The latest sign that the gentrification of EaDo -- formerly Houston's first Chinatown -- is approaching critical mass? It's not the microbrewery that's about to open at the corner of Dallas and Hutchins, nor is it the nearly completed East End light rail line down the street. It's Walker Street Gastropub, which took over the space vacated by Vietnamese banh mi joint Cafe Shoppe a few months ago.
I can think of no more salient tipping point than this swapping of old and new, although -- like the transitioning EaDo itself -- Walker Street Gastropub still has quite a ways to go before it's ready for the spotlight.
Owners Boyd Federici and Johnny Christian know this, but the pair was eager to get the gastropub up and running for a soft opening although Walker Street still hasn't obtained its TABC license. The paper announcements are still in the windows, the roughed-out bar is still incomplete. But the kitchen is ready, and Christian -- the chef -- was eager to show off his specials during a recent visit.
I was the only person inside Walker Street on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving -- no surprise, given the impending holiday and the fact that Walker Street has only been open for three weeks with little to no fanfare. The restaurant has a Facebook page, but that page has no posts on it.
The fare at Walker Street is straightforward pub fare, with a few twists: The wedge salad, for example, boasts a homemade poblano Ranch dressing instead of regular blue cheese. And although I wished for a bit of bacon to bring out the smoky flavor of the poblanos, I couldn't complain otherwise.
Christian also makes his own pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and more in a kitchen that Federici says cost them a considerable amount of money.
"We have a special oven back there for the pizzas," Federici said as a roasted red pepper, chicken and mushroom pizza -- the special of the day for only $8 -- clattered onto my table. He hit it with a little freshly shredded Parmesan cheese and left me happily to my own devices, eating the pizza in the sun that streams through the windows (which still have Cafe Shoppe's bars on them for now) and watching DirectTV with a remote that Federici handed off to me.
"I'm paying the bills for you," he laughed, the "you" in his statement clearly indicating "you customers."
"So you can watch whatever you want," he continued with a smile. I found an old re-run of Cheers and settled in.
Federici isn't quite sure how long it will take to get the beer and wine license from the TABC, but he's hoping it won't be more than a few weeks. His eagerness is quite apparent; after all, a gastropub isn't a gastropub without the "pub" element fully fleshed out. When the permit does arrive, however, expect Walker Street to carry a mix of regular mainstream beers and local craft brews -- including some from 8th Wonder Brewery down the street.
"We're all about local," said Federici, who's lived in Houston since 1979 (running a pub in Clear Lake for several years) and has worked with Christian, his business partner and chef, since 1981. Don't expect a bunch of craft cocktails too, however; Walker Street will only have a beer and wine permit, as Federici says the focus will be on the food first and foremost.
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In the meantime, Walker Street is content to serve the few people who walk up to the colorful, mural-covered exterior and find its front doors flung wide open during the soft opening period. There are no posted hours for now, but Walker Street is generally open for lunch and dinner most days. Federici hopes that soft opening will turn into a full-fledged grand opening sooner rather than later, he said while gesturing toward the nearly finished bar as I left that day.
"We'll have happy hours soon."