Houston's Food Nazis
On a sunny, breezy mid-March afternoon, two young men decide to dine at a Greek restaurant in Montrose. They place their order -- gyro plate with a side of fries -- and begin reading magazines they've picked up from a rack near the restaurant's side entrance.
A tall, bald, mustachioed waiter with crooked teeth, dark circles beneath his eyes and a bit of a paunch comes by the table to refill waters. "You two drinka lika fish," he comments.
"Why you read magazines? You no like each other?" The two explain that they do enjoy one another's company. They are treated to a lecture on, among other things, the death of conversation. "People, they no communicate anymore. It's very sad."
"Who is this on this magazine?" Mustachioed Waiter asks as he sets down hot plates of food. "Paul Wall," the two answer. "He's a Houston rap artist," they offer when their explanation is greeted with a puzzled expression. "You like rap music?" they ask.
They are then treated to another lecture, this one about the current state of parenthood. "Parents no care for their kids anymore. They get in the way of careers; the parents go off to Paris and Spain for the weekend, leave the kids at home. The kids have no love inside, so they fill it with dis fuckin' garbage."
Didn't the gyro plate used to come with hummus?
"Listen to me," Mustachioed Waiter begins, "I'm a Greek man. This is the worst thing you can say to a Greek man. The Muslims, they burn my people for 400 years; we've never served hummus in this restaurant. We never will serve hummus in this restaurant...not after what the Muslims did to my people."
Niko Niko's serves hummus.
"I am not Niko Niko's," he retorts.
The death of conversation, the gaping void in a teenager's soul, the burning of a people for half a millennium -- not exactly your average waiter chitchat.
But John Katsimikis of Bibas One's a Meal is not your average waiter.
He's a philosopher, a doctor, a talk show host and a sage. He's a history professor, a fashion critic and a psychologist. John also happens to be a front-of-the-house restaurant lifer, 18 years at Bibas alone, 33 all told.
Another thing John is: a curmudgeon. He might, for instance, refuse to refill your tea after three glasses. "Too much caffeine is bad for you." He might bring you something to eat you didn't order. "Your nose is runny, no calzone for you. You need chicken soup!"
John is a lot of things. But one thing he isn't is a job-hating college student, temporarily hustling money to pay back school loans, donning a fake smile until his real job comes a-callin'. Want bland, generic service? You'll have to look elsewhere.
Hanging just outside Pat's King of Steaks in the Bella Vista neighborhood of Philly is a sign instructing non-regulars how to order. "Have your money ready!" it aggressively instructs. Approach the window fumbling for change and you will be dropped headlong into a world of scorn. Hell, even mumbling your words while ordering will earn you a spot at the back of the line. And it's a long line.
In short, they don't have time to coddle your rookie ass.
Al Yeganeh doesn't have time for your nonsense either. As a super-serious immigrant chef in Midtown Manhattan, Yeganeh earned his reputation by demanding that all customers in his establishment follow his meticulous and arbitrary soup-ordering instructions to the letter, lest they be refused service by his dismissive and insistent avowal, "No soup for you!"
Perhaps other establishments have time for your questions about the day's special or your personalized food requests. Yeganeh's Soup Kitchen International does not.
Ordering at Soup Kitchen International leaves an impression on people, not the least of whom was comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who, after a few run-ins with Yeganeh, dubbed him the Soup Nazi.
The rest is sitcom history.
Who is Houston's Soup Nazi? When the Houston Architecture Info Forum message board asked its users this very question, it got a handful of answers.
John at Bibas got plenty of run, most of a lighthearted "you'll never believe what he said to me" nature. Some users, however, hint at John's darker side, which apparently includes a bias against the English (tip: leave your copy of Harry Potter at home) and a penchant for making dates awkward. But mostly he's referred to as harmless, a "hoot," in the words of poster ssullivan.
"In fact," says user Wendyps, "if you say you are going to the dumpling nazi, everyone knows where you are going."
The innocuous food court of Houston Center's shops is buzzing. Houston's downtown office drones have hiked by the bushelful to fill it, and have little time before it's back to the desk, the office or the cube. They must be fed.
They have several options, most of them quite typical. There's a Subway, a Long John Silver's, a pizza joint and, since this is Houston, a Ninfa's Express.
But it's clear the longest line belongs to Doozo Dumpling and Noodle.
The menu is simple: Steamed dumplings, ten for $5, pork or veggie, spicy or mild. Perhaps you'd like a half-order. That's available too, as are two noodle dishes and two kinds of sushi roll.
In line are several men in khaki pants and women in pantsuits, all waiting patiently, holding their money and talking about work.
Behind the counter is a middle-aged Asian woman in a bright orange sweater, stacks of Styrofoam containers piled behind her, directing a fleet of employees dressed in yellow T-shirts.
"Ten spicy pork!" she yells. "Pepsi!" she demands. "Five mild veg!" she calls back to her hive of yellow-clad bees.
