The eggs over easy at Lankford Grocery and Market are cooked slowly so they stay tender; the yolks are perfect, not too runny and not a bit hard. The patty-style sausage is a little spicy and a touch sweet. I cut the brown edges and crisp corners of the home fries with a fork. I mop up the yolks with the homemade fried potatoes, creating a nostalgic mélange of tender eggs-over-easy flavors. I don't get all emotional over fried eggs very often. But this is exactly the way the breakfasts of my childhood used to taste.
Lankford is the homiest restaurant in the city. I stopped by for breakfast one Saturday morning about a week before Easter; owner Eydie Prior had decorated the place with eggs and bunnies. I counted 20 bunnies hanging from the ceiling, perching on shelves and sitting on tables. The Price Is Right was blaring from the television set over the bar, while Sesame Street was showing in the kitchen. Eydie's granddaughter Sydney was commuting between the two programs. Sydney's mother and Eydie's daughter-in-law, Jessica, is the waitstaff at Lankford's.
Lankford's really was a grocery when Eydie's parents opened it in 1939, and she grew up in the house next door. But the hamburgers were the thing that really caught on, and so, in 1977 Eydie converted the place into a restaurant. The dining room seems located in what was once a garage. The smoking section comprises two picnic tables on a former driveway now resplendent with orange marigolds growing out of coffee cans.
Lankford Grocery and Market
88 Dennis Street
(713)522-9555. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Breakfast: 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Three eggs with sausage and home fries: $4
Breakfast tacos: $1.50
Every couple of months Eydie goes on a seasonal decorating binge. Spring is the motif on this visit. Garlands of sunflowers are hung from the rafters, and the vinyl tablecloths feature the word "spring" in a floral pattern of festive colors. On every table there is a six-pack beer carton posing as a condiment holder: Each holds a bottle of hot sauce, a bottle of ketchup and two seven-ounce Corona bottles filled with salt and pepper; this month the two empty spaces contain vases filled with fabric sunflowers.
The television over the bar is tuned to a particularly annoying cartoon on the Nick Jr. network, although Sydney is nowhere in sight. The restaurant's patrons, an eccentric bunch of Montrose types in sandals, shorts and baseball caps, seem right at home with the preschool programming. In fact, one guy at the bar, who looks hungover, is actually staring at the tube slack-jawed while drinking coffee.
When I was in high school, breakfast was the first of the "three square meals a day," just as important as lunch or dinner. Mom would rise before 6 a.m. and cook, so she could send me and my five brothers off to school with a proper stick-to-the-ribs meal of fruit juice, eggs, meats, homemade potatoes or grits, and toast or English muffins. In those days, such fare was considered the healthiest of breakfasts.
This continued to be my breakfast of choice in college, but it was then that I realized all fried eggs were not created equal. The short-order eggs I encountered in the average diner had rubbery whites and yolks that were hard on the bottom, with a pervasive aroma of cheap cooking oil. You have to cook eggs slowly, my mom explained. "And you have to cook them in butter."
That was a long time ago. By the 1980s when my mom and dad retired to Florida, eggs and butter had fallen out of favor. Doctors, nutritionists and fad-diet divas targeted cholesterol as the primary problem with our diets. Low-fat and fiber-rich foods came into vogue. My mom's idea of a healthy breakfast changed from bacon and eggs to a bran muffin with chunks of cantaloupe. I endured this high-carbohydrate, low-protein regimen along with everybody else, thinking it was doing me good.
But not anymore. In the last few months I have once again been eating fried eggs and sausage, bacon or country ham, with glorious abandon. And with butter. While rediscovering the joys of eggs, I've also been auditioning some of Houston's fabulously eccentric restaurants for the new role of breakfast hangout.
The sign in the parking lot of Telwink Grill [4318 Telephone Road, (713)644-4933] says, "Best Breakfast in Texas." A 350-pound guy with a white beard and a Peterbilt cap occupies the first booth, confirming at a glance that this is indeed a truck stop. On a rainy Saturday morning, it is also packed. Co-owner and hostess Peggy Bokos leads those waiting on a table in spirited rounds of "Row Your Boat" between tirades exhorting table-squatters to pay up and leave.
