CFS and a Cigarette
Inside City Cafe, it's like time itself has paused for a cigarette break and a cup of black coffee. Check out our slideshow of the little spot's charming kitchen.
Inside City Cafe, it's like time itself has paused for a cigarette break and a cup of black coffee. Here in the City of South Houston, a few short blocks away from Pasadena, smoking is still allowed at the long, diner-style counter (although, as a stern black sign points out, there's no cigar smoking allowed in here). Patrons take their chicken-fried steak and eggs in the morning with a red pack of Marlboro 100s, lined up in a row as they catch up with each other in the familiar rhythms that only regulars in small-town cafes possess.
Outside, a white sign with red lettering and blue-and-white spindles tells drivers on this stretch of College Avenue that City Cafe has been here serving those same hearty breakfasts "Since 1952." The sign is a beautiful, now infrequently seen example of the space-age Googie design style which once permeated the city, an offshoot of the mid-century modern design aesthetic that helped shape cities like Houston which were booming in the 1950s and 1960s. The most common forms of Googie architecture were the small businesses that kept boomers fed and sheltered: roadside motels, coffee shops and little restaurants just like City Cafe.
On a recent Saturday morning, that's where I found myself along with a friend, catching up over a breakfast that was nearly too large for the funny little two-man booth we'd sat down in. Because it seemed like the thing to do, we ordered the chicken-fried steak and eggs that everyone else around us was eating, along with a standard Texas breakfast platter of two eggs overeasy, bacon, hashbrowns and a biscuit with a side of grits.
While we waited for the food to come out, I tried to explain the grits scene in My Cousin Vinny to my friend, the one in which Joe Pesci's carpetbagger of a character encounters grits for the very first time in an Alabama town. City Cafe reminds me very much of the type of cafe which the screenwriters must have had in mind while writing that scene, a soulfully no-nonsense establishment where the food is equally straightforward and blessedly simple.
The grits arrived in a plastic, cafeteria-style bowl veritably drenched in butter. I removed half the pat and stirred the rest in, pleasantly surprised to find them smooth and fine. They gave a bit of resistance to the spoon as I mixed in a bit of salt and pepper, a good sign that means the breakfast cereal has been cooked long enough and rendered creamy instead of runny and gritty. And creamy they were, each buttery bite a tribute to the half-century of cooking that's gone on in the red-and-beige-tiled restaurant.
But if the grits were fine stuff, they were only a gateway to the array of excellent breakfast food that lay ahead.
Here at City Cafe, the chicken-fried steak comes with cream gravy on top. This is not necessarily the Texas way — gravy is ideally served on the side — but that's because City Cafe isn't necessarily Texan itself. Like many of the city's finest diners — Harry's, One's a Meal, the original Bibas and Avenue Grill among them — it was founded by Greek immigrants.
John Karras, the original owner, opened City Cafe along with his wife Aliki after emigrating to Houston from Skalochori, a rural village on the Greek island of Lesbos. He operated it until his death just before Christmas in 2003. His obituary in the Houston Chronicle a few days later described City Cafe as "the center of political, financial, and worldly debates and decisions." It still seems to be for the City of South Houston, where the customers are all still on a first-name basis with each other and the staff, many of whom have been at City Cafe for decades.
Karras's Greek influence is still felt in certain sections of the menu — there is a large gyro sandwich for sale here, as well as the cutely named "My Big Fat Greek Salad" — and even in certain dishes, like greens from the steam table at lunch which have a distinctly tart flavor to them that tastes of sumac.
But the rest of the food is done up in classic Texas diner style, with prodigious pats of butter atop half the dishes and peppery avalanches of cream gravy atop the other half. The chicken-fried steak itself is peppery, too — a surprise that answered any questions I may have initially had about whether it was homemade or not. That slightly spicy crust clings tightly to the pounded steak underneath, another sign that this isn't a prefabbed CFS.
Neither are the admirable hashbrowns, which are of that wispy, finely shaved variety that soak up ketchup, egg yolks, Tabasco sauce or whatever else you throw at them. In my case, it's all three, which means I'm a stickler for overeasy eggs: The yolks need to be runny, but never the whites. At City Cafe, both my overeasy eggs and my friend's scrambled eggs were fried up perfectly. Ditto the crispy bacon, which had just the right tinge of fatty softness at its curling ends.
After we polished off our eggs, a malted waffle remained on the table, ordered before we'd realized just how much food was headed our way. Neither of us was hungry for it after the amount of food we'd just consumed, but I gamely took a bite. And then I took five more. If you've never had a waffle made from Carbon's Golden Malted waffle flour, imagine it as the waffle equivalent of Ovaltine: rich, toasty, barely sweet and tasting of pure nostalgia. I'd forgotten how good a malted waffle could taste. After all, it's a rare thing to run across them in the city anymore.
In 1980, City Cafe added on an extension, which now functions as the restaurant's large nonsmoking section. The idea of a smoking section alone sets me back a few good years, just as those waffles do. And although it's inviting — sunny windows and brightly festooned walls decorated with memorabilia from nearby South Houston High School and various Little League teams — it's really the smoking side that keeps drawing me back in.
It's not for the cigarette smoke, as I'm not a smoker myself. It's for the feel of it, the way that the bolted-down stools at the diner counter have years of accumulated scuff marks along the bottom and the way that the linoleum beneath each one is worn away. It's also the side of the house that holds the steam table, where you can get a tremendous lunch for only $6.95 each day.
The prices here are correspondingly nostalgic, it seems, because I'd absolutely expect to pay more than $7 and some change for the portions of home-cooked food off City Cafe's steam table. The chicken and dumplings alone are worth the $7 price tag, served up in a huge bowl that's brimming with strips of rough-cut dough, rugged hunks of both white and dark meat chicken and a creamy broth spiced with rosemary and thyme.
But along with it for lunch I'd also gotten a bowl of those sour-tasting greens and one of some aggressively orange macaroni and cheese. The greens did end up being too bitter for my taste, even doctored up with some salt. But although I was prepared to dislike the mac 'n' cheese as well — for its garish color alone — I was surprised by its mild, creamy texture and sharp taste, which was very much like plain old Cheddar cheese.
"Do you think those came from a box?" asked my lunch companion.
"Probably, but I don't care," came my quick response.
His Reuben sandwich was spilling out a Thousand Island dressing that was equally garish in color, another blindingly orange hue. But as with the macaroni and cheese, we were both surprised at how good it tasted. Much of this was a tribute to its filling of corned beef, which was cut in the same thick and rugged style as those dumplings. And unlike many Reuben sandwiches seen at Houston delis, this one was manageable enough to eat without removing any of the salty meat inside. Even the long, twiggy French fries — clearly cut straight from the potato, with no sugary or starchy coating to make them unnaturally crisp — were better than expected, leaving me to wonder why this place flies so far under many Houstonians' radars.
But if City Cafe flies under the radar in Houston proper, it certainly doesn't in South Houston. And that's really all that matters, as it's clear that its regulars hold the place as dear to them as their own kitchens and dining rooms at home. I told my friend over lunch that day of the sight I'd seen during breakfast the Saturday before: two middle-aged women, both Reliant Park employees, who got up and led a cheer for the upcoming Texans playoff game in front of the entire restaurant while dressed in full Texans regalia.
The entire restaurant — a sea of red and blue in Texans jerseys of their own — cheered along with them.
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