A Fire at the Broken Spoke

Roy de la Garza on what's next.

Restaurant News

Roy de la Garza was already having a bad month before a fire destroyed his restaurant: His partner at The Broken Spoke Cafe, Catherine Duwez, had left unexpectedly to start a rival Belgian restaurant a few months prior, and business was down.

"We always had a real small customer base in the summertime, so we'd always just squeeze by in the summertime. When she [Duwez] opened Cafe Brussels, it cut our customer base in half."

The aftermath.
Katharine Shilcutt
The aftermath.
The Lone Spot Tailgaters are a small but fierce crew.
Courtesy of Adam Goldstein
The Lone Spot Tailgaters are a small but fierce crew.

And after a fire at a neighboring duplex blazed out of control the afternoon of September 10 — smoke filling the attic space of The Broken Spoke Cafe and flames damaging the rafters so badly that the roof caved in — that customer base has been cut down to nothing. It was so massive a fire that Washington Avenue was shut down for blocks in either direction and required "75 firefighters" with "29 units" to get the flames under control, according to the Houston Fire Department.

At the time of the fire, de la Garza says, he and his new partner — Pierre Guitard — were still negotiating with property owner Ralph Thomas over the rent.

"I guess we're going in a completely different direction now," de la Garza stated plainly.

As to what caused the blaze, the HFD hasn't yet issued a statement. But de la Garza is fairly certain that a "transient man" living in the abandoned duplex next door is responsible, perhaps inadvertently.

"We haven't found him yet to ask him, though," de la Garza admitted. However, he said, "There were no services turned on at that house — no electricity, no water, no power — so it had to have been a person that started the fire."

The duplex itself was a charred, vaguely house-shaped pile of rubble a few days after the fire. The Broken Spoke was intact, but the limited visible damage from the street belied the serious issues inside. With much of the ceiling partially collapsed, de la Garza says, "the entire roof would have to be rebuilt — and it's already an old building to begin with."

De la Garza has no doubts that Thomas, the property owner, will rebuild, however. "Ralph Thomas tends to hang on to everything, so my guess is that he's going to try and find a way to make it work."

For his part, de la Garza and new partner Guitard are focusing on a new direction entirely — a direction that was already in the works before the fire.

"We were gonna start a French steakhouse," he says. "Something like more of a lounge-type atmosphere. Pierre is from France originally, and we knew that two Belgian restaurants so close to each other would never work." But after the fire, those plans are on hold indefinitely while the two regroup and salvage as much equipment as possible from the fire-wrecked building.

In the meantime, de la Garza is quite content to keep his day job as principal of Milby High School. His tone of voice changes when he talks about the job, one he says he was working toward for years when he accepted the position in June 2011.

"It's just an absolute blast," de la Garza says, "so I'm going to concentrate on that for a while." It's not difficult to imagine him grinning broadly as he talks about Milby, for as much as he enjoyed his time at The Broken Spoke. It's an enthusiasm that translates easily across the phone lines.

"I love the [restaurant] business, so I wouldn't mind owning another restaurant or bar if the opportunity presented itself — but right now I don't want to do anything that takes time away from the school."

The Savory Side of Sports

Texans Tailgate Thursdays
The Lone Spot Tailgaters on guacamole and beer for breakfast.

It's well known that the Houston Texans have one of the greatest tailgating traditions in the country, a fact made more impressive by the team's relative youth. Each Thursday during football season, the Houston Press Eating...Our Words blog is spotlighting one of the groups that make Texans tailgating the pride of Houston.

"I was surprised that no one had told me just how great the Texan tailgate is. Maybe it is because they are the newest team in the NFL. The Houston Oilers played here until 1997 when they moved to Tennessee, and the Houston faithful had to wait until 2002 to get a pro team back. Either way, this Texans tailgate has to be in the top three tailgates across the league, and their fans have been continually supportive, bending over backwards for me to return there."

— Adam Goldstein, Tailgate to Heaven: A British NFL Fan Tackles America

The quote above from Adam Goldstein was supplied to me by Steph Stradley, known to NFL fans as "Texans Chick" for her popular football blog at the Houston Chronicle. Stradley also belongs to a weekly tailgating crew called the Lone Spot Tailgaters, which was one of the crews to be featured in Goldstein's book on American tailgating traditions, Tailgate to Heaven.

The Lone Spot Tailgaters are a small but fierce crew, tailgating from the Platinum lot and being neighborly to their fellow tailgaters. That generosity often extends to taking people into their own tailgate — Stradley estimates that, at certain points, the number of Lone Spot Tailgaters has approached 100 — but the core group remains, formed a few years ago from fellow "tailgate nomads" who were without a group of their own. And that was the beginning of Lone Spot. We interviewed Stradley about tailgating.

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