Freedom from Choice
Given the overwhelming number of menu options at most restaurants -- options that can, paradoxically, cause a control freak like me to mix and match dishes, creating even more options -- I have slowly come to the conclusion that I am better off without choices. I first discovered this culinary liberation at luncheons and awards banquets, where I was usually quite pleased with the meal placed before me. I have decided that if someone cooked for me every day, offering no choices, I would by and large be as happy as a clam. Heck, I'd even eat clams.
But the theory still needed more research, so I tested it again at La Bella Cucina's Food Filling Station, an odd little Heights eatery that offers a limited, lunch-only menu that changes every day. (In September, it will open for dinner, but it will be BYOB.) Besides being a friendly neighborhood cafe, the place is a monument to folk art, designed by chef-owner Veronica Bagnato. Housed in a vintage gas station, the Food Filling Station is surrounded with wrought-iron fencing interspersed with wine bottles overturned in cement. Authentic gas pumps stand at attention, and collectibles -- antique toys, plaster chickens, a ceramic Big Boy -- accessorize this former dispenser of Houston's other kind of fuel. In keeping with the modest folk-art theme, the place boasts only one hot entrée and one hot sandwich a day, which complement a few cold cuts.
Like the island inhabitants of Survivor, I went through many emotions during my weeklong experiment in full-menu deprivation. One of those emotions was extreme aggravation -- not at the food but at the heat and humidity of a Houston summer. The friendly cafe has only outdoor seating, which will be great come October, but for now, in the middle of summer, it is miserable. And no number of colorful ceiling fans can change that.
Still, I came out of the trial somewhat liberated from my need to control what I eat. Over a period of time, Bagnato, who also owns La Bella Cucina Cooking School and Restaurant, served many dishes that were good, some bordering on great. But even in the best-case scenario, you may not find that favorite item again for quite some time.
Despite prominent menu placement, I never did see such phantom plates as stuffed pork chops finished with sweet vermouth, whole Cornish hen with a raisin-and-rice stuffing, or a chicken breast stuffed with spinach and finished with apricot sauce (each $7). I did, however, stumble upon an excellent pasta plate ($7) of two large manicotti shells stuffed with a better-than-usual ricotta blend and placed atop pureed, herbed sweet potatoes. The manicotti was also served with two petite veal roulades, a generous portion of marinated grilled vegetables and a side salad with an exceptional olive oil house dressing.
The worse-case scenario is almost too frightening to contemplate: You could be stuck with something much less appealing than the pasta plate and be left with nowhere to turn. It's a little like dropping in on your parents at dinnertime. When it's roast beef night, you're in luck. But when it's hash, well
True to form, I had a corned beef and sauerkraut plate ($7), the only hot item available that day, which I definitely could have lived without. I'm sure disciples of the dish would love the melt-in-your-mouth brisket, but to me that vinegary flavor was not meant for meat.
But like at home when you didn't care for the main meal, you can fall back on sweets at the Food Filling Station too. Besides a few upscale pastries, Bagnato offers homemade cookies ($1.50) and slices of pie ($2.65). I usually dismiss apple pie as mundane, but this version of the American standard was packed with thick fruit slices, studded with cinnamon and wrapped in a buttery, flaky crust. You can also find rosemary biscuits and scones every morning, but when they're gone, they're gone. The menu also touts strudel, muffins and even baked Brie, but I never saw those items. I did, however, see the disclaimer that read: "Everything is not available every day. So PLEASE call and see what order is up." This is some good advice.
In reality, the Food Filling Station is a sandwich shop. Seeing the ambitious menu of gourmet plates, I wanted to believe it was a casual hideaway serving upscale cuisine at unbelievably low prices. And maybe that's what Bagnato had in mind when she opened the place last February. But something tells me it has evolved into a simple sandwich shop, an evolution helped along by loyal lunchers looking for the one thing they can count on, day in and day out: ham, turkey and the occasional tuna salad sandwiches and a great, great hot dog ($3.50 each). They're best washed down with Hank's Philadelphia Birch Beer, Root Beer and Vanilla Cream Soda ($1.50 each), and they can be ordered as a lunch box ($5) with a refreshingly light pasta salad and a cookie.
But at the end of the day, a sandwich is a sandwich, with only a couple of exceptions. The menu boasted a "soft and gooey" Monte Cristo ($3.50), the mere thought of which tickled me. I couldn't help but wonder how it came to be. Did someone really think a sandwich with two or three types of processed meats and cheeses didn't have enough fat? Did someone really think, "Hey, let's deep-fry it!"
After I asked her about it every day, Bagnato finally made one. This version wasn't the heart-attack-on-a-bun I first suspected: The bread was dipped in an egg wash and seared before being stuffed with mortadella, salami and mozzarella cheese. Then it was baked, not fried. It was gooey, all right, but it was good. Also inviting was the fried fish sandwich ($3.50), made with a potato-encrusted cod fillet. Sometimes, and I emphasize sometimes, it came with a marinara, which also occasionally topped a meatball or Italian sausage sandwich (both $3.50).
You have to be something of a gambler to eat blindly at the Food Filling Station. You show up, you take your chances on what hot sandwich or hot plate is available. In the future, once Bagnato has used up her first 1,000 printed menus, she promises to design a more predictable slate of lunch specials. Until then, if what's on the stove doesn't suit you, lower your expectations, settle for a good sandwich and be grateful for what you've got.
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