Best Of :: People & Places
"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 fiance. 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.
This professor-on-the-move replaced sleepy Felix Fraga just a year and a half ago and is already developing into the power player of Houston Hispanic politics. Raised in Corpus Christi and Austin, Vasquez came to town as a communications prof at the University of Houston, and quickly began laying the groundwork for a political career. He used his first term as a Houston Independent School District trustee to build a network of support among Anglos in the Heights, and then steamrollered over a barricade of established Hispanic politicos to win a council seat. Since then he has carefully charted a course as an independent between council conservatives and the bloc supporting Mayor Lee Brown. Vasquez recently demonstrated his growing muscle by joining outgoing councilman John Castillo in an attack on Brown aide Carol Alvarado, who's running to replace Castillo in District I. Gabe has made no secret of the fact he aspires to be Houston's first Hispanic mayor, and at the speed he's been moving, that could put him in the race for the top spot in 2004.
Just look up. On bridges, buildings, trains, the backs of freeway signs, the tag is everywhere. It's an inspirational call to the "next" generation, a macho throw-up that conveys the adrenaline, irreverence and illegality of its creation. Most of all, it's cool. But the Houston Police Department's antigang task force doesn't think so. Last March, officers raided a legal graffiti show in a warehouse on the east side. Wearing all black with guns strapped to their legs, the officers said they were looking for "intel." But aerosol artists say the cops were really looking for Next, the most prolific graffitist in town. The task force was out of luck, though. Next was nowhere to be found.
Most courts wouldn't take much time with an 11-year-old troublemaker. But J.P. George Risner did what the Houston school district had refused to do: have the imbalanced youngster checked out by mental health professionals. Now the youth is on medication -- and back on track in school. Risner, in his 14 years on the bench, has proved time and again that he's determined to take his responsibilities far beyond just clearing dockets. He's held court at night and on weekends to be more accessible to the public and to parents. The former Houston building inspector has a rock-solid record in innovative programs to fight youthful problems such as truancy and juvenile delinquency. While Risner has received extensive training, he doesn't have a law degree. What he does have is more than enough: common sense, innate fairness and a keen interest in helping others.
Of course, the travesties continue: tearing down the old Gulf Publishing building on Allen Parkway, bulldozing bits and pieces of the precious past, flushing out Houston's final habitat hideaways for the sake of nothing more than the sameness of another new Rolling-Creek-Timber-Valley-Plantation-Estates subdivision. But the Bayou City shows more indications than ever that it just might be starting to appreciate its heritage. The rebirth of downtown awoke the greediest of developers to the potential for profits in preserving historic structures, even through costly conversions. Blocks of buildings restored as lofts are beginning to line the central city. Commercial uses are coming back as well. It seems that restorations are being considered for many more buildings (at least the ones not owned by Hakeem Olajuwon). Coupled with that are more aggressive wetlands preservation programs and nature centers. However, the most honorable of efforts can't begin to compare to the Restoration of 2001. This one involves several hundred square miles of the region. The rehab bill ran $5 billion and up for a collective project to rehouse about 100,000 residents and restore about half that many vehicles. The very heart of Houston -- the Texas Medical Center, colleges, the criminal courts system and the fine arts institutions -- had to be rebuilt in many ways from the devastation of Tropical Storm Allison.
The best smell? Coffee, of course. And there's no bigger coffee smell in town than the odor steaming out of Kraft's Maxwell House factory, a few blocks (and miles of attitude) east of Enron Field. Most days the prevailing winds blow that smell, ooh that smell, in a northwesterly direction, toward the north end of downtown and away from most eastside residents, many of whom can more or less stand on their porches and read the smoky plume from the one-million-square-foot facility for changes in the weather. And a fine day it is when the winds change, blowing that slightly processed coffee smell back over the near east side, where it mingles with, and partially masks, the cabbagy stink of wastewater treatment facilities and some of the ranker stretches of Buffalo Bayou. Fusion City, indeed.