Doozo's "dumpling nazi" is nothing short of a food-slinging maestro. She has to be. Being located in the food court next to downtown's corporations is both a blessing and a curse. Built-in business, to be sure, but not exactly a place folks are seeking for anything more than a quick fix. No, Doozo has two and a half lunchtime hours (11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.) to maximize profits and move asses through the line.
Because of this, each move she makes is precise, each uttered word audible. Her employees listen for her cues, not making a move until given instruction. An indecisive customer costs her money. If she's frank, it's because of this fact.
I have come to take it on the teeth. I want the full brunt of Doozo's dumpling nazi contempt, which is probably why, while waiting in line, I begin shaking, nervously flopping sweat. How bad is this going to get?
I know what I have to do to provoke the nazi's ire. Money? Still in my pocket. I've made the simple choice of pork/veg/spicy/mild impossible.
Although long, the line moves quickly. After all, the food is already prepared. My time has come.
"May I help you, sir!" she demands more so than asks.
I look up absently at the menu, gaze longingly at the mountains of Styrofoam to-go containers and muster my best "Ummmmm."
She waits quietly with pursed lips.
"I'll have the ummmmm. How spicy are the spicy pork?"
I begin to feel heat on my neck. I look back and see 30 hungry FVC, El Paso Energy and Reliant employees fiddling the security badges that hang from their belt loops, all quelling the urge to tell me to hurry the hell up.
"You don't have Coke, huh? Just Pepsi?"
I am an asshole.
After one minute (which feels like several, trust me), I order.
"TEN SPICY PORK!" she calls out, noticeably louder than for the folks who came before me. Not so bad. I got off easy.
In fact, compared to what I expected, she's a princess. It is the stern and palpable disapproval of those in line behind me that is the worst of it. Looking for a table, I can't help but feel I'm being stared at like I just cut a wet fart at a funeral.
After awhile, I approach someone with the familiar to-go box.
Elizabeth Davis has heard Doozo referred to as the dumpling nazi, and she doesn't understand why.
"I eat at Doozo every week, sometimes twice. Most of the people that eat there are regulars, so they know what they want the minute they get in line," Davis says.
And know to have their money ready.
"Exactly," she agrees.
It's become a science. Regulars are regulars because they know what to expect. "A line at Doozo can be twice as long as one somewhere else, but it will move three times as fast," Davis explains.
Dictatorship has its privileges.
On the patio at Bibas, John directs me to a seat next to a bus tub full of dirty, food-caked dishes.
"I'd like to sit over there," I say, motioning toward a row of bushy hedges.
Three women nearby begin laughing.
Rosemarie Moore, a Heights artist, and her daughter, Roseann Siddell, eat at Bibas every week. They've become well versed in John's peculiarities.
"The first time I ate here I came home and told my mom, 'Gosh, he's so rude,' " Roseann admits. "But after coming here a couple times, you learn he's just kidding."
"It takes you aback," Rosemarie explains. "You're so used to walking into a restaurant and, 'Oh, ma'am, may I help you?' " she says as she mockingly fawns over her daughter.
Both agree that, while they find the food at Bibas "excellent," neither would eat there as often if John weren't around.
"We'd miss it," says Rosemarie. "I remember a while ago he went back to Greece for a week, and it was weird. There was no one here to give you a hard time."
John, having arrived late to the conversation to refill waters, hears the tail end of the conversation and tells us that Americans are "very finicky peoples" who "like to fight" and "don't like to be challenged."
This elicits a series of jovial "Ohhhhhh, John"s from the ladies.
Sitting just inside Bibas is its owner of eight years, Louis Servos, an aged, gray-haired man who looks like a Greek Jimmy Carter. He, in stark contrast to John, is soft-spoken, almost shy.
"John is probably one of the few, few professional waiters left in the city," he says proudly while a table full of young Indian students bursts into laughter as John leans on one of their chairs, headlong into another lecture about who-knows-what. "That's all he's done, that's all he wants to do. He manages the store without him knowing it, but he doesn't want to be a manager. He's a waiter!"
Customers, Servos says, seldom complain about John. On the contrary, "He's off on Monday nights. Sometimes people come in, ask if he's here and leave when they find he isn't," he chuckles.
It's a feeling Servos can identify with, having been waited on by John at the now-closed Greek eatery Zorba's he used to frequent almost two decades ago. "John was the same way he is now, only back then he had a big handlebar mustache," he says, twiddling his fingers a few inches from both sides of his lips.
Back outside John ambles over to me and my table by the hedge and asks if I'm ready to order, exasperated.
"Another Corona," I reply.
"Watch out, my friend. Beer has a lot of cah-lor-eeys. It will make you fat," he says as he scans me from head to toe. "Too late for you, no?"
Let's make a quick distinction. There are differences, shades of gray that exist in food service that are worth mentioning here. A guy like John from Bibas, for example, is worlds away from a jerk waiter who doesn't seem to care whether or not you're satisfied. There is a difference between the situation Doozo is forced into and rude service for the sake of it.