"Can you believe those people are just sitting there reading the newspaper while there are babies waiting in line for breakfast?" she yells to the room.
The waitress asks for my order before I get a menu. "Chicken-fried steak and eggs," I blurt, not wanting to break the tempo. Peggy salutes a group of soldiers in camouflage coming in the front door. I wonder if she has called in the marines to depose the newspaper readers. The biscuits are hot, the hash browns real, and the chicken-fried steak decent. But the eggs are cooked too fast. Still, it's a hell of a floor show and a great place to eat breakfast if you're in a hurry.
The leisurely pace at Aunt Bea's [5422 North Freeway, (713)692-9221] is much more to my liking. The smoking section is decorated with portraits of chickens and a deer head festooned with plastic leis and a straw sombrero. I don't smoke, but the nonsmoking section is a dreary windowless room with fluorescent lighting. In the more spirited smokers' area, I count 18 people at ten on Saturday morning -- four women and 14 men -- three sporting straw cowboy hats in various states of disrepair, four with gimme caps and one with a large Confederate flag tattooed across his right arm. I am by far the youngest person eating.
My chicken-fried steak comes to the table with cream gravy already applied. The thick white gravy has an oddly gelatinous quality that makes it look a little like sour cream. The hash browns are shredded and browned until crunchy; the waitress assures me they are made from scratch, not frozen. The excellent chicken-fried steak appears to have been hand-breaded, but the average eggs lack character. All in all, though, it's a good breakfast.
"Where's Aunt Bea?" I ask the dark-haired man behind the cash register.
"I'm Aunt Bea," he says taking my money.
A guy walking out the door at the same time laughs and says, "Bye, Aunt Bea!"
"I don't know where they got the name Aunt Bea's -- probably from The Andy Griffith Show. Demetrius is the owner. He's Greek," the cashier says. "I've been eating breakfast here every day for 20 years."
I'm afraid to turn off Nick Jr. -- the guy at the bar is still engrossed. I'm also not sure which of Eydie's breakfasts I like the best. The eggs are awesome, but so are the chilaquiles. Eydie layers tortilla strips with green chile sauce and onions and then melts cheese over the top. And in the final stroke of genius, she covers her chilaquiles with fluffy scrambled eggs. The chile sauce is a real wake-up call, but the eggs are what grab my attention -- the large folds, the soft, moist texture. Yep, they're just like Mom's.
It was Mom who jump-started me on this eggs-for-breakfast binge. She threw me this curveball when my daughters and I went down to Florida to visit her for spring break. "My doctor said my cholesterol is fine, but my blood sugar is too high," she told me. "He said to cut down on the carbohydrates. So now I eat eggs for breakfast instead of cereals and muffins, and lean meats and vegetables instead of pasta for dinner."
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Wait a minute -- what happened here? With one whisk of the magic medical wand, oat bran is suddenly bad and eggs are good?
Well, no, it's not that simple. Maybe the lesson here is that nutrition is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. There are a lot of people, like my mother, who have no history of heart disease or high cholesterol, but who do have problems maintaining their blood sugar. For people with this kind of metabolism, "heart-healthy" diets are not necessarily the best idea.
Which is probably why the Atkins diet, the Zone diet and other such radical departures from the low-fat orthodoxy have recently gained ground in the United States. My mother's doctor didn't recommend anything as extreme as the Atkins diet. But he did encourage her to move in that direction. Although she exercises several hours every day and is not overweight, she now eats more red meat, fats and eggs, while avoiding pasta, bran muffins and granola in order to control her blood sugar.
Mom's new diet has inspired me to reconsider what constitutes health food. I don't think of a trip to the bakery as a healthy breakfast anymore. Which is okay, because I never did like bran muffins. I don't like the atmosphere at bakeries either. Early in the morning, I don't need a lot of smiley-face banter and tough questions like "Cream or sugar?" And I don't get any from grandma-at-large Eydie Prior. At her place, the coffee comes without discussion, the worn-out Naugahyde booths fit you like an old pair of slippers, and the eggs taste like Mom's.