Lady Bird's Lunch

One day a couple of years back, I walked into the shedlike Long Row Building down at Sam Houston Park, craving one of the definitive egg salad sandwiches that the resident Heritage Society volunteers had long dispensed. They were blissfully uncommercial, these sandwiches: laced with black pepper and tiny bits of real bacon, housed on the Heritage ladies' glorious honey-wheat bread. I would cheerfully have elbowed old folks and children aside for one -- and for a piece of the lunchroom's opulent chocolate-chocolate-chip cake, neatly wrapped in Saran.

But on this traumatic day, the sweet, somewhat dithery volunteers had vanished; in their place were faces from Melange Catering, which had taken over the operation. No sooner had my eye fallen on blackboard references to "Brie" and "pasta" than I fled, never to return.

Until now. Extended business downtown recently drove me, as it does so many beleaguered souls, on a quest for decent lunchtime eats in a setting that does not resemble the battle of Gettysburg. Once I got over my prejudicial nostalgia, I realized that Melange at the Heritage Society is still a good downtown bet -- albeit in a different way, and provided you're not scared off by a menu item dubbed the "Mayor's Special," a lovely combination of low-fat cottage cheese and fruit salad that I sincerely hope has never passed Bob Lanier's lips.

Under the Melange regime, presentation is slicker, the food more modern (snow-pea salad, anyone?). The sandwiches certainly aren't what they used to be: the bread is ordinary, and the proportions are skewed by ungainly mountains of filling. Nowadays, the egg salad and pimento cheese are seasoned with far less authority; perhaps in compensation, both sandwiches sport way too many strips of lily-gilding bacon.

There's even too much bacon in an otherwise pleasant BLT with avocado. But if you ask for it toasted and discard the excess bacon, you wind up with a classic. A layer of chilled, pale tomatoes fights with the warm, sauteed peppers in the vegetarian sandwich; kick out the cold tomatoes, though, and the peppers get along fine with avocado, Swiss cheese and sprouts.

The real draw, however, is salads of both the green and vintage-tearoom persuasions. A tart, snappy Caesar with lots of Parmesan and hand-hewn croutons is deeply satisfying. And the salad trio is exactly the sort of lunch I can imagine eating in the company of Lady Bird Johnson. We'd sit out on the charming brick terrace, with roses and live oaks for a backdrop, the Greek Revival pillars of the 1850 Nichols-Rice-Cherry House on one side, the stone-and-glass cliff of Heritage Plaza rising to its Toltec-temple summit on the other. We'd tell each other that there was just enough vinegar in the pretty pasta primavera; that the scallion-flavored chicken salad was light and simple but not quite as good as the one we had at so-and-so's house; that the fresh fruit salad with its tangy poppy-seed dressing was the absolute essence of Southernness. We'd sip blackberry-flavored iced tea, listening to grackles and traffic.

Afterward, I'd insist that Lady Bird check out the eccentric display of women's 20th-century footgear at either end of the long, whitewashed lunchroom. Maybe I'd recommend one of the big, crisp butter-pecan cookies, warning her that the gooey lemon bars were awfully, awfully sweet. We'd eavesdrop on the two construction guys talking city hall contracts and the tableful of docents discussing their dogs. Finally, reluctantly, we'd head back out into a universe of concrete, the lunchroom's elderly floorboards squeaking beneath our feet.

-- Alison Cook

Melange at the Heritage Society, 1100 Bagby, 655-8514.

Melange at the Heritage Society:
Salad trio, $6.75;

Caesar salad, $2.75.


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