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
Pat Brown and I are standing in front of an empty seafood case. Brown is the general manager of Central Market, which opens to the public on Wednesday, May 30, at the corner of Westheimer and Weslayan. I pace off the length of the gleaming stainless-steel counter -- 23 strides. "It's 60 feet long," says Brown, who has an impressive résumé in the grocery business. He has worked for Randalls and Auchan in Houston as well as for Central Market in San Antonio. "I love Houston," he says. "I've always wanted to come back here."
The Central Market on Westheimer will mark the debut of some new concepts, such as drive-thru lanes for people too busy to get out of their cars to pick up their prepared meals. At 75,000 square feet, it will also be the largest store in H-E-B's Central Market chain -- for the time being. Like the other Central Market stores, this one will not sell toothpaste, Coke or Big John's Beans 'n Fixin's. The store is devoted almost entirely to gourmet food.
While admiring the seafood case, I have a flashback. I suddenly remember staring at the gigantic empty seafood compartment at the original Central Market in Austin before it opened back in 1994. I was writing for the Austin Chronicle at the time. Like many Texas food lovers, I would develop a passionate affair with the store. But as with any relationship, I can tell you what's wonderful and what's annoying about the object of my affection.
11215 Bellaire Blvd.
Houston, TX 77072
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Shrimp dumplings: $2.50
Barbecue pork buns: $1.80
Xiu mai: $1.80
Chinese broccoli: $ 4.50
Clams in black bean sauce: $ 4.50
Taro buns: $ 1.80
The thing that initially drives people crazy about Central Market is the maze they force you to walk through to get anywhere. The aisles aren't set up in parallel rows, so you can never find an item easily. Instead, these aisles wind around so you have to shuffle past the herbs and the fresh fruit -- each section just daring you to walk by without at least a whiff -- before you get to the part of the store you desire.
"It's a forced traffic pattern like IKEA," says Brown. "You get used to it."
It's true. You quickly learn that dashing into Central Market to pick up a loaf of bread will take you over an hour and cost you at least $50. You may have been looking for sourdough, but you will come out with a rare French cheese, a spectacular California zinfandel to go with it, some inexpensive Costa Rican coffee beans, an instant risotto mix from Italy, and some of the best hard salami you've tasted since childhood. And you'll be lucky if you remember the bread. But the time and the money will always seem well spent.
By constantly offering samples and demonstrating new cooking ideas, Central Market turns shopping into an educational experience. The chefs who prepare vegetables for the store's cafe will work in the middle of the produce department where customers can watch their techniques and see what varieties they're using. A kiosk in the meat and fish department will present nonstop cooking demonstrations. The store will also feature a complete cooking school facility on the second floor as well as a cookware department with shelves of cookbooks. "Every time you walk into Central Market you will learn something about food," promises Brown.
All that is undoubtedly true. Central Market is a foodie paradise -- with a few little flaws. In the cheese department, I tell Brown about a frequent problem I've had at the other Central Markets. You may be able to buy exquisite French cheeses, but without the proper ripening, some of these cheeses are inedible. In France, shops keep cheeses in cellars, turning them every day and brushing them with brandy or beer until they reach the perfect ripeness. Wrapping cheese in cellophane and putting it on the refrigerator shelf kills the cultures that are necessary for ripening, an affront that would horrify any cheese-loving Frenchman.
"We're getting better at it," says Brown, admitting that selling cheese is a challenge. But the major criticism I have about Central Market is its prices. To address that topic, I take Brown out to the Hong Kong Marketat 11205 Bellaire Boulevard, a store that I sometimes think of as the Asian Central Market.
We walk straight back to the fish counter, and I pace the length of it. It is 60 paces long. Brown agrees that this fish counter is more than twice the size of Central Market's. It includes many varieties of fish that Central Market won't carry, not to mention tanks full of such exotica as live Dungeness crabs, live eels, live fish and geoduck clams from the Pacific Northwest that Central Market won't have, either. I point to a pile of silvery pompano. The price is $3.99 a pound, the same price Hong Kong Market charges for red snapper. We examine the fish for freshness. Some look pretty good with shiny scales and clear but slightly dehydrated eyes; others are obviously past their prime.
"I bought some pompano at Central Market in Austin not long ago," I tell Brown.
"You probably paid $6.99 or $7.99 a pound," he guesses correctly. We tour the whole store, with lingering stops in the produce department, the bakery and the bulk-food aisles. Then I take Brown to a dim sum lunch at Ocean Palace Seafood (11215 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-988-8898) in the same shopping center, and continue the conversation.