Filling the Gaps: Tel-Wink Grill

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I've lived in Houston for 22 years. It took me 16 of those to visit the Rothko Chapel for the first time. I didn't eat at Ninfa's on Navigation until I'd counted myself a Houstonian for nearly a decade. I still haven't eaten at Frenchy's. The list of glaring omissions goes on and on. Before you boot me from the city for civic negligence, or at least refuse to continue allowing me to write about Houston food, let me assure you that 2014 is the year I start fixing this problem. I'm making a list of places. Places I should have been by now. Places even I can't believe I haven't visited. This is the year I get (re)acquainted with my city. Maybe you'll find a few from your own list in these posts. I encourage you to follow suit.

I've almost gone to Tel-Wink more times than I care to count. Once, I accidentally went to Triple A when I'd meant to go to Tel-Wink, somehow confusing the two famed breakfast haunts, neither of which I'd been to. More often, the mission was aborted on account of kids, and their often staunch insistence on sticking in a rut, and to a known favorite. While we had one such tiny person with us when we finally made it out to Tel-Wink, he has not yet developed the ability to speak, making his only possible veto one of all restaurants. Thankfully, he abstained.

As we pulled into the gravel lot fronting Tel-Wink, smack in the middle of a quasi-industrial stretch of road on the edge of Gulfgate, our trip was nearly derailed by a man violently losing the contents of his stomach behind a parked car. I'm not entirely sure how I talked my way past that one, as my wife's immediate reaction was a big ball of nope. I think I managed to convince her that there was no reason to assume any connection between the man and the restaurant, as he didn't head back that way when he finished, and nobody came out after him. I parked at the opposite end of the lot, a thicket of family cars between us and the unfortunate scene.

There was a wait. I pointed out the auspicious nature of a restaurant with a line, particularly one in an arguably unlovely, decidedly unhip area of town. She could not fault my logic, and we joined the queue. Mid weekday morning, the line was about five tables deep, but relatively fast-moving, thanks to what proved to be friendly but efficient service.

Within about ten minutes, we had hot coffee and cold orange juice in front of us, and I was madly Googling to clarify whether I remembered hearing that the chicken fried steak was awful or awesome. I found my answer in the nick of time (Prognosis: Negative), and opted instead for a fairly standard breakfast plate of sunny sides, bacon, and hash browns. I don't understand people who, when offered a homemade biscuit as a bread choice, manage to make any other decision. When that biscuit comes with the option of a bowl of gravy, going with whole wheat toast ought to be grounds for committal.

I got visibly excited when the food arrived. My wife actually laughed at me a bit as the childlike glee spread across my face. The glee turned quickly to confusion. It's hard for me to understand how a restaurant can get so many things so very right, and fall down on something so simple as salt.

From a technical perspective (if you'll allow my point of argument that proper seasoning falls outside of that arena, in a way), the food was nearly flawless. Tender whites gently constrained perfectly runny yolks, nary a whisp of snotty albumen making me wish I'd ordered my eggs over medium, as is so often the case. There was a bit too much butter involved, but that's a minor sin that some might consider saintly. The bacon fell perfectly along the crispy/chewy axis, meaty and texturally interesting with none of the incinerated-fat taste that I find ruins over-crisped bacon for me. Though I generally prefer shredded hash browns, the chunky version here was in perfect form. Deeply browned and crusty surface, moist and almost delicate interior, the potatoes were perfect for soaking up those perfect yolks, not even losing their crispness in the process. As I said, nearly perfect.

If the kitchen had bothered to salt anything, it would have been a perfect breakfast. I don't mean to say that a few things were a bit under-salted for my palate, which is pretty sensitive to salt to begin with. I mean it tasted as if there WAS. NO. SALT. I had trouble wrapping my head around this as we ate. I kept commenting on it, half to my wife, half to myself, incredulously. Eventually, she handed me the salt shaker, an annoyed look on her face.

Properly seasoned, as much as that can be done after the fact, the food snapped into focus. Had the food come properly seasoned in the first place, it would have sung. Next time, Tel-Wink (and there will be a next time), I want a serenade.

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