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."
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.
On getting your own crew together:
Starting a tailgate group in Houston is easy because the Texans very much encourage tailgating. In some cities, there are very few spots around stadiums, and some teams ban real tailgating. For the Texans, you need at least one parking pass, or, as my tailgate calls it, a lone spot. You can make your tailgate as basic or as elaborate as you want. I've done it both ways and have learned that tailgating is much more about the company than it is the setup.
The Texans have their tailgating guidelines on their Web site, and they are among the most friendly ones in the NFL. The Texans have been ranked as some of the best tailgating in the league.
On thinking ahead when naming your lots as a sports team:
The Texans started the Platinum Lot as a reserved lot in front of the Blue Lot. (Originally it was going to be called Silver, but Blue next to Silver was way too Cowboy-ish.)
On the importance of planning and packing essentials:
Typically, before game day, we send out e-mails to the main people in our group figuring out what the menu is going to be and who is going to bring what. Sometimes we have theme menus, like fried turkey before a Thanksgiving game or gumbo before a Saints game. We show up early, set up the pop-up tents (essential for Texas blacktop tailgating), grill, trash bags, chairs and music and just have a party. The guys that bring the big items actually put together a spreadsheet checklist of the things they need to pack each game.
On beer for breakfast, Johnny Cash-style:
I've found that with all the Texans noon starts, you get pretty accustomed to early morning beer and BBQ.
On being a "tailgate nomad" and how to make friends on game days:
A lot of folks don't have a tailgate. I started out not having a home one. Usually, if you are decked out in a Texans jersey and bring your own beverages, there's plenty of welcoming public tailgates near the front of lots. Texans tailgating tends to be fairly neighborly. A good place to find particularly welcoming tailgates near your particular lot is to go to the TexansTalk.com Tailgating sub-forum. (It's also a good place to go if you want to meet up with Texans fans going to road games.)
On making the kind of guacamole that's so good, it'll elicit a Pavlovian response:
This is Josh Hudson's Guacamole Recipe. It's a total dude recipe. He always brings it to the tailgate, and now I associate home games with fresh guac:
• 2 small vine-ripened tomatoes — diced and drained
• 1 small red onion — diced
• 1 bunch cilantro — diced
• 1 fresh jalapeño — seeded and diced
• 2 ripe large Haas avocados
• 1 packet extra-spicy guacamole mix
• 1 lime
Make pico de gallo by combining diced tomatoes, onion, cilantro and jalapeño and set aside. Cut avocados in half, remove pit and fruit and place into a medium-size mixing bowl. Squeeze juice of lime, just enough to prevent browning. Mash avocados with a large fork or potato-mashing utensil. Stir in guacamole mix. Mix in pico de gallo with a ratio of 3 to 2 avocado to pico. Stir well to combine into a smooth consistency. Add additional lime juice to taste and for additional preservation. Katharine Shilcutt
A Sparkling Gem
Asia Society Texas Center's Jade Stone Cafe.
As far as food is concerned, things really are looking up in the Museum District. Since I moved here in 2009, we've seen the Fine Art + Food Trucks exhibit open at MFAH, giving Museum District workers and employees a daily food-truck option; Green Seed Vegan opened its doors just down the road at Almeda and Wheeler; the Pinewood Cafe opened in Hermann Park, delivering fresh wraps and decadent grilled cheese sandwiches. I'm pleased to add another delicious, if offbeat, suggestion to the list of dining spots in the Museum District: the Jade Stone Cafe at the Asia Society Texas Center.
I knew it had a small cafe and, needing a quiet place to read, thought I would finally check it out. The building is absolutely gorgeous from the outside, and I couldn't wait to get a peek at the interior.
When I walked inside, I was greeted by almost complete silence, but it was peaceful and relaxing rather than unwelcoming and cold. After a brief visit to the front desk to pick up information on the museum and its exhibits, I went right over to the cafe — which is just inside the entrance — to grab lunch and work on finishing At Home by Bill Bryson. (I'm a fast reader, but I always seem to have 30 pages to go, no matter how much more I read.)
