermos, which is a nice touch. It reminds me of the little glass "hottle" you used to get at coffee shops in the 1960s. The eggs are just right. The french fries are excellent. The link sausage is just what you'd expect. The biscuits are huge, and the gravy has lots of bacon pieces in it. Unfortunately, it has been spooned over the top of unsplit biscuits. I try to break them up to soak up some of the gravy.

At a table just across the divide from mine, two men and a woman in conservative business suits are gossiping about somebody's chances in some election. The conversation is spirited, and the woman's eyes sparkle as she laughs at one of the men's observations. I can't hear what he said, but it must have been pretty funny. I pour myself some more coffee and copy down this quote from the big shiny menu: " 'The character of a diner builds up the way grime does.' -- Douglas Yorke."

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