When mentioning places with rude service, any number of Vietnamese restaurants will come up and, more often than not, Mai's (3403 Milam) will lead the pack.
Try eating at Mai's with a group of eight. Chances are someone in your party will refuse to suffer the indignities of eating there, a fact borne out on the popular Houston dining guide www.B4-U-EAT.com, whose users have flooded the site with service gripes.
"The service was terrible," quips anais77081. The owner "attacked my guests," claims Donito. "Seinfeld's soup nazi has trainees here," says Nancy.
Still other users defend the behavior, chalking up the whole thing to cultural misunderstanding.
An establishment that can't use a gap in culture as an excuse for its behavior is Late Nite Pie (502 Elgin).
Scott Barnett had eaten at Late Nite Pie a few times and, though the wait was sometimes absurd, never had any real complaints about service. That is, until one night in particular, when he went in with some friends.
"My friend Ryan ordered before me. Pizza by the slice is in a display window and Ryan ordered the last two pieces of pepperoni. I didn't think it was a big deal, so when I ordered, I got two pepperoni too," remembers Barnett.
This triggered the cashier's "smart ass" instinct.
"He said, 'What do you want me to do, pull them out of my ass?' " Barnett, livid, told the cashier he didn't appreciate the snark. "It is a pizza place. You can make more, can't you?"
Voices were raised, threats were made. Barnett took off. "I think if I saw the guy on the street somewhere I'd hurt him," he says, eyes looking left and upward in remembrance. "He had no reason to get so pissy with me."
And pissy's the thing. It's a question of delivery. Where John at Bibas might be able to get away with saying something like this (or worse) because of his good nature, generally, such a line, delivered with a scowl, is meant as it's implied.
Late Nite Pie manager John Allen agrees that, given the right set of circumstances, he and the staff might come off as brash.
"You might get a smart-ass remark if you play 'Freebird' on the jukebox," he says. Such affronts aren't to be taken personally. "The atmosphere of the restaurant is, it's a late-night place. You deal with a lot of drunks. You have to have a bartender's mentality more so than a waiter's mentality most of the time."
And sometimes bartenders, not working with customers with all their faculties, can be, say, direct.
"Yeah, a little bit. You don't give shitty service to people on purpose, but when drunk people come in, you can play with them. Also, we run the place on a skeleton crew. It gets pretty hectic. In a few minutes I'll be here by myself to make pizzas, answer phones, bus tables," Allen says, sounding surprisingly at ease. "I don't mind it; it makes the time go faster."
And with that, Allen must hang up to answer the other line he's been ignoring.
Giving some helpless sap something they didn't order, pushing them hurriedly through a line, refusing to refill their drinks lest they become overcaffeinated, these are not the images that dance about in people's heads when they think of Southern hospitality or food service in the fourth-largest city in the United States.
So, why? Why do Houstonians go back to these places again and again, while eating meals they didn't order, risking scorn or, worse, humiliation?
"Well, the obvious answer is the food is probably pretty good," says Dr. Doug Osman, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, cracking a half smile. "But, I suppose I could get into some psychobabble."
"It goes without saying that it depends on the person," Dr. Doug begins, taking a long breath. "But some people have poor self-esteem."
Whoa, that's some hefty stuff. Is that what we're talking about here?
"Those people will endure poor treatment because they think that's what they deserve," the doc continues, undaunted.
"Other people, though, may be following or reliving patterns in their lives. For instance, someone who had a verbally abusive or uncaring parent will continually find themselves in relationships where that dynamic is replayed over and over again," Dr. Doug says.
"But, barring all that, it's just that people like to be in on something together. Ultimately, a place like this can bring people together. It can be a bonding experience."
It's a point worth exploring, and one that may explain why Doozo, for example, has convinced so many people dining at the food court of Houston Center that their rubbery, lukewarm dumplings are worth waiting in line for while employees for the Great American Cookie Company next door twiddle their collective thumbs.
At Doozo you are part of the experience.
Lunch with friends at Bibas isn't just lunch, it's theater. John's tableside manner might fall flat with a group of middle-aged women on their first trip, but get past it, and it becomes something they look forward to. It's an inside joke they're all in on. John's crass behavior, the kind he puts on display for everyone, becomes the "things he says to me and my friends." In short, it makes them feel special.
"Think of most of the places to get cheese steaks in Philly," Dr. Doug implores. "All of these places are known to have people working there that do not have the patience or desire to have customers deliberate over what they want. I know I take visitors there. It's fun."
And that, ultimately, is the rub. No one wants to be treated poorly. Okay, no one with healthy self-esteem without uncaring or verbally abusive parents wants to be treated badly. You want to enjoy yourself. Soup Nazis, old grouchy know-it-all waiters, they help you to in a way that, while maybe slightly askew, is self-affirming.
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