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The Broken Spoke Café is known for its moules marinière, which is listed on the menu as "La Complet Belge": moules frites, a glass of Stella Artois and all the homemade mayonnaise your heart desires for $24. Not bad!
Houston, TX 77007
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Soupe d'alost: $6.50
Croque monsieur: $6.50
La Complet Belge: $24
La moule à l'escargot: $16
Crêpe Mikado: $10
The mussels are served seven different ways. "Marinière," or "in the style of the fisherman," they come steamed in white wine, butter, onions and celery. These sexy little bivalves are served in a big, steaming pot with a lid that, when opened, smacks you in the face with a hot cloud of aromatic bliss. This is exactly what I order.
While I wait for my beer, the European-looking waiter with a thick accent brings a basket of bread and a couple of "pats" of butter wrapped in shiny foil, like the kind you get on an airplane. Both bread and butter are, as they say in France, "industrial": mass-produced for mass consumption. Why is it so hard to find a good baguette in Houston? Oh well, that's not what I am here for.
I came for the mayonnaise. I always think of that scene from Pulp Fiction about putting mayonnaise on fries:
Vincent: You know what they put on French fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
Vincent: I've seen 'em do it, man. They fuckin' drown 'em in that shit."
Moules frites, or mussels with fries, is the quintessential European comfort food. These Belgian fries, french fries, frites, Freedom Fries or whatever you want to call them are glorious. They are like sex — even when they are bad, they are good.
I'd rather not delve too much into the bullshit drama that seems to be floating around the food scene in Houston lately regarding the demise of Café Montrose. I will say that one of the previous owners of Café Montrose, Catherine Duwez, bought into the Broken Spoke Café, a place known for burgers and a 15 percent discount if you ride your bike instead of driving there, and gave it a "Belgium makeover." Meanwhile, Café Montrose's Jeannine Petas and her brother Andrew Klarman founded another Belgian place, Jeannine's.
Glad that's out of the way, because I just want fresh mussels, homemade fries and a cold beer to chase it down with. My beer arrives, and with the first sip, I immediately feel gratified. I take a look around and feel comforted and amused by the cafe's quaint decor. The ceiling is covered with black-and-white line drawings. Vintage bikes hang in the corners, and a Beatles Abbey Road tapestry hangs from the wall. I almost feel like I'm in a little hole-in-the-wall cafe in Belgium. Another big sip from my beer, and my mussels are set in front of me.
I remove the lid from the pot they came in, which doubles as my bowl for empty shells, and right away I can tell these mollusks are fresh. The meat inside the shells is cream-colored, plump and juicy-looking. They are fully open. Dead mussels don't open up when cooked, and should under no circumstances be eaten — don't even force them open and feed them to your friends as a joke! Also, they smell good, not like a whale fart. Do whales fart?
I am happy to see the mussels served here are the Mediterranean variety from Washington State. The other kind you see are the Canadian Prince Edward Island variety, which are smaller and sweeter. Some people prefer the PEIs for their more delicate flavor, but I like the butteriness of the larger mussels. The broth they're served in is fresh and not overpowering, filled with onions and celery that's still al dente. I grab one of the moules by the shell and nearly burn my fingertips. I then pull the meat out and munch down on it, and some of the bouillon it absorbed during cooking squirts out. The dish is delicious, perfectly cooked, super-fresh and exactly what I was looking for.
The crispness of the Belgian beer cuts the richness of the mussels nicely. This combination is no accident. I sop up some of the broth at the bottom of the pot with the bread and notice there is not very much butter in it. I try dipping a frite in the mussel juice, but that doesn't do it for me. The homemade frites are better in the mayonnaise. Most Americans prefer their fries with ketchup, but more and more restaurants are serving them with aioli and flavored mayonnaise. It took a little getting used to for me, but now I am fanatic about it. Especially when it's the mayonnaise served here — rich, flavorful and golden-yellow from the yolks. I hear you can ask the owner for a jar of it to take home if you like, but I don't feel like asking.
I order a second Stella and realize it's closing time. One of the things I like about this beer is that it's high in alcohol, basically malt liquor. After two, I have a nice buzz. I feel like ordering another, but I hate keeping waiters after closing time, especially when you're the only table in the place. It's just rude.
My first visit to the Broken Spoke left me wanting to come back. There weren't very many people there, but the vibes were good. The second visit is better. There are a lot more people, including a group sitting next to me speaking French, and the waitstaff seems to really care if I'm enjoying myself or not. I have the same waiter both times, but one of the owners is there and is attentive on the second visit.
I sample several other items on the menu, including the croque monsieur, a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich that usually comes in a béchamel sauce (think cream gravy with a pinch of nutmeg — trust me, it's good). But the Broken Spoke doesn't use béchamel on its version, which leaves it kind of dry. I should have tried the croque madame, which is the same as the Monsieur but with a sunny-side up egg on top. That would have kept it from being so dry, as the yolk becomes a sauce when you break it withyour fork.
I try the onion soup, or soupe d'alost. I am not sure what the difference is between French onion and Belgian onion soup, unless in Belgium they put two tiny pieces of French bread on top with unmelted Gruyère cheese. I also try the moules à l'escargot, mussels in garlic butter sauce (no snails). Baked on the half shell and covered with lots of garlic and butter, these turn out to be very tasty. I even soak up the butter garlic sauce with my industrial bread.
The Broken Spoke has a very impressive beer selection, with more quality than quantity on tap, including such brews as Stella Artois, Chimay, Firemans 4 and Maredsous. You can't go wrong with that. I order a Kwak, a Belgian ale that comes in a glass, like a yard, with a round bottom and a wooden clamp. This beer boasts 8 1/2 percent alcohol by volume — come here for the mussels, and stay for the beer!
Even though I am full of butter and beer, I can't leave without trying at least one of the desserts. I opt for one of the many crepe selections. Crêpes Mikado, crepes filled with vanilla ice cream then topped with Belgian chocolate sauce and whipped cream, are fine. The ice cream inside is rich and creamy, not melted. The chocolate sauce is hot, black and thick.
I will definitely be back, because I didn't get a chance to try the Broken Spoke Burger, which sounds delicious. I'll also return for more Kwak. And next time I'll arrive on a bicycle.
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