Take a look inside the tiny kitchen at Facundo Cafe; you'll be even more impressed with the food after you do.
Danny Harper has a face like an open door. Wide-eyed and welcoming, he chats easily with customers as he grinds espresso beans and steams milk to create the foam atop the macchiatos he serves in the mornings here at Facundo Cafe, a family-run car wash off Ella and Loop 610.
"I lived in Italy for a while," he muses as he finishes constructing the macchiato. "And I drank a lot of coffee while I was there." He instructs customers kindly on the differences between the macchiatos they're used to getting at places like Starbucks and the ones he makes here with Lavazza beans. It's an unlikely location to find a chef like Harper, grilling up eggs and bacon for breakfast in a compact kitchen every morning, dispensing coffee wisdom like a caffeinated Buddha. But that's Facundo Cafe.
Neither Harper nor his employers could have envisioned how a full-service restaurant inside a car wash would have turned out when he and his sous chef, Marco Venicio Lopez, took over in November 2010. The kitchen inside the Dr. Gleem car wash also shares space with a hair salon (quite separate from the restaurant, I might add) and is no bigger than one you'd find in an RV. Yet in the year it's been open, Facundo Cafe has become a neighborhood gathering place and a full restaurant in its own right. It even offers beer and wine during its weekday happy hour, where you can cool your heels at one of Facundo's pub-style, granite-topped tables and watch TV while you get your car cleaned up.
It's a smart business move: You have a captive audience at a car wash, especially one that also does oil changes and detailing services and a host of other services, so why not offer that audience something more to eat than vending-machine food? Of course they're going to eat it if they're stuck there for the better part of an afternoon. Facundo Cafe could very easily turn out bowling alley-style food and people would buy it.
But Harper and Lopez rise above their location, rise above the low expectations and the shticky gimmick of being a "car wash restaurant." They've made Facundo Cafe into a destination in its own right.
You wouldn't think that a car wash would be a busy place on a rainy afternoon in the middle of a thoroughly rainy week. Yet here we were in warm company on a recent weekday afternoon, my friend and I, decamped at a table near a window where we could watch a waterfall on Facundo Cafe's patio compete with the downpour outside.
Although it was a bit chilly outside, the heat from my hot wing burger was keeping me quite toasty. In someone's hands other than Harper's, the burger — like the restaurant — could easily be a joke. But here it's lovingly constructed with creamy, pungent morsels of blue cheese that melt into a hot, griddled bun slathered with Frank's RedHot sauce. The tart fire of the sauce is balanced by the sweetness of a sourdough bun, purchased from local baker Sheila Partin. Partin has been making excellent bread (and my personal favorite bread pudding) since 1989, and is just one of the area food producers that Harper supports at Facundo.
That's not to say that the blue cheese and the sweet sourdough bread make the burger perfect: Harper's kitchen has limitations, one of them being that he can't grind his own meat for the burgers and has to use pre-made Angus beef patties. The burgers do suffer because of it, as the patties have a propensity to be tough around the edges and dry where they should be moist.
How wonderful one of Harper's elegantly topped cheeseburgers would be with juices soaking that sweet sourdough bun, showing off the meaty swagger of a truly well-constructed sandwich under a crunch of fresh lettuce and snappy red onions? It's already a favorite in spite of the pre-made patty, and a really robust grind of meat would send it rocketing into the upper echelon of Houston's burgers.
The patty's flaws are less noticeable, however, in Harper's signature spinach, bacon and avocado burger, and here's why: The unctuous avocado makes up for a lack of juice in the meat, while the smoky bacon compensates for the lack of powerful flavor in the patty. But once again, I can only imagine how this burger would shine with a big, beefy patty at its center.
As it is, I take consolation in Facundo's fries, which are crisped up in one of the two tiny fryers to a beautiful golden-brown. They're twiggy things, long and spindly, well-salted and crunchy with an interior that's just soft enough. The fries may be pre-made as well, but it's the Facundo way to make the very best out of the ingredients you have to work with.
There are times when Facundo takes that ethic and applies it in quietly brilliant areas, as with Harper's homemade salsa. As with the burgers and fries, he could easily purchase pre-made salsa. But I don't think he has it in him.
Harper's father was in the restaurant business in The Woodlands, while Harper himself made a career with the Mandola family and the Pappas family prior to landing here. The Facundos, who own everything from the car wash to the hair salon to the palapa-topped patios outside, also run Facundo Home Builders and live just down the street in neighboring Garden Oaks. To offer anything less than his best would be an insult to Harper's own family and to the families he's worked for in Houston, and so he makes his salsa from scratch.
Two kinds of tomatoes, two kinds of onions, two kinds of peppers, garlic, and a few other secret ingredients go into each batch. Harper dices them all up and divides the batch in two: He roasts half, and leaves the other intact, like salsa fresca. It's the combination of the roasted and fresh salsas that makes it so deeply flavored, so crave-able that I have found myself topping all manner of inappropriate items with the stuff.
Breakfast sandwich on Texas toast with delicate slices of ham and handfuls of shredded Cheddar cheese? Top it with salsa. Croissant with bacon and eggs? Top it with salsa. In the case of the latter, it helped enormously to moisten the otherwise tough croissant — Harper needs to get a Sheila Partin-style connection for breakfast breads, as the croissant bordered on inedible.
It's in the breakfast tacos, though, that the salsa truly shines. Harper fluffs up two eggs into a warm flour tortilla and tops them with shredded cheese. Pan sausage is crumbled into the taco and gives it a rich, salty allure. If you order a potato taco, you'll get crispy, browned home fries diced and folded into the eggs. You can also order bacon, although it invariably becomes too tough in the tacos, and doesn't take the salsa quite as nimbly as the others do.
And while you wait for your tacos to be made to order, from scratch, you can watch Harper at work. He huddles over the grill, works the fryers deftly, never misses a beat between anecdotes and eggs. He wants you to be here, as much a part of the restaurant and the family as he is. He also wants to make you a truly good burger, a truly good macchiato. And he succeeds every time.