I've lived in Houston for 22 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. I encourage you to follow suit.
We used to go to Kraftsmen all the time. Nestled in one of the quaintest versions of a strip mall you could possibly imagine, anchored by a church-cum-library, the brick and ivy building housing the café is one of the nicest spots I can think of to spend a leisurely lunch. My wife and I lived two blocks away at the time, in a four-plex on the edge of the University of St. Thomas campus. We stopped going after we were more or less literally evicted by a bunch of nuns, the pleasant and short walk being part of the appeal.
Eight years and three homes later, and we've been back to that shady hideaway, now home to Eatsie Boys, a few times, but never for a proper meal. I'd been by the old Kraftsmen space with my kids a few times, wanting to give them a rare after school ice-cream treat, but wanting to enjoy the actual ice-cream as well as my kids' company. Vietnamese iced coffee ice-cream paired with Shipley donut ice-cream is a luxury unique to Houston. The kids prefer the Brass Monkey Caramelized Banana. Those visits had been rushed, a sugary blitz crammed in between the end of the school day and the start of homework. We'd never found the time to have a meal.
I never managed to eat at any of the iterations of the Eatsie Boys' food trucks, either. Their heyday fell right at the tail-end of mine, when the birth of an extended family member robbed my wife and I of our ready babysitter and we turned into the sad bunch of hermits that makes a series like this necessary in the first place.
Six months into life with our own new arrival may seem an odd time to be making up ground, but there's a sweet spot with babies that makes getting out of the house surprisingly doable. Ours is not yet old enough to walk or talk, so he's a bit of a captive audience, just along for the ride. As long as we feed and change him with sufficient frequency, he tends to be pretty relaxed. It probably doesn't hurt that he's pretty much constantly being held and fawned over. So it was that we decided to grab lunch at Eatsie Boys the other day. It was an impromptu decision, made in the midst of running other errands while our older kids were at school.
As we turned north onto Montrose, I caught sight of the brick and ivy, and nostalgia got the better of me. Not to mention the hunger pangs. I suggested. She accepted. We were soon camped out at a picnic table, enjoying one of Houston's all too rare lovely days.
We'd chosen an odd time for lunch, late enough that it might have spoiled our supper. We agreed on splitting a plate. Then we didn't. She wanted a waffle (it was OK, a little pale for our liking but with a nice hint of spice in the batter), and I wanted Pork Snuggies.
Essentially steamed buns stuffed with large slabs of pork belly, the snuggies have long been an Eatsie Boys favorite. I decided I should start with the hits. On the whole, the snuggies made for a nice little lunch. I might have liked a bit more crispness to the pork, and a bit more salt. A little longer of a turn in the oven might have been nice, too, just to tenderize things a bit more. The steamed bun, though, was perfectly fluffy, and a far cry from the dry interior that plagues lesser versions. Taken with the proper spread of hoisin, pickles and green onions, the snuggie came together with a jumpy panache.
We both agreed, though, that the fries were near perfect specimens. At $3 for a generous "small" portion, I'd come back for these alone. The exteriors nearly shatteringly crisp, the interiors as fluffy as those bao, these are fries in rare form. Under that initial shatter, there's a surprising depth of potato flavor, buoyed by a simple scatter of chopped parsley and a generous dash from the salt shaker. My wife had originally declined my offer of a few fries. We fought a cold war over them toward the end.
We didn't have ice-cream that day, so I still can't say that we've had the full experience. We'll have to come back for that. The question is, do we bring the kids?