Let's get one thing out of the way first: Stop blaming benjy's for Antone's demise. I'm the first to say that I miss the old Antone's in Rice Village like I miss Elvis. So come on now: We can all agree that Antone's closed before its time and that it sucks, but -- like Elvis -- it was a demise of its own creation.
I'm also excited to see benjy's move into the space with a trimmed-down version of itself, a super-casual place where you can pop in, grab a sandwich and a beer and maybe take a six-pack of Dublin Dr Pepper home with you on your way out. This new venture, Local Foods, is less of a market that it originally set out to be, but that doesn't make it any less useful.
As the name would indicate, Local Foods serves food made with local products. That list of products is outlined on the robin's egg blue menus that sit in a wire basket next to the cash register: David Cater's produce from Utility Research Garden, eggs from Hatterman, cheese from Pola, more vegetables from Gundermann Farms, Atkinson Farms and even Animal Farm, just to name a few.
And if it weren't for the fact that so much of the food is obtained from these purveyors, the "local" exhortations found all around the space would get tiresome and preachy very quickly. As it is, however, it's a pretty little place that's rather no-nonsense about its food otherwise. And that's a good thing in my book.
There's plenty of room in the old, brightly lit Antone's spot to spread out and stay a while, and the calm, mid-century modern look encourages it. But the food does come out quickly -- in less time than the promised 15 minutes when we went earlier this week -- making it ideal for a fast lunch break, too. Although I was there for the latter (a fast lunch), I wished I could linger with a pint of Karbach and really do my sandwich justice.
I'd ordered a [decidedly non-local] smoked salmon on a poppyseed bagel ($10), which came out looking nothing like any smoked salmon you'll encounter in other restaurants. The fish was still translucent, shimmering slightly under the light and looking for all the world like fat slices of raw salmon. That rich, fatty, smoky flavor was all there, though (and Local Foods claims to smoke its salmon in-house), highlighted by a tartly sweet onion jam in place of raw onions or cream cheese or capers. It was a trade-off I'll happily make again.
My friend's sandwich was a bit more in keeping with the theme of the place: a Gulf shrimp and blue crab affair with green goddess dressing ($12). The 1970s-era dressing is a cutely kitschy touch, but has a purpose, too: The mayo-based dressing is a great way to use excess herbs from your garden (especially the ones that grow like weeds here in Houston, like basil). Local Foods's version wasn't as tangy as I like my green goddess to be, but I found no fault with the fresh-tasting shrimp and crab that spilled out of the sandwich from all sides.
Speaking of: You get two sides with your sandwich here, based mostly on what's in season. I grabbed a kale salad with golden raisins and toasted pine nuts, appreciating how the roasty flavor of those pine nuts and the sweetness of the raisins tempered the kale. A beet salad with more pine nuts was less of a success, but still better than the green olive-saturated quinoa salad my friend got.
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"They should call this olive salad with a hint of quinoa," he bemoaned of the stuff. But neither of us found fault with the red-skinned potatoes in a Dijon-based potato salad with fresh nips of oregano and sherry vinegar.
On the ground outside the front door, Local Foods has left the old Antone's lettering in the cement as a reminder of the former tenant's long history in the building. And although it's always sad to see a beloved restaurant shut its doors, at least the replacement in this case is doing the old deli justice.