The menu is simple: soups, sandwiches, salads, and some cookies and cakes to satisfy your sweet tooth. The dining area is similarly streamlined, with just ten four-tops (but with white tablecloths, a nice touch) and a single person manning the counter. I chose a soup-and-sandwich combo: half a veggie sandwich on wheat with lemon artichoke soup. I sat down at a table, and my meal arrived in less than five minutes.
The veggie sandwich was served on a really gorgeous wheat bread, fluffy but still chewy with whole grains. Piled in between the bread were sprouts, mushrooms, sun-dried tomato pesto, avocado slices and lettuce. As you can see in the photo, a side of chips and Asian slaw come along for the ride. The slaw was a nice treat, well-seasoned with that great sesame oil flavor, and the carrots and cabbage still had a nice crunch through the marinade.
But the soup. Oh my God, the soup. The soup was, in a word, outstanding. I wanted more. I wanted a gallon to take home and eat all day. I didn't expect the lemon artichoke soup to come out creamy — I had envisioned a light, lemony broth with artichokes and maybe orzo — but my disappointment dissipated in an instant as soon as I tasted it. Rich but somehow still so light, and the lemon added an incredible brightness without being tart. The texture was silky, and I seriously considered licking the small paper cup the soup came in when my spoon finally hit the bottom.
This was a true treat. I can't wait to go back and try a salad. But I assure you, I'll never return without ordering soup. Christina Uticone
First Look at Cuchara.
There are no chips and salsa delivered to your table at Cuchara. There are no enchiladas or quesadillas on the menu, although there are margaritas and mole. That's because Cuchara isn't your run-of-the-mill Tex-Mex restaurant. Like fellow new kid La Fisheria and warhorse Hugo's, this is Mexican food of the most interesting sort.
The food served at Cuchara is not purely Mexican, but rather a modern interpretation of the country's native cuisine, especially the cuisine found in the coastal state of Veracruz. And although the restaurant just recently opened, the service and food were already remarkably up to par when I dropped in one Tuesday night for a quick dinner before flying out to D.C. in the morning. (What good Texan doesn't want Mexican or Tex-Mex as her final meal before spending a few days in another city?)
In fact, the only problem I foresee with Cuchara is in its choice of name. I have lost track of how many people have parroted back "Cucaracha?" to me in a quizzical, incredulous voice. This being Houston, cucaracha is a far more common term here than soundalike cuchara, which means "spoon" in Spanish, and it's just way too easy to get the two words confused. Sorry, guys.
On the bright side, Cuchara looks as though it's going to be a very welcome addition to the corner of Fairview and Taft in Montrose — a corner which already houses popular neighborhood spots like Ziggy's and Boheme — and should do quite as well in the walkable area as another neighborhood restaurant like Barnaby's or Tex-Chick just down the street.
I also imagine that Cuchara will do much more than walk-up business, though: Its menu is intriguing enough to draw diners from all over the city, diners who are eager to explore chef Adriana Avendaño's modern Mexican cuisine through such dishes as taquitos stuffed with fried hibiscus flowers and white cheese or huachinango a la Veracruzana with strikingly Creole flavors.
The huachinango (red snapper) was my favorite dish on that Tuesday night, although I am still hard-pressed to make that choice: Everything we had was good, and the kitchen is still too young to really make any judgment calls this early on.
But I can tell you that I expect great things out of Avendaño and her staff (which, judging from the open kitchen, seems to be an army of abuelitas making masa from scratch). I liked the format of the huachinango: Heavy on tomatoes, peppers and onions, the bright sauce was a natural pairing for the fat, fluffy fish.
That's a more traditional recipe, however — and Cuchara has plenty of nontraditional dishes to challenge your palate, from a chilled, silky avocado mousse soup that negates any need for guacamole to suflé de chicharrón — pork rind soufflé — which I didn't get to try but which I'm headed back for soon. I'm also eager to check out Cuchara's brunch, which is only on Sundays but adds a few more dishes than are normally available on the dinner menu, and adds a few more cocktails, too.
