Do you remember the old 11th Street Cafe? I do. My father and I tried to eat there a few times while he was still living in Norhill, just down the street. Every single visit was increasingly abysmal, to the point where I wondered just how long it would be until the old girl gave it up.
I also wondered with interest exactly what would take its place when this eventuality occurred: The intersection of 11th Street and Studewood is prime real estate in the Heights, with Zelko Bistro in one direction, Stella Sola and Glass Wall in the other, Someburger across Studewood and the still-to-come Liberty Kitchen (from the same guys as Glass Wall and BRC) across 11th.
Bruce Molzan, chef and owner of the popular and long-lived Ruggles restaurants across the city, saw that location as prime real estate, too, and snapped it up this past June. Molzan graciously retained all of the old staff from 11th Street Cafe -- according to CultureMap -- and set about giving the old place a facelift.
Although I was worried about the retained staff from 11th Street Cafe (after all, the poor food and service has been coming from them...), the facelift of their restaurant seems to have invigorated the waitstaff and cooks. The menu has been given an overhaul, too, distinctly different from all of the other Ruggles locations in its accessibility and homeyness.
A recent brunch there showed that this new Ruggles still has a few kinks to work out, but that it should wildly outpace its predecessor if all goes well. I was delighted to find the place open on Labor Day -- my other brunch choices that morning had all been closed -- although I expected the service to suffer. It was a holiday, after all, and the place was packed.
The service was excellent. Quick, responsive, kind and warm -- all of the things I hadn't been expecting from a staff slammed by a holiday brunch crowd. Although the restaurant and its beautifully re-landscaped patio were packed, our waitress and busser never missed a beat. The stereo was tuned to a '70s yacht rock station, Air Supply and Exile streaming over the speakers, and the music along with the happy chatter and glorious weather lent the revamped restaurant a jovial spirit. It was hard not to feel comfortable and happy in the freshly painted space, new art hung from the walls and a Chopped marathon on TV.
The food had several stumbles, however, from the three little empanadas that were still frozen in the middle to a turkey burger that was dry beyond even the resuscitative powers of cheese or mayonnaise. It wasn't what I expected from our Best of Houston® award-winning empanadas, to be sure.
But the warm ends of the empanadas were as excellent as usual, seasoned beef mixed with nutty hemp seed and raisins (just regular raisins here, no golden raisins) and dipped into a creamy mango-chipotle sauce, and my brunch -- although sloppy -- was wonderful. French toast squares in a vanilla-spiked batter, overeasy eggs and strips of curly bacon cooked to my favorite texture: crispy in places, soft and still fatty in others.
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I was interested to see, however, that despite Molzan's intention of keeping the prices here down, that the food is still a little expensive for what it is. 11th Street Cafe or Ruggles 11th Street: It's still a casual place that should bear casual prices. $14 for my plate of French toast and eggs was excessive, as was the $8 price tag on the still-frozen empanada appetizer, to say nothing of the $9 turkey burger that was too dry to eat.
But the place still seems to be a work in progress, and one that will likely serve happy Heights residents for years to come. After all, if there's one thing that Molzan knows how to do, it's stay in business through the good and the bad.