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Over some excellent xiu mai and barbecue pork rolls, I ask Brown why the red snapper and pompano sell for twice as much at Central Market as they do here in the Asian part of town.
The quick answer is that Central Market is one of the few fishmongers that sell USDA-HACCP (United States Department of Agriculture-Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certified seafood. This consumer safety program is the best guarantee of fresh seafood in the country, and it's used by such major fish handlers as Legal Sea Foods in Boston. The point-of-catch-to-point-of-sale inspection program sets rules for precise temperature controls from the moment seafood is caught, through the sorting, shipping and handling processes, all the way to the consumer. With all this talk about seafood, I feel compelled to wave down the shrimp dumpling cart as it wheels by.
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
"Except for shrimp and king crab, nothing in our seafood case is ever frozen. We follow the seasons. When they are catching wild salmon in the Copper River, we fly it in overnight," Brown says. Because of the USDA-HACCP rules, Central Market must buy fish from day boats, not from big offshore trawlers that stay out for weeks. "We go to extremes to get the very best," he says.
The other reasons why Central Market charges more are obvious. Real estate values are a lot higher on Westheimer in River Oaks. And then there are the employees. Central Market is swarming with experts. Brian Cook, who used to own a popular meat market in town, will be in charge of Central Market's meat and seafood. Houston food pioneer Peg Lee will run the cooking school. "We have four or five C.I.A. [Culinary Institute of America] grads working at the Houston store," Brown brags.
"I don't know who they buy their fish from at Hong Kong Market," Brown says. "But you can't compare us -- it's a different culture."At first, I think he is talking about Eastern culture versus Western culture, but I quickly realize he's talking about something else. We're all familiar with the concept of corporate culture. But in the grocery business, corporate culture defines the ethos of not just the people who work there but also the people who shop there. This may be the most fascinating aspect of the Central Market experience. I mull it over as I walk up to the glass case in back of Ocean Palace and get us an order of clams in black bean sauce and some Chinese broccoli.Back at the table, I reminisce about the days when Central Market first opened, and how the "foodie" culture was a topic of heated conversation in the capital city. It split the community in some ways, and united it in others. "Are we so intent on going to the right grocery store because we don't go to church anymore?" I wondered in an Austin Chronicle article about that first Central Market.
For that article, I interviewed John Burnett, Southwestern correspondent for NPR who had just returned from covering the uprising in Chiapas. "The people there are eating nothing but beans and tortillas. They can't even afford metal cooking utensils, and here we are at Central Market choosing from ten kinds of olives," he said. I asked him what he thought about the difference between Central Market and Whole Foods. "Central Market doesn't have a masseuse," he said with a laugh. "It's not so oppressively correct."
Pat Brown doesn't like the taro cakes I have selected from a cart, so I wolf them down while he attempts to shovel some beef-filled rice noodles off the plate and into his mouth. Ocean Palace is generally a big hit with the Central Market man. And I'm glad to have turned him on to my favorite weekday dim sum lunch.
I doubt that Central Market's debut in Houston will induce as much tortured introspection and liberal angst as it did in the People's Republic of Austin. But it will obviously change the way people shop here. And we will also find out just how many Houston foodies there are.
In a recent letter to the editor regarding my review of Tony's (see "Still Your Father's Tony's, April 12), a longtime Houston waiter named Patrick Browning took exception to my opinion that people now go to restaurants to learn about food rather than to see and be seen. According to Browning, the people I described are in Austin, Chicago, New York and San Francisco, not here. "Houston's a great restaurant city, but not a great foodie city," he wrote. If he's right, Central Market and Pat Brown are in trouble. But I am willing to bet that Browning and others are underestimating the city's nascent food scene.
"Is Houston a foodie city?" I ask Brown as we finish our tea.
"Absolutely, more so than Austin or San Antonio," he says.
By foodies, I am referring to amateur enthusiasts, people who subscribe to food magazines, and who engage in cooking and eating as a leisure activity. But Brown stretches this definition to include food professionals. Houston has a larger population of cooking school and hotel and restaurant management graduates than any other city in Texas, he says. Which makes it much easier to staff the Houston store.