“Do you have any other kind of mustard?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“What about Chinese mustard?” I wondered.
“Yeah, we have that,” she said.
I figured they would. When you sit down at this lunch counter, you have to choose between the homemade burgers and the chow mein with fried rice and egg roll. And all the waitresses are Asian.
The sign in front of the strip-center eatery reads, “Alice's Diner, American & Asian Food.” Inside, it's a traditional-looking American diner with worn wood paneling, booths upholstered in red vinyl, and Formica tabletops. Granted, the sparkling garland strung along the ceiling with the bright-red Chinese lantern hanging down from it looks a little out of place. But the explanation is simple enough.
An old-fashioned diner run by an owner named Alice was purchased some years ago by an Asian family. Rather than scare away the steady customers, the new owners decided to keep the diner items and add some Chinese food. The Houston Press named the place “Best Greasy Spoon” in the 2001 “Fusion City” Best of Houston issue.
I lifted the top bun and spread a generous amount of Chinese mustard on the meat patty, then picked the sandwich up and started eating. The hand-formed burger patty was nicely charred along its irregular fissures, and the meat was juicy. The grilled onions brought a slick texture to each bite. And the Chinese mustard added a little Asian zing to the otherwise classic flavor of an American burger. It wasn't an attempt at fusion cuisine, it was just an interesting accident. But I don't think it would be a terrible idea for Alice's to start offering Chinese mustard with all their burgers.
I was so taken by the little Chinese-American diner that I stopped by again a few days later with a companion in tow. She hadn't had any breakfast, and even though it was two in the afternoon, she decided to order a vegetable omelet. It was one of those folded-up, super-thin omelets served with shredded hash browns. Some minced onions and peppers were cooked with the eggs on the griddle and then the whole thing was folded up into a rectangle. I like a fluffy omelet with an actual filling myself, but she liked it. Then again, she likes her eggs well-done.
“For a greasy spoon, it's not that greasy,” she remarked.
I went for a Chinese lunch special called “beef with hot pepper sauce.” It was a very simple wok-fried pile of thin beef slices with red and green bell peppers, onions and scallions in a pleasantly piquant brown sauce with rice on the side. It came with a previously frozen egg roll and wonton soup with overdone dumplings.
My lunchmate also ordered grits, which came in a little bowl on the side. She didn't notice them until the rest of her food was gone. Impulsively, she reached for the soy sauce and added a dash to the bowl. We both sampled the grits and soy sauce, and it wasn't bad at all. It tasted something like the rice gruel called congee that is served for breakfast in Asia.
“Corny congee,” my tablemate giggled.
One night I called Alice's Diner and ordered a couple of dinner specials and some appetizers for delivery. It had been a long time since I had Chinese food brought to my door. I marveled at the familiar square, white, wax-coated cardboard containers with the red Asian characters and the top flaps that fold up into a Chinese puzzle.
But the novelty wore off quickly. If take-out Chinese is something of a trip down memory lane for me, then so was the flavor of this Americanized Asian food. 1960s-era Chinese appetizers like crab puffs stuffed with cream cheese and bland egg rolls with sweet-and-sour “duck” sauce would have been perfect to eat while watching Austin Powers.
“Lettuce wraps” is an appetizer once found only in high-end Chinese restaurants. The original version was made with minced squab (baby pigeons), mushrooms, dried oysters and all sorts of other exotica. But the once-unusual appetizer has become more commonplace in the last ten years. These days, even P.F. Chang's does a credible version. Alice's Diner's lettuce wrap appetizer consists of iceberg leaves with the blandest poultry filling I have ever encountered, made with ground chicken, onion and green pepper with little in the way of seasonings.
Nothing really clicked. Dumplings seemed like a safe bet, but the meat inside Alice's Diner's steamed dumplings was mushy and underdone. General Tso's chicken tasted like Chicken McNuggets in brown sauce with broccoli. An entrée of pork with garlic sauce was edible, if ordinary. The bright-red roasted pork ribs, coated in sticky sweet sauce, were the best thing we got delivered. And that's not saying much.
My brother Dave and I were sitting at a table in Alice's Diner a little after eight on a recent Wednesday morning. Dave was finishing off two big patties of spicy breakfast sausage and a pathetic waffle rendered even worse by the pats of melting margarine and the container of artificially-flavored syrup that came with it.
I was mopping up my ham and eggs. The over-easy eggs were perfectly fried, but the thin slice of ham was lame as lunchmeat. Dry toasted white bread and watery grits were the uninspired accompaniments.
As Dave and I watched, two old women made their way into the restaurant. Before they had reached the door, the waitress had placed two coffee cups and a silver thermos bottle on the table beside ours. Eventually, the two women made their way into the restaurant, and everyone said hello. “I am going to have something a little different this morning,” the younger old woman told the waitress. With wild abandon, she got one slice of well-done bacon on a saucer along with her usual order of eggs and dry toast.
I looked around the place. There were about a dozen people eating breakfast that morning, most of them elderly folk who stayed at their tables long after their food was finished. Alice's Diner is obviously the local breakfast club for seniors.
When the waitress came around to take the very old woman's order, she reached down and tucked her paper napkin into her blouse. My brother and I looked at each other, awestruck. It was a gesture that was at once tender and frightening.
One night around dinnertime, I tried to eat at Alice's again. I called to order a “Ken & Sean's Burger” to go. It's the biggest burger on the menu a double-meat, double-cheese monster with bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion rings. I figured I'd bring it home so I could drink a beer and watch the Astros game while I ate it, and I intended to ask for some Chinese mustard on the side to continue that experiment. But the guy who answered the phone dashed my hopes. At Alice's, burgers are only served for lunch, which ends at 3 p.m., he told me.
I'll go back to Alice's to try that big burger with Chinese mustard someday soon. But I think I'll wait a few more years before I go back for breakfast.