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As you approach the Big Easy's front door, you can hear from within the concertina-sharp sounds of a wailing guitar shredding the night air. You immediately imagine an old African-American man, or a middle-aged white guy in a fedora and shades, jamming on stage. You open the door. You look through the smoky haze, and unless you're as cool as Harvey Keitel's character in Pulp Fiction, you do a double take.
There, in the middle of the dance floor, is Rick Lee on his knees, playing slide guitar. He's picked up a heavy chair and is sawing on the strings with one of the wooden legs. You can't help but notice that this bluesman is distinctly Chinese-American.
"People look at me funny," he sings on his signature tune, "Even a Chinese Man Can Play the Blues." "They don't know what to expect / They dis me before they know me / Lord, I don't get no respect."
Rick Lee fell in love with the blues as a teenager. After hearing the Bluesbreakers' version of "All Your Love" on a classic rock-blues show, Lee was intrigued enough to investigate the original by Otis Rush. Just one listen was all it took for Lee to know that he was to be a bluesman forevermore.
Lee was born in Houston, the son of Cantonese immigrants, and spent a good chunk of his childhood soaking up African-American culture at his parents' grocery store in Kashmere Gardens. "I didn't pick up anything musically from growing up there, but I did get a sense of community. There's a sense that people there aren't getting the same breaks there that people are getting in River Oaks. Though I would never be presumptuous to say I truly understand the blues, I was exposed to the social aspects that gave rise to the music."
"The blues is about life, all aspects of life," Lee says, choosing his words with the careful aplomb of the attorney that he is during the day. "You can express the whole feeling, the whole range of human emotions with the blues."
Lee's special hero is the late Guitar Slim, whose six-string readings of African-American gospel organs simultaneously electrified and sanctified the South in the mid- to late '50s. From reading about Slim, Lee learned not just his wildman antics, including walking on the tables, but also a whole philosophy of blues as a uniter of people from all races and walks of life. "Slim taught me that you should become part of the audience while you're playing, let the audience become a part of what you're doing."
Every now and then, without much hope, a wine drinker drifts into Bert Wheeler's. It's a liquor store, not a wine boutique, and you expect the guy behind the counter to make change, not steer you to a great little Pouilly-Fumé. And certainly Roger Cooper doesn't look or sound anything like Robert Parker. Cooper laughs about that: "I'm a black dude, for God's sake."
So he doesn't wait to be asked. He chats up all his customers -- even the occasional goober wearing a Confederate-flag shirt -- and if you express an interest in wine, he'll ask about your dinner plans and tannin preferences. He steers newbies to Italian or Chilean "starter wines" and questions aficionados about their preferences. Do you prefer subtlety or youthfulness? Do you like your chardonnay creamy or citrusy-crisp? Do you want a hearty Burgundy, or do you gravitate toward mellower blends?
He speaks the lingo with such enthusiasm that you're surprised to hear he's a teetotaler -- and the son of teetotalers. He studies wine the same way he studies electrical engineering at UH-Downtown: as an academic subject, something he reads about. "I drank a bottle one time, and I threw up," he says. "I might swirl a wine, or smell it, but other than that, it's not me."
Five years ago he applied to work at Bert Wheeler's because he doesn't have a car. Six days a week, he walks to the store from his house. "It's not the greatest job in the world," he says, "and it certainly doesn't pay a hell of a lot. But it's like Dr. King said: If you're going to do a job, you should do it so well that nobody living or dead could do it better."
After school and work, Cooper kicks back with a book and a soda. Of course, for a cultivated palate, not just any soda will do. "Coke's too strong," he explains. "And A&W is too sweet. But Barq's! Oh, man, that Barq's!"
Franchisee Dominic Quijano and wife Nelly invented that icon of America's Hispanicization, the McDonald's breakfast burrito, under the golden arches on Harrisburg Boulevard in the East End. Rolled up in a nine-inch flour tortilla, the burrito combines scrambled eggs, sausage, green peppers, jalapeÒos, tomatoes and cheese, most of which were already in the McDonald's pantry. Which is probably why the burrito tastes a lot like a Sausage McMuffin on a tortilla with salsa added.
"When I moved to Houston in 1984 to open the restaurant, I couldn't believe how many people here ate tacos for breakfast," says Quijano. Losing breakfast business to the many taco stands in the Hispanic East End, Quijano decided to make a breakfast taco of his own. "I approached the McDonald's people about it. The vice president told me to go ahead and work on it and call him when I was ready to test it."
First Quijano tried rolling McDonald's hash browns with seasonings in a flour tortilla. It didn't go over very well. Then he tried various combinations of ham, eggs, sausage and salsas before arriving at the current configuration. "The customers told me how to make them," admits the burger man. "They would say, 'Too much pepper, not enough salt,' until we got it right." Nelly Quijano did the tortilla research. They started with tacos on six-inch tortillas but eventually adopted the nine-inch size for the sake of neatness.
The burritos come conveniently packaged in a yellow paper wrapper and sell for $1.18 with tax. Mild salsa in a plastic pillow pack is served on the side on request. But Quijano's Harrisburg customers don't mess around with the wimpy condiment. Instead, they buy pickled jalapeÒos from a large plastic jar on the back counter for 29 cents apiece.
After testing and approving the item, the McDonald's corporation gradually rolled out the breakfast burrito across the city. "It sold even better in Anglo neighborhoods than it did in the East End," says Quijano. After proving itself in Houston, the McDonald's Breakfast Burrito was introduced across Texas, and eventually to much of the world.
Funny thing is, Dominic Quijano, the man who put Mexican food on the McDonald's menu, isn't of Mexican ancestry. His family is Cuban. He grew up in Florida and lived in New York City before he moved to Houston.