As Chronicle food critic Alison Cook mentioned recently, Cuchara's cocktail program is currently being overseen by Chris Frankel and Alex Gregg — both formerly of Anvil Bar & Refuge. The two men have created cocktails as interesting as Cuchara's food, like a nearly amber-colored margarita blended with Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao in place of Triple Sec and simple syrup made from dark brown panela in lieu of sugar. They're serving interesting industry favorites, too, such as a mescal-laced Division Bell with bitter Aperol and sweet Maraschino to balance it all out, a drink first made by Phil Ward of Mayahuel in New York City but which plays just as well to Houston audiences.
The cocktails and bar menu appear to be as much of a draw as the food so far, and it seems as though Cuchara planned it that way: The large, open dining room is split right down the middle, with dining tables on one side and the expansive, warm-toned bar (which has an almost Nordic, mid-century look to it) dominating the other.
Wherever you sit, though, you'll be anchored by the exuberant, Haring-esque murals of artist Cecilia Beaven, sister of co-owner Ana Beaven and Mexico-based muralist — art which keeps intact the tradition of murals inside Mexican restaurants while cheerfully turning that tradition on its ear. Look above you in the bar and you'll even see one suspended from the ceiling.
There's also a small lounge area, which will be instrumental in accommodating the overflow I imagine showing up en masse to Cuchara on weekend evenings. I hear there's already a wait, in fact. And one day soon for brunch, I'll be happily waiting for my next meal at Cuchara, too. Katharine Shilcutt
New locations for Pappa Geno's and the Great W'Kana.
The restaurant that Eater Houston called the most anticipated opening of the year is here, so anticipate no more: The Pass & Provisions had its soft opening last week and opened for business last weekend. No surprise there, as the two-in-one restaurant from Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan had its final Health Department inspection the week prior.
As a reminder: The Pass is the more upscale side of the restaurant, which is housed in the old Gravitas/Antone's space on Taft. It plans to offer nightly five- and eight-course tasting menus, while Provisions — the more casual side — will have pastas, pizzas and more low-key fare.
A text from an excited friend who attended last Wednesday's soft opening simply read: "OMG. THE BREAD AND CHEESE OPTIONS AT P&P ARE FUCKING LEGIT. It's a symphony of delicious love. And the CHAR on the PIZZA!"
If you've been to Pappa Geno's for Philly cheesesteaks and seen the rush-hour line at dinner, you'll understand why they're busy opening a second location. The new spot will be located at Bellaire and Mapleridge, smack dab in the heart of Bellaire, the restaurant confirmed last week. Prepare for another short wait, though: The opening is taking awhile — as most things do in Houston — while the owners deal with city permits and other fun red tape.
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Speaking of second locations...Good news for fans of the Great W'Kana Cafe in Stafford comes via Alison Cook, who Tweeted: "Great W'Kana Indian restaurant in Stafford Meadows will have a revamped menu in October and Great W'Kana's chef-owner, Sunil Srivastava, has leased a 2nd spot in the strip mall to open an Italian restaurant with a chef from Bombay." The Chronicle food critic continued: "No, it's not gonna be Indian/Italian fusion. Both Srivastiva and his Bombay appointee have cooked Italian for years. Handmade pastas."
The charming Post Office street in Galveston has another new tenant: Farley Girls Cafe (801 Post Office), which recently opened for lunch only during the week. According to the B4-U-Eat newsletter, the owners have their roots in both the Island and in the restaurant biz:
The "girls" are sisters Rosmond Thormahlen and Ryanne Duzich, who grew up in the business as their parents created Fish Tales and Fisherman's Wharf.
Finally, the first of the fall menus hit my inbox yesterday — and it's from Roost, so you know it's a daisy. Chef Kevin Naderi has a lineup of cool weather dishes waiting for fans, such as sweetbread "piccata" with cauliflower puree and veal jus or good, not-so-old-fashioned chicken 'n' dumplings with pot-pie ragout and gnocchi dumplings. Katharine Shilcutt