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The “Alice's Deluxe Hamburger” at Alice's Diner on Beechnut comes on a toasted sesame-seed bun with lettuce, tomato, pickles, grilled onions and mayo but no mustard. So before I bit into my sandwich, I asked the waitress behind the long lunch counter if I could get some. She brought me a bright-yellow bottle of French's. I was hoping for something a little stronger.
“Do you have any other kind of mustard?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
Houston, TX 77096
Region: Outer Loop - SW
Vegetable omelet: $5.25
Beef with hot pepper sauce: $6.25
Alice's deluxe hamburger: $5.15
Barbecue ribs: $6.25
Pork with garlic sauce: $8.50
“What about Chinese mustard?” I wondered.
“Yeah, we have that,” she said.
I figured they would. When you sit down at this lunch counter, you have to choose between the homemade burgers and the chow mein with fried rice and egg roll. And all the waitresses are Asian.
The sign in front of the strip-center eatery reads, “Alice's Diner, American & Asian Food.” Inside, it's a traditional-looking American diner with worn wood paneling, booths upholstered in red vinyl, and Formica tabletops. Granted, the sparkling garland strung along the ceiling with the bright-red Chinese lantern hanging down from it looks a little out of place. But the explanation is simple enough.
An old-fashioned diner run by an owner named Alice was purchased some years ago by an Asian family. Rather than scare away the steady customers, the new owners decided to keep the diner items and add some Chinese food. The Houston Press named the place “Best Greasy Spoon” in the 2001 “Fusion City” Best of Houston issue.
I lifted the top bun and spread a generous amount of Chinese mustard on the meat patty, then picked the sandwich up and started eating. The hand-formed burger patty was nicely charred along its irregular fissures, and the meat was juicy. The grilled onions brought a slick texture to each bite. And the Chinese mustard added a little Asian zing to the otherwise classic flavor of an American burger. It wasn't an attempt at fusion cuisine, it was just an interesting accident. But I don't think it would be a terrible idea for Alice's to start offering Chinese mustard with all their burgers.
I was so taken by the little Chinese-American diner that I stopped by again a few days later with a companion in tow. She hadn't had any breakfast, and even though it was two in the afternoon, she decided to order a vegetable omelet. It was one of those folded-up, super-thin omelets served with shredded hash browns. Some minced onions and peppers were cooked with the eggs on the griddle and then the whole thing was folded up into a rectangle. I like a fluffy omelet with an actual filling myself, but she liked it. Then again, she likes her eggs well-done.
“For a greasy spoon, it's not that greasy,” she remarked.
I went for a Chinese lunch special called “beef with hot pepper sauce.” It was a very simple wok-fried pile of thin beef slices with red and green bell peppers, onions and scallions in a pleasantly piquant brown sauce with rice on the side. It came with a previously frozen egg roll and wonton soup with overdone dumplings.
My lunchmate also ordered grits, which came in a little bowl on the side. She didn't notice them until the rest of her food was gone. Impulsively, she reached for the soy sauce and added a dash to the bowl. We both sampled the grits and soy sauce, and it wasn't bad at all. It tasted something like the rice gruel called congee that is served for breakfast in Asia.
“Corny congee,” my tablemate giggled.
One night I called Alice's Diner and ordered a couple of dinner specials and some appetizers for delivery. It had been a long time since I had Chinese food brought to my door. I marveled at the familiar square, white, wax-coated cardboard containers with the red Asian characters and the top flaps that fold up into a Chinese puzzle.
But the novelty wore off quickly. If take-out Chinese is something of a trip down memory lane for me, then so was the flavor of this Americanized Asian food. 1960s-era Chinese appetizers like crab puffs stuffed with cream cheese and bland egg rolls with sweet-and-sour “duck” sauce would have been perfect to eat while watching Austin Powers.
“Lettuce wraps” is an appetizer once found only in high-end Chinese restaurants. The original version was made with minced squab (baby pigeons), mushrooms, dried oysters and all sorts of other exotica. But the once-unusual appetizer has become more commonplace in the last ten years. These days, even P.F. Chang's does a credible version. Alice's Diner's lettuce wrap appetizer consists of iceberg leaves with the blandest poultry filling I have ever encountered, made with ground chicken, onion and green pepper with little in the way of seasonings.
Nothing really clicked. Dumplings seemed like a safe bet, but the meat inside Alice's Diner's steamed dumplings was mushy and underdone. General Tso's chicken tasted like Chicken McNuggets in brown sauce with broccoli. An entrée of pork with garlic sauce was edible, if ordinary. The bright-red roasted pork ribs, coated in sticky sweet sauce, were the best thing we got delivered. And that's not saying much.