Eatsie Boys Go Brick-and-Mortar
See the colorful characters that run Eatsie Boys in our slideshow.
If someone distilled all that is modern Houston into a restaurant, it would serve dishes like matzoh ball pho and fried shrimp banh mi in a casual, counter-service cafe shaded by thick-trunked live oak trees and fronted by a river of traffic. It would be frequented by rappers and engineers, students and businessmen alike. It would sport an explosive mural by a local graffiti artist, sell local foods and host at least one prayer candle to La Virgen tucked in a corner somewhere even though the owners aren't Catholic or Mexican.
That place exists already, though. It's called Eatsie Boys, and it thoroughly and exuberantly embraces all that is young, vibrant, wonderful and weird about the Bayou City.
Across town, inside 99 Ranch Market, a bowl of pho filled with crawfish and andouille sausage is turning heads at LA Crawfish in a nod to the owners' Cajun and Vietnamese heritage. Here at Eatsie Boys, it's another kind of pho entirely. Plump, perfectly spherical balls of matzoh dough find a natural pairing in pho ga — chicken pho, as seen in Houston restaurants like Pho Ga Dakao — where the chicken-fatty lick of schmaltz in the fluffy balls echoes the rich chicken stock used to make the soup.
It's such a shockingly natural pairing, in fact, that one wonders how no one else conceived of this creation before chef Matt Marcus, whose own Jewish upbringing is on proud display with his cooking. As with the crawfish pho at LA Crawfish, the matzoh ball pho at Eatsie Boys is unique to this place — and to this time. Both dishes represent the progression of cuisine bending and blending and blurring that's taking place throughout Houston right now.
This mad, exhilarating rush of new food and new culinary talent cropping up every day is just one reason why living in the Bayou City has never been better. Outsiders seem to be taking notice, too.
The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau reports that while travel to Texas is up only 0.4 percent (that's not a typo), travel to Houston is up 21 percent. I like to think a lot of those travelers are choosing Houston because of our restaurants — in fact, food writer Hanna Raskin of the Seattle Weekly told me in November she specifically chose Houston for her birthday vacation because of our food scene — and Eatsie Boys is one of the first places I'd suggest they visit.
It's been nearly 365 days since Kraftsmen Bakery's Montrose location closed. In the interim, the Eatsie Boys crew has staked such a firm foothold in the old sandwich shop's renovated space that it's tough to remember a time without its bright, multihued umbrellas on the patio.
The old ivy-covered, brick-bound church that now houses the Freed-Montrose Library is one of the most beautiful spots in the city, set back from the flow of cars on Montrose Boulevard and protected by a canopy of trees. On one end of the complex, a large chess board complete with pieces sits outside The Black Labrador Pub. Above it, Cezanne hosts smoky jazz nights that cater to an elegant, older crowd. It's an awfully dignified setting for a restaurant named after Brooklyn rappers the Beastie Boys and once operated out of a graffiti-covered trailer.
That trailer — the original Eatsie Boys food truck — is still in use, although mostly for catering operations. The trio of men who started it in 2011 are keeping busy with other projects: Marcus, the CIA-trained chef who sharpened his knives at The Fat Duck and Cyrus (restaurants that have five Michelin stars between them), is found at the cafe most days.
Meanwhile, co-owners Ryan Soroka and Alex Vassilakidis are usually putting in time at 8th Wonder Brewery, the brand-new brewery in East Downtown that just launched its first line of ales in a small lineup of Houston bars and restaurants. There's also an ice cream line dubbed "Frozen Awesome" with flavors such as Shipley's Donut, which tastes exactly like Houston's most beloved glazed breakfast pastry.
Somewhere amid all of this, the Boys find time to cater everything from weddings to bar mitzvahs. They've also cultivated a loyal fan base that includes powerhouse Houston rapper Bun B, whose promotion of the Boys' food started back at a time when the little powder-blue trailer was filled with three men in cramped quarters, blasting Beastie Boys music from a set of speakers and serving up their own versions of Chinese bao and New York hot dogs.
Marcus smartly left some of those food-truck favorites on the menu, like the Pork Snuggies, which find soft, starchy buns folded in half over crispy-skinned pork bellies. Marcus's own "quick pickles" add an acidic bite to the bao, which is helped along with a smack of sugary hoisin sauce. The hot dogs are really chicken sausages sourced from a local purveyor — Marcus's own father, Al Marcus, whose Grateful Bread outfit has been a farmers'-market mainstay for years — tucked into a pretzel bun and topped with Grateful Bread's chardonnay mustard, dotted with pearls of whole-grain mustard seeds.
