Houston's independent source of
local news and culture
So he doesn't wait to be asked. He chats up all his customers -- even the occasional goober wearing a Confederate-flag shirt -- and if you express an interest in wine, he'll ask about your dinner plans and tannin preferences. He steers newbies to Italian or Chilean "starter wines" and questions aficionados about their preferences. Do you prefer subtlety or youthfulness? Do you like your chardonnay creamy or citrusy-crisp? Do you want a hearty Burgundy, or do you gravitate toward mellower blends?
He speaks the lingo with such enthusiasm that you're surprised to hear he's a teetotaler -- and the son of teetotalers. He studies wine the same way he studies electrical engineering at UH-Downtown: as an academic subject, something he reads about. "I drank a bottle one time, and I threw up," he says. "I might swirl a wine, or smell it, but other than that, it's not me."
Five years ago he applied to work at Bert Wheeler's because he doesn't have a car. Six days a week, he walks to the store from his house. "It's not the greatest job in the world," he says, "and it certainly doesn't pay a hell of a lot. But it's like Dr. King said: If you're going to do a job, you should do it so well that nobody living or dead could do it better."
After school and work, Cooper kicks back with a book and a soda. Of course, for a cultivated palate, not just any soda will do. "Coke's too strong," he explains. "And A&W is too sweet. But Barq's! Oh, man, that Barq's!"
"When I moved to Houston in 1984 to open the restaurant, I couldn't believe how many people here ate tacos for breakfast," says Quijano. Losing breakfast business to the many taco stands in the Hispanic East End, Quijano decided to make a breakfast taco of his own. "I approached the McDonald's people about it. The vice president told me to go ahead and work on it and call him when I was ready to test it."
First Quijano tried rolling McDonald's hash browns with seasonings in a flour tortilla. It didn't go over very well. Then he tried various combinations of ham, eggs, sausage and salsas before arriving at the current configuration. "The customers told me how to make them," admits the burger man. "They would say, 'Too much pepper, not enough salt,' until we got it right." Nelly Quijano did the tortilla research. They started with tacos on six-inch tortillas but eventually adopted the nine-inch size for the sake of neatness.
The burritos come conveniently packaged in a yellow paper wrapper and sell for $1.18 with tax. Mild salsa in a plastic pillow pack is served on the side on request. But Quijano's Harrisburg customers don't mess around with the wimpy condiment. Instead, they buy pickled jalapeos from a large plastic jar on the back counter for 29 cents apiece.
After testing and approving the item, the McDonald's corporation gradually rolled out the breakfast burrito across the city. "It sold even better in Anglo neighborhoods than it did in the East End," says Quijano. After proving itself in Houston, the McDonald's Breakfast Burrito was introduced across Texas, and eventually to much of the world.
Funny thing is, Dominic Quijano, the man who put Mexican food on the McDonald's menu, isn't of Mexican ancestry. His family is Cuban. He grew up in Florida and lived in New York City before he moved to Houston.
"Cubans don't even eat tacos," Quijano chuckles.
The final shape of the district resembled a praying mantis, with arms snaking out in search of identifiable Hispanic households that pushed the Latino percentage of the district to 60.6 percent. At the time, many political observers assumed that would be enough to guarantee the election of Houston's first brown-skinned member of Congress.
Green knew better, banking on the core group of Anglo voters he had represented for 19 years in the Texas House and Senate. The legislator jumped into the 1992 Democratic primary race, and with equal measures of luck and gritty campaigning, he managed to beat out then-Houston city councilman Ben Reyes in a marathon fight that was extended to a second runoff after the first was invalidated because of voter irregularities.
Green then went to work winning over disappointed Hispanics, displaying the qualities that have earned him the reputation as one of the hardest-working elected officials in the city. "Gene is a very effective old-style service-oriented congressman," says Dr. Bob Stein, dean of social sciences at Rice University. "His voting record is less important to this constituency than delivering goods and services."
How effective has Green been with his Hispanic constituents? In 1998 the League of United Latin American Citizens made the congressman an "honorary member."
Political consultant Marc Campos, a former foe, credits Green's hustle with allowing him to continue to hold a majority Hispanic district without serious opposition.
"He's a workaholic member of Congress," explains Campos. "When he comes home from Washington, he doesn't go hang out at an icehouse. He goes to a civic club meeting. During the flood in June, he was everywhere. The guy just works his ass off."
There, in the middle of the dance floor, is Rick Lee on his knees, playing slide guitar. He's picked up a heavy chair and is sawing on the strings with one of the wooden legs. You can't help but notice that this bluesman is distinctly Chinese-American.
"People look at me funny," he sings on his signature tune, "Even a Chinese Man Can Play the Blues." "They don't know what to expect / They dis me before they know me / Lord, I don't get no respect."
Rick Lee fell in love with the blues as a teenager. After hearing the Bluesbreakers' version of "All Your Love" on a classic rock-blues show, Lee was intrigued enough to investigate the original by Otis Rush. Just one listen was all it took for Lee to know that he was to be a bluesman forevermore.
Lee was born in Houston, the son of Cantonese immigrants, and spent a good chunk of his childhood soaking up African-American culture at his parents' grocery store in Kashmere Gardens. "I didn't pick up anything musically from growing up there, but I did get a sense of community. There's a sense that people there aren't getting the same breaks there that people are getting in River Oaks. Though I would never be presumptuous to say I truly understand the blues, I was exposed to the social aspects that gave rise to the music."
"The blues is about life, all aspects of life," Lee says, choosing his words with the careful aplomb of the attorney that he is during the day. "You can express the whole feeling, the whole range of human emotions with the blues."
Lee's special hero is the late Guitar Slim, whose six-string readings of African-American gospel organs simultaneously electrified and sanctified the South in the mid- to late '50s. From reading about Slim, Lee learned not just his wildman antics, including walking on the tables, but also a whole philosophy of blues as a uniter of people from all races and walks of life. "Slim taught me that you should become part of the audience while you're playing, let the audience become a part of what you're doing."