Top

dining

Stories

 

CFS and a Cigarette

City Cafe, an old-school diner in South Houston, still turns out a stellar breakfast.

Inside City Cafe, it's like time itself has paused for a cigarette break and a cup of black coffee. Check out our slideshow of the little spot's charming kitchen.

Inside City Cafe, it's like time itself has paused for a cigarette break and a cup of black coffee. Here in the City of South Houston, a few short blocks away from Pasadena, smoking is still allowed at the long, diner-style counter (although, as a stern black sign points out, there's no cigar smoking allowed in here). Patrons take their chicken-fried steak and eggs in the morning with a red pack of Marlboro 100s, lined up in a row as they catch up with each other in the familiar rhythms that only regulars in small-town cafes possess.

Outside, a white sign with red lettering and blue-and-white spindles tells drivers on this stretch of College Avenue that City Cafe has been here serving those same hearty breakfasts "Since 1952." The sign is a beautiful, now infrequently seen example of the space-age Googie design style which once permeated the city, an offshoot of the mid-century modern design aesthetic that helped shape cities like Houston which were booming in the 1950s and 1960s. The most common forms of Googie architecture were the small businesses that kept boomers fed and sheltered: roadside motels, coffee shops and little restaurants just like City Cafe.

The chicken-fried steak  isn't prefabbed, and the eggs are always perfect.
Troy Fields
The chicken-fried steak isn't prefabbed, and the eggs are always perfect.

Location Info

Map

City Cafe

513 College Ave.
South Houston, TX 77587-4201

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Outside Houston

Details

Hours: 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.
Two eggs with bacon: $4.75
Chicken-fried steak and eggs: $7.25
Malted waffle: $4
Steam-table lunch (with two sides): $6.95
Reuben sandwich: $7.50
Chocolate cake: $2.95


READ MORE
SLIDESHOW: City Cafe: South Houston's Charmingly Old-School Diner
BLOG POST: Chicken Fried Steak and a Cigarette at City Cafe


On a recent Saturday morning, that's where I found myself along with a friend, catching up over a breakfast that was nearly too large for the funny little two-man booth we'd sat down in. Because it seemed like the thing to do, we ordered the chicken-fried steak and eggs that everyone else around us was eating, along with a standard Texas breakfast platter of two eggs overeasy, bacon, hashbrowns and a biscuit with a side of grits.

While we waited for the food to come out, I tried to explain the grits scene in My Cousin Vinny to my friend, the one in which Joe Pesci's carpetbagger of a character encounters grits for the very first time in an Alabama town. City Cafe reminds me very much of the type of cafe which the screenwriters must have had in mind while writing that scene, a soulfully no-nonsense establishment where the food is equally straightforward and blessedly simple.

The grits arrived in a plastic, cafeteria-style bowl veritably drenched in butter. I removed half the pat and stirred the rest in, pleasantly surprised to find them smooth and fine. They gave a bit of resistance to the spoon as I mixed in a bit of salt and pepper, a good sign that means the breakfast cereal has been cooked long enough and rendered creamy instead of runny and gritty. And creamy they were, each buttery bite a tribute to the half-century of cooking that's gone on in the red-and-beige-tiled restaurant.

But if the grits were fine stuff, they were only a gateway to the array of excellent breakfast food that lay ahead.
_____________________

Here at City Cafe, the chicken-fried steak comes with cream gravy on top. This is not necessarily the Texas way — gravy is ideally served on the side — but that's because City Cafe isn't necessarily Texan itself. Like many of the city's finest diners — Harry's, One's a Meal, the original Bibas and Avenue Grill among them — it was founded by Greek immigrants.

John Karras, the original owner, opened City Cafe along with his wife Aliki after emigrating to Houston from Skalochori, a rural village on the Greek island of Lesbos. He operated it until his death just before Christmas in 2003. His obituary in the Houston Chronicle a few days later described City Cafe as "the center of political, financial, and worldly debates and decisions." It still seems to be for the City of South Houston, where the customers are all still on a first-name basis with each other and the staff, many of whom have been at City Cafe for decades.

Karras's Greek influence is still felt in certain sections of the menu — there is a large gyro sandwich for sale here, as well as the cutely named "My Big Fat Greek Salad" — and even in certain dishes, like greens from the steam table at lunch which have a distinctly tart flavor to them that tastes of sumac.

But the rest of the food is done up in classic Texas diner style, with prodigious pats of butter atop half the dishes and peppery avalanches of cream gravy atop the other half. The chicken-fried steak itself is peppery, too — a surprise that answered any questions I may have initially had about whether it was homemade or not. That slightly spicy crust clings tightly to the pounded steak underneath, another sign that this isn't a prefabbed CFS.

Neither are the admirable hashbrowns, which are of that wispy, finely shaved variety that soak up ketchup, egg yolks, Tabasco sauce or whatever else you throw at them. In my case, it's all three, which means I'm a stickler for overeasy eggs: The yolks need to be runny, but never the whites. At City Cafe, both my overeasy eggs and my friend's scrambled eggs were fried up perfectly. Ditto the crispy bacon, which had just the right tinge of fatty softness at its curling ends.

1
 
2
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
16 comments
George W. Dudley
George W. Dudley

Although I don't smoke, I love the City Cafe's smoking policy; it keeps out the arrogant little crybabies so that the rest of us can enjoy the good food.

Mikecope
Mikecope

I am glad you mentioned that they permit smoking in the first paragraph. It saved me from reading the entire review of a place I would never step foot in.

ec
ec

This place is out of the foodies' radars thanksfully. Us Houstonians have been coming here for years. TIP: Try their menudo. It blows away places like Teotihuacan, La Mexicana, etc.

Corey
Corey

I'll take my cancer with a side of gravy, smoking and food have no business even being in the same sentence. What an awful complacent and stupid habit. Smokers you can go ***k yourself for all I care, you're already killing yourself off as is; so what's the difference?

downtown
downtown

I love a diner where I can relax and enjoy a few cups of coffee before ordering. City Cafe has a consistently good and affordable breakfast, and has become one of my regular weekend morning spots. Worth the short drive from downtown, and Liz always treats me right!

Eastender
Eastender

Yes, breakfast is served all day, and the waitresses, especially the brunette pictured, treat you like gold. A while back Katherine asked for east end suggestions and this was one I offered up for breakfast. Dot Diner is good too, but this is a lot cheaper and the service is WAY better.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

Is breakfast served all day? My favorite place like this closer in is Bellaire Coffee Shop.

H_e_x
H_e_x

This place sounds like heaven. CFS and smoking? If that's not American, I don't want to know what is.

H_e_x
H_e_x

As if you would go there anyway. You just wrote this to be smug.

H_e_x
H_e_x

You must be a blast at parties.

Afterschool
Afterschool

LOL!! Corey you little crybaby, maybe you should move into Biosphere II.

H_e_x
H_e_x

I had no idea you are forced into establishments with smoking. What a travesty. If only there were other options open to you.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I'm a former smoker and this is a moronic statement. Please don't drive through any parking garages or tunnels. I don't think your little lungs could handle it.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

The waitresses are absolutely wonderful. So glad you sent me this way.

Eastender
Eastender

I know a couple of the best taco busses too.

 
Loading...