"Cubans don't even eat tacos," Quijano chuckles.
When Texas legislators used their redistricting clout in 1991 to draw a Houston congressional district that a Hispanic could win, a wily state senator named Gene Green helped in the design. He had ulterior motives.
The final shape of the district resembled a praying mantis, with arms snaking out in search of identifiable Hispanic households that pushed the Latino percentage of the district to 60.6 percent. At the time, many political observers assumed that would be enough to guarantee the election of Houston's first brown-skinned member of Congress.
Green knew better, banking on the core group of Anglo voters he had represented for 19 years in the Texas House and Senate. The legislator jumped into the 1992 Democratic primary race, and with equal measures of luck and gritty campaigning, he managed to beat out then-Houston city councilman Ben Reyes in a marathon fight that was extended to a second runoff after the first was invalidated because of voter irregularities.
Green then went to work winning over disappointed Hispanics, displaying the qualities that have earned him the reputation as one of the hardest-working elected officials in the city. "Gene is a very effective old-style service-oriented congressman," says Dr. Bob Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University. "His voting record is less important to this constituency than delivering goods and services."
How effective has Green been with his Hispanic constituents? In 1998 the League of United Latin American Citizens made the congressman an "honorary member."
Political consultant Marc Campos, a former foe, credits Green's hustle with allowing him to continue to hold a majority Hispanic district without serious opposition.
"He's a workaholic member of Congress," explains Campos. "When he comes home from Washington, he doesn't go hang out at an icehouse. He goes to a civic club meeting. During the flood in June, he was everywhere. The guy just works his ass off."
Although the Houston Comets did not win their fifth straight WNBA championship, there were still reasons to celebrate the team's season. One reason was the emergence of guard Janeth Arcain, who in the absence of marquee players like Cynthia Cooper (retired) and Sheryl Swoopes (injured) stepped up and became one of the premier players in the league. At the end of the regular season, the Brazilian native was named the WNBA's most improved player. Little wonder: She ranked fourth in the league with 18.5 points per game, fourth in free-throw percentage at .900, and seventh in steals with 1.88 a game.
Those who follow women's basketball closely probably weren't surprised by Arcain's emergence. In her native country, better known for its soccer than its basketball, she twice was the leading scorer of the Brazilian League, not to mention a multiple MVP award winner. She even earned a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a member of the Brazilian team.
The 32-year-old Arcain quickly has won over fans in Houston, not only for her roundball skills but also for her wide-eyed enthusiasm. "In Brazil, we don't have as good an organization as here," says the five-foot, 11-inch Arcain. "We don't have as many fans as here. And I enjoy it here. I love to be here."
During the Comets' off-season, Arcain still plays professional basketball in Brazil, with Team Vasco da Gama, named for the Portuguese explorer. The team won its league last year. Because of her hectic schedule, Arcain hasn't had much time to rest during the past five years, and this off-season is no exception. As soon as the Comets' playoff run was over, Arcain headed for home to continue shooting hoops in South America. However, she says she would like to spend more time in Houston, adding that the only thing she really misses about Brazil is her family.
"The place where I live there is on the beach," says Arcain. "But I like the Houston weather."
She also feels at home at Fogo de Chão, the Brazilian-style rodizio on Westheimer where the chefs know their way around a piece of meat.
Right now, Arcain can't stay year-round because of the contract in Brazil, she says. "But I hope one day to stay here and enjoy more of my time and get a little closer with the fans. It would be nice for me."
And for Comets followers.
"My mom, bless her heart, was an awful cook," drawls Larry Perdido. His parents emigrated from the Philippines to Houston in the '50s, and his mom, a nurse, soon learned to mangle American dishes as thoroughly as she wrecked those of the Southeast Asian islands. Out of self-defense, seven-year-old Larry taught himself to cook by following the directions on the mac 'n' cheese box.
PBS urged him to aim higher. He admired Julia Child's French technique, and he laughed at Justin Wilson's Cajun wildness. And then there was Martin Yan, of Yan Can Cook, who mixed Asian recipes with American flamboyance. The combination must have held special appeal to Larry, a brown-skinned, dark-haired kid who talks like John Wayne.
But Larry couldn't afford to see Yan as a role model. Yan was like Evel Knievel: a cool guy who existed mainly on TV. Kids like Larry didn't aspire to be Evel Knievel.
Larry was supposed to be a doctor, and he almost became one. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with degrees in biology and chemistry, applied to med school, and made it onto UTMB-Galveston's waiting list. He knew he was supposed to want to be accepted.
But while he was waiting, he heard a radio ad for the new Culinary Institute of America. Cooking! he said to his fiancÈe. That's what I want to study. They U-turned on U.S. 59 and drove straight to the school. Larry enrolled that day, and told the medical school to forget him.
His parents were horrified, but in the last few years, they've come around. Larry and his partner, Chuck Smith, made such a success of their first restaurant, Saba Blue Water Cafe in Austin, that they opened a second Saba in downtown Houston. The menu is complicated and California-ish, American fish and produce cooked with an Asian inflection.
In June, Larry even got to cook beside his childhood hero. Martin Yan was doing a star turn at Central Market, and Larry signed up to assist with the class. They hit it off, and that evening Yan ate dinner at Saba. Larry stayed in the kitchen, sending out little bites of his best dishes.
But Yan was hardly alone at the table. Foodies mobbed him, mostly people who, like Larry, knew him from TV. Somebody asked for an autograph; somebody else took a photo. Yan was gracious. And in the kitchen, Larry was ecstatic. In a weird way, he'd exceeded his childhood dreams. He hadn't grown up to be Martin Yan. But he had grown up to cook for him.