DEFCON Dinner and a Movie: Hash Browns Require Etiquette, and a Glass of Water

My first summer in Houston was pretty much spent at the Dollar Cinema. We moved in July, and hadn't had the chance to make any friends yet, and our mom was scandalized by the price of, well, pretty much everything. Moving from a small city to a large one can have that effect. Everything we would normally have done was too hot, too far away or too expensive. The Dollar Cinema was a godsend. Yes, it had sticky floors (soda, I'm hoping and praying) and was still showing Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in the summer of 1993, but it beat a bunch of whiny northern-transplant kids complaining about the heat and boredom.

It was in a half-abandoned shopping center tucked into the corner of South Gessner and 59, right next to a store that seemed to specialize in Paula Abdul tapes and parachute pants, and an off-brand 99¢ store that started my brief obsession with veladoras. Mom would smuggle in Starbursts and Reese's Pieces in her giant purse, and for less than ten bucks win a couple of hours of (relative) peace.

We've carried on that tradition, making the trek out to Westheimer and Eldridge Parkway once every few months to see a nine-month-old movie on a flickery screen with crappy sound and uncomfortable seats. It's a good time. When we're doing it right, we swing by The Burger Guys before or after. When we're not doing it right, the kids gorged on popcorn but the adults still rumbly, we argue.

Last week, senses dulled by a movie whose best moment was a geeky inside joke by way of a Nathan Fillion cameo, we weren't doing it right. We drove past a dozen or so restaurants, unable to find consensus. We parked in front of Masala Wok, looking over the menu online and pondering whether or not our picky eater would make us regret it. We contemplated simply going home and eating sandwiches. Then, we backtracked five minutes or so and went to Waffle House.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Waffle House, but I also have a (apparently not so firm) rule about it: You don't eat at a Waffle House in your own city, unless you've been drinking and it's past 2 in the morning. To eat at a Waffle House 15 miles from your house, at 7 p.m., sober as a Mormon, kids in tow? Blasphemy. Blasphemy, however, meant a plate of eggs to satisfy the kid who seems to live on eggs and belligerence, and hash browns for me.

For the record, I told everyone going in that the hash browns were the entire point of a visit to Waffle House, block-lettered yellow sign be damned. While Waffle House can be counted on to turn out perfectly cooked eggs, nicely crisped bacon and perfectly serviceable waffles, their hash browns are a thing apart. If you've been to Waffle House more than once, chances are you even have "your order."

I take mine scattered, smothered, covered, chunked and peppered. The kids ignored me, going hash-less, and my wife, adhering to one of my other (not so firm) rules regarding the gilding of lilies, took hers plain. Perhaps I should have explained a bit more about Waffle House hash brown etiquette. I ate mine like an inmate, shoulders squared over the plate, offering only a few scant bites as framework for her future hash brown ordering betterment.

Often, the hash browns constitute my entire meal, ordered as a triple and eaten with glee. That night, I opted for a country ham plate, depositing my potatoes on top of the pork, and topping all of that with a couple of fried eggs. If you do this, know two things:

  1. This will result in a bit of ham overload, and a hefty dose of salt; keep a glass of water handy.
  2. Center your eggs before you break the yolks, containing their softening spill and preserving the crisp edges of your hash browns.

As I knifed down through the layers and sipped my coffee, I began to question my rule. Waffle House is an indulgence of odd type; not the kind of place I'd go out of my way for, nor even a destination unto itself. When you're there, though, it's kind of a magical place. Maybe we'd done it the right way, after all.

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