By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
My own reactions to these diner-shaped inkblots are not hard to predict. Breakfast at Triple A puts me in a warm and wonderful mood. And the retro-chic at Century Diner feels phony. But I'm pretty much alone in this opinion.
One friend calls the breakfast at Triple A "a heart attack on a plate." Another finds the dark wood paneling, worn-out furniture and fat old guys with comb-overs "depressing." And she thinks the Century's decor and waiters' costumes are "precious."
2526 Airline Drive
Houston, TX 77009
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
What does the inkblot test tell you?
The same restaurant can feel entirely different to you and me. I can walk into a truck stop alone and feel right at home. But a beautiful young woman walking in by herself might feel differently. My mother is obsessive about cleanliness; she'd rather eat at McDonald's than at a place with character if there's the threat of grime. And then there are deeper prejudices.
When I moved to Austin from Connecticut to start school at UT, I was 17 years old, 2,000 miles away from my parents, and high on my newfound freedom. I drove my motorcycle all over town discovering funky places to eat. I loved little luncheonettes run by crazy old ladies, drugstore soda fountains and old urban institutions like the Southern Dinette on East 11th Street in the heart of the black east side.
Why did I love these places? It wasn't always about the food. I was also seeking a level of comfort. As a newcomer, I was fascinated by the characters in these old places and by the vestiges of a disappearing Texas. As a long-haired geek from the East, I was scared of the rednecks and fraternity boys who prowled the trendy campus hangouts. Maybe I ate in eccentric dives and places on the wrong side of the tracks because I felt like an outcast myself.
Sometimes friends who grew up in Texas, people who are concerned with healthy diets and whose families struggled with poverty in their childhood, don't find these funky joints nearly as endearing as I do. In another's eyes, these places are outdated, high-cholesterol slop houses, full not of colorful characters but of boring old farts. I understand these biases, and I want to be honest about my own.
It's still not always about the food with me. Sometimes I think a review needs to stick closely to the subject at hand. But in other cases, I'm more interested in food as a reflection of culture, and so it is with this case. There are some differences in the food at Triple A and Century Diner. But having breakfast at an old diner one morning and a new retro diner the next brings up intriguing questions.
Like, do you prefer sanitized imitations of old institutions to grimy old institutions themselves? And why does a retro-chic diner in the oldest part of Houston get its history lessons (and breakfast dishes) from New York? Does the architectural preservation downtown make any sense absent some cultural preservation?
Several letters to the editor lately have complained about my ramblings -- that my restaurant reviews are too personal and not focused enough on food like those of my predecessors. To this charge I proudly plead guilty. Alternative weeklies have been at the forefront of developing fresh approaches to food writing in America. Instead of the conventional "soufflé to die for" fluff, these reviews take readers on first-person excursions into the politics, sociology and anthropology of food. And I am delighted to champion this style in Space City.
When I began reviewing at the Austin Chronicle in 1991, fellow critic Ed Ward and I both were influenced by the very personal narratives of food writer John Thorne. It was Thorne who pointed out in print that Paula Wolfert's ridiculously complex recipes took authentic ethnic dishes out of their cultural contexts and turned them into gourmet status symbols. He also published a long series of pieces, all written from the counter of the same New England diner in his newsletter, Simple Cooking.
Thorne's own inspiration was a restaurant reviewer for the Boston Phoenix named Mark Zanger, who reviewed under the pseudonym Robert Nadeau beginning in the late 1970s. "He was teaching himself eating and drinking and simultaneously wondering out loud what he should be making of it, gnawing away at all pat assumptions. He taught me -- that honesty means nothing if there's no real risk to it, no genuine self-examination," wrote Thorne.
Lofty aspirations for a restaurant reviewer, no doubt, but at least it's a worthy goal. In that spirit, I offer you this nonreview. And I invite you to visit Triple A and Century Diner and do some genuine self-examination of your own. Which one serves a better breakfast? Which one makes you more comfortable?