It's 10 a.m. The parking lot at Mango's, the hipster hangout at Westheimer and Taft, is mostly empty as the usual rush of Montrose traffic tumbles past Melange Creperie, the self-contained crepe stand with a distinctive red awning that's set up shop in one corner of the asphalt lot.
Buffalo Sean wears a plaid shirt and a plaid fedora, neither of which match. The blond man bounces happily and eagerly from foot to foot when he sees a customer roll into the lot. He's excited to show off his crepes, excited to discuss his trade and his new career as a crepe maker. He wasn't always a street food vendor, after all, but was inspired by a trip to Paris over his honeymoon and has been pursuing his own crepe stand ever since. His eyes sparkle as he discusses even the most banal facets of his business.
Ruthie Johnson first spoke to Buffalo Sean (real last name: Carroll) when he was running his crepe stand over on Studewood during Lights In The Heights. At the time, he was planning his big move over to Montrose while exposing potential customers to his wares. Recently, Ruthie caught up with him once again in "Street Vendor Blues," a post exposing the extreme challenges that street vendors and mobile food units face from the City.
Melange Creperie has had its own run-ins with the City, but another, far more difficult battle lies ahead: attracting and keeping customers.
Judging from the crepes that Carroll turned out for me in the parking lot this past Wednesday morning, I don't think that keeping customers will be a problem. Once you've tried his crepes, they'll dance through your mind like sugarplums on Christmas Eve (or so the song says). You'll count the days until you can make it over to Mango's and grab another one.
Carroll has breakfast crepes on offer in the mornings, a very clever move for commuters who have a few minutes to spare on their way into downtown. Ham, egg and cheddar was on the board on Wednesday morning, but Carroll can easily make crepes to order -- a la carte ingredients are listed on the side of his chalkboard, next to the "featured" crepes of the day. One of those on offer this week was too tempting to pass up: spinach, cheddar and ajvar. Having just divulged my love affair with ajvar a few weeks ago, I had to taste this creation for myself.
A dense handful of fresh, darkly green baby spinach went on top of the crepe as soon as it was nearly finished cooking. A generous amount of shredded cheddar cheese and thick, bright red ajvar completed the trio, and our crepe was folded gently into three adjoining triangles and presented by the brightly smiling Carroll. It tasted even better than it looked, which is saying quite a bit. It made even this Texan question her loyalty to breakfast tacos, when this option is readily available.
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I ordered a second crepe to take to work -- a fantastic banana and Nutella crepe that contained an entire banana and was gobbled up as quickly as it hit my desk by our editorial assistant -- and thanked Carroll for the excellent breakfast. "You're my first customer of the day," he mentioned, smile still not fading. "And I only had one sale yesterday." It turns out a health department inspector shut him down after finding that his batter was a few degrees too warm.
And so it appears that, at least for now, Carroll's biggest battle will be attracting customers. It's hard enough getting commuters to slow down in the morning; it's even harder when you're forced to close early. And that's a shame. Carroll's crepes don't take any more than five minutes -- as much time as you'd spend in the drive-thru lane at McDonald's -- not to mention they're extravagantly large and filling for the money (a typical crepe runs $5 to $6 -- cash only, obviously) and far better for you than any Egg McMuffin.
Carroll plans to remain at his current location each weekday morning from 7 a.m. until about noon, with a tentative weekend schedule on Saturday mornings. You can follow him on Twitter (@MelangeCreperie), where he outlines his exact hours each day, for more information.
If Carroll can overcome this final hump, he's posed to become a welcome and permanent fixture in the lot at Mango's. Houston needs more high-quality street food, and here's hoping that Melange Creperie is a pioneer rather than just a fad.