Best Neighborhood Spot Downtown - 2002
The Express Grocery and Deli - CLOSED
A city work crew, bright vests glowing in the dim early morning, makes its way through a breakfast of eggs and bacon. Along the window-side counter, two young professionals fight to overcome the martinis of the previous night with eye-opening cups of coffee. Just outside, the downtown trolley brakes to a stop, the driver dashing in for an OJ. He'll have to wait his turn behind the police duo and the likely parolee, the yuppies, law students, retirees and the rest of a down-and-out and up-and-coming mix as demographically diverse as there is to be found anywhere in the city. Proprietor Mike Baba, with his trademark grin and good-natured ways, presides over this rich array of customers in this longtime fixture at the southeast end of downtown. The small grocery, grill and deli that he and his family operate is a corner business in the Houston House apartments -- and a cornerstone for a legion of loyal patrons. More than mere foodstuffs are served up in this place. Regulars find themselves developing strange appetites for the other offerings dispensed -- news and gossip, helpful advice, humor from the give-and-take of customers and staff, mutual respect and heartfelt first-name interest in the lives that intersect here, however briefly. A dozen or so blocks north, downtown is busy redeveloping with boutique cafes and watering holes intent on instant status as the "in" place -- and intimate place -- to be. But for now, they can only hope to eventually evolve into the rich, diverse texture and honest atmosphere that the Baba family has cultivated so naturally.