But the real charm at Eatsie Boys is to be found in its newer menu items — the ones that Marcus needed a real kitchen to cook — such as blistered shisito peppers served with a lip-lickingly good miso dipping sauce, or finely cooked, hand-cut french fries that are sculpted with such finesse as to be a dish unto themselves. (I recommend requesting that savory, earthy miso sauce in lieu of the ketchup that's served with the fries for an extra kick of salty flavor.)
Most important, the Eatsie Boys cafe has retained the casual appeal of its old food truck — something that's tough to capture when a mobile unit goes brick-and-mortar. This is purposeful and also very smart.
The sunshine-soaked space is inviting from morning until night, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can grab a quick lunch or linger over your laptop and latte. Basic dishes such as pancakes or turkey sandwiches are slightly elevated, but not to heights that are inaccessible for the average diner. Prices certainly reflect the high-quality ingredients and well-planned space but are never exorbitant. The cheerful counter service is quick and efficient. In short, although Eatsie Boys may be high-concept in some areas, the cafe takes all comers — and sends them away satisfied.
One of the few complaints I have about Eatsie Boys can't be solved by the Boys themselves, and it's the fact that you can't purchase their tasty beer at the cafe due to bizarre TABC laws. In fact, because the Eatsie Boys team also runs a brewery, the TABC dictates they will never be allowed to serve any kind of alcohol at any of their other establishments. How wonderful would the cafe be if you could enjoy all the fruits of the Eatsie Boys's labor under one roof?
Eatsie Boys does serve another local brew, however: coffee made with beans from local roaster Greenway Coffee. Roaster (and fellow cafe owner) David Buehrer set up the program here, and it's ably run day to day, turning out basic espressos and lattes. Other local food purveyors are supported, too; locally brewed kombucha is in the refrigerated drinks case, and Marcus's father sells a few of his Grateful Bread products like an addictive, garlicky Sriracha sauce that's found near the register alongside My Table magazine's handy travel guide, A Food Lover's Guide to Houston.
In the pastry case just a few feet away are sweets from La Guadalupana Bakery and Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar, whose updates on old favorites like Oreos, Moon Pies and Fluffernutters are a natural fit here. The best cookie in her rotation — the Couch Potato — is made just for the cafe and is a nod to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge stoner aesthetic that also permeates Eatsie Boys (and, indeed, many modern menus). After all, there's only one thing missing when you're sitting against a graffiti mural by a guy who calls himself "Skeez181" listening to Phish jam over the Eatsie Boys's updated stereo while you eat a cookie filled with potato chips, cornflakes, marshmallows and chocolate chips.
The few other complaints I have pale against the parade of food delivered by the cafe every day. The team is often slammed, and it shows in these first few opening months, when sandwiches arrive without their accompanying salads or breakfast is sold out by 9:30 a.m.
And occasionally I'll encounter a dish that doesn't quite hit the mark: A kale salad composed of both raw and tempura kale sounded excellent in theory, but the execution flew too close to the sun. Sheets of unmarinated, totally raw (the menu wasn't kidding) kale greens were inedible, while the piece of tempura-fried kale on top was delicious yet disappointing in context: It was the only part of the salad I could eat.
A "Namaste" sandwich filled with roasted cauliflower, clouds of whipped feta and house-pickled peppers was terrific — once I scraped it off the far-too-thick slices of brioche, whose buttery crumble completely masked the flavors within. These are minor quibbles, however, and ones that will ideally shake themselves out in time.
And these little flaws certainly don't erase the truly spectacular dishes I've had at Eatsie Boys: that matzoh ball pho or a doughy bagel-and-lox combo topped with house-cured salmon that boasts a slick, salty sheen, a dish that marks Eatsie Boys as only the third place in the entire city where you can enjoy that New York breakfast of champions as it's meant to be eaten.
Or my current favorite, a salad of baby asparagus over punchy arugula in a sunny Meyer lemon vinaigrette. The entire affair is topped with a creamy handful of stark white burrata and a single egg yolk. The salad tastes like everything fresh and new about spring, while that shock of white burrata is like walking out of a dark room into the sunlight, your eyes adjusting to the brightness as you feel warmth on your face and blink a few times to take it all in.
Nearly every visit to the Eatsie Boys feels this way, though. A new day is dawning in Houston. And that's a feeling worth capturing.
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