Court Food

When I have business downtown and desire to feel truly urban, I repair to one of the naugahyde-and-chrome stools outside La Palapa, the muddy-pink taco stand opposite the civil courthouse. From this unglamorous perch, I can observe the downtown dance and reassure myself that Tex-Mex food is, after all, the glue that binds us Texans together.

Here on the 1100 block of Preston, traffic rumbles, car alarms bleat, a dreadlocked parking attendant deconstructs the latest Rockets game, and the humble breakfast taco -- Texas' quintessential street food -- tastes better than it has any right to. My fave is La Palapa's excessive Super Taco, a $1.69 testament to the axiom that magic is worked when you wrap stuff in a flour tortilla and add suitable quantities of hot sauce. The bacon is crisp. The eggs are, well, scrambled. The cheese is a herd of cheddar squiggles. The beans are basic. The potatoes are irredeemably pale. The hot sauce, served forth in a styrofoam cup, is serious.

It is no better than a thousand other breakfast tacos, but somehow -- with grave live oaks and the desperate life of the courthouse unfolding around me -- I always convince myself that it is. I don't fool myself that La Palapa's coffee is anything other than a convenient source of caffeine. Or that the chicken fajitas featured on some of the more eccentric breakfast items are anything other than hopeless. But the beef fajitas have a primitive, briskety charm; layered with eggs and cheese, they are a doctor's nightmare -- and good ritual fortification for a legal skirmish or a session in the documents warehouse.

The larger truth is that it makes me unaccountably happy to sit at this raffish counter, where a rudimentary awning and furtive breezes temper the morning heat, and where Houstonians in rich variety come and go. At 11 a.m., the breakfast-taco witching hour, the courthouse lunch crowd that swears by La Palapa's burgers moves in, and the choice eavesdropping grows even choicer. Then I give the sunny guy who works the counter a ten-dollar bill by mistake. "Hey!" he chides. "You gave me too much!" Instantly life seems sweeter, tacos more crucial, and the city -- for the moment -- a fine and admirable place.

-- Alison Cook

La Palapa, 1110 Preston, 228-9620.

La Palapa:

Super Taco, $1.69


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