Food with Thought

Pat Brown and I are standing in front of an empty seafood case. Brown is the general manager of Central Market, which opens to the public on Wednesday, May 30, at the corner of Westheimer and Weslayan. I pace off the length of the gleaming stainless-steel counter -- 23 strides. "It's 60 feet long," says Brown, who has an impressive résumé in the grocery business. He has worked for Randalls and Auchan in Houston as well as for Central Market in San Antonio. "I love Houston," he says. "I've always wanted to come back here."

The Central Market on Westheimer will mark the debut of some new concepts, such as drive-thru lanes for people too busy to get out of their cars to pick up their prepared meals. At 75,000 square feet, it will also be the largest store in H-E-B's Central Market chain -- for the time being. Like the other Central Market stores, this one will not sell toothpaste, Coke or Big John's Beans 'n Fixin's. The store is devoted almost entirely to gourmet food.

While admiring the seafood case, I have a flashback. I suddenly remember staring at the gigantic empty seafood compartment at the original Central Market in Austin before it opened back in 1994. I was writing for the Austin Chronicle at the time. Like many Texas food lovers, I would develop a passionate affair with the store. But as with any relationship, I can tell you what's wonderful and what's annoying about the object of my affection.


Ocean Palace Seafood

11215 Bellaire Boulevard

281-988-8898. Hours: 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Shrimp dumplings: $2.50
Barbecue pork buns: $1.80
Xiu mai: $1.80
Chinese broccoli: $ 4.50
Clams in black bean sauce: $ 4.50
Taro buns: $ 1.80

The thing that initially drives people crazy about Central Market is the maze they force you to walk through to get anywhere. The aisles aren't set up in parallel rows, so you can never find an item easily. Instead, these aisles wind around so you have to shuffle past the herbs and the fresh fruit -- each section just daring you to walk by without at least a whiff -- before you get to the part of the store you desire.

"It's a forced traffic pattern like IKEA," says Brown. "You get used to it."

It's true. You quickly learn that dashing into Central Market to pick up a loaf of bread will take you over an hour and cost you at least $50. You may have been looking for sourdough, but you will come out with a rare French cheese, a spectacular California zinfandel to go with it, some inexpensive Costa Rican coffee beans, an instant risotto mix from Italy, and some of the best hard salami you've tasted since childhood. And you'll be lucky if you remember the bread. But the time and the money will always seem well spent.

By constantly offering samples and demonstrating new cooking ideas, Central Market turns shopping into an educational experience. The chefs who prepare vegetables for the store's cafe will work in the middle of the produce department where customers can watch their techniques and see what varieties they're using. A kiosk in the meat and fish department will present nonstop cooking demonstrations. The store will also feature a complete cooking school facility on the second floor as well as a cookware department with shelves of cookbooks. "Every time you walk into Central Market you will learn something about food," promises Brown.

All that is undoubtedly true. Central Market is a foodie paradise -- with a few little flaws. In the cheese department, I tell Brown about a frequent problem I've had at the other Central Markets. You may be able to buy exquisite French cheeses, but without the proper ripening, some of these cheeses are inedible. In France, shops keep cheeses in cellars, turning them every day and brushing them with brandy or beer until they reach the perfect ripeness. Wrapping cheese in cellophane and putting it on the refrigerator shelf kills the cultures that are necessary for ripening, an affront that would horrify any cheese-loving Frenchman.

"We're getting better at it," says Brown, admitting that selling cheese is a challenge. But the major criticism I have about Central Market is its prices. To address that topic, I take Brown out to the Hong Kong Market at 11205 Bellaire Boulevard, a store that I sometimes think of as the Asian Central Market.

We walk straight back to the fish counter, and I pace the length of it. It is 60 paces long. Brown agrees that this fish counter is more than twice the size of Central Market's. It includes many varieties of fish that Central Market won't carry, not to mention tanks full of such exotica as live Dungeness crabs, live eels, live fish and geoduck clams from the Pacific Northwest that Central Market won't have, either. I point to a pile of silvery pompano. The price is $3.99 a pound, the same price Hong Kong Market charges for red snapper. We examine the fish for freshness. Some look pretty good with shiny scales and clear but slightly dehydrated eyes; others are obviously past their prime.

"I bought some pompano at Central Market in Austin not long ago," I tell Brown.

"You probably paid $6.99 or $7.99 a pound," he guesses correctly. We tour the whole store, with lingering stops in the produce department, the bakery and the bulk-food aisles. Then I take Brown to a dim sum lunch at Ocean Palace Seafood (11215 Bellaire Boulevard, 281-988-8898) in the same shopping center, and continue the conversation.

Over some excellent xiu mai and barbecue pork rolls, I ask Brown why the red snapper and pompano sell for twice as much at Central Market as they do here in the Asian part of town.

The quick answer is that Central Market is one of the few fishmongers that sell USDA-HACCP (United States Department of Agriculture-Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) certified seafood. This consumer safety program is the best guarantee of fresh seafood in the country, and it's used by such major fish handlers as Legal Sea Foods in Boston. The point-of-catch-to-point-of-sale inspection program sets rules for precise temperature controls from the moment seafood is caught, through the sorting, shipping and handling processes, all the way to the consumer. With all this talk about seafood, I feel compelled to wave down the shrimp dumpling cart as it wheels by.

"Except for shrimp and king crab, nothing in our seafood case is ever frozen. We follow the seasons. When they are catching wild salmon in the Copper River, we fly it in overnight," Brown says. Because of the USDA-HACCP rules, Central Market must buy fish from day boats, not from big offshore trawlers that stay out for weeks. "We go to extremes to get the very best," he says.

The other reasons why Central Market charges more are obvious. Real estate values are a lot higher on Westheimer in River Oaks. And then there are the employees. Central Market is swarming with experts. Brian Cook, who used to own a popular meat market in town, will be in charge of Central Market's meat and seafood. Houston food pioneer Peg Lee will run the cooking school. "We have four or five C.I.A. [Culinary Institute of America] grads working at the Houston store," Brown brags.

"I don't know who they buy their fish from at Hong Kong Market," Brown says. "But you can't compare us -- it's a different culture."At first, I think he is talking about Eastern culture versus Western culture, but I quickly realize he's talking about something else. We're all familiar with the concept of corporate culture. But in the grocery business, corporate culture defines the ethos of not just the people who work there but also the people who shop there. This may be the most fascinating aspect of the Central Market experience. I mull it over as I walk up to the glass case in back of Ocean Palace and get us an order of clams in black bean sauce and some Chinese broccoli.Back at the table, I reminisce about the days when Central Market first opened, and how the "foodie" culture was a topic of heated conversation in the capital city. It split the community in some ways, and united it in others. "Are we so intent on going to the right grocery store because we don't go to church anymore?" I wondered in an Austin Chronicle article about that first Central Market.

For that article, I interviewed John Burnett, Southwestern correspondent for NPR who had just returned from covering the uprising in Chiapas. "The people there are eating nothing but beans and tortillas. They can't even afford metal cooking utensils, and here we are at Central Market choosing from ten kinds of olives," he said. I asked him what he thought about the difference between Central Market and Whole Foods. "Central Market doesn't have a masseuse," he said with a laugh. "It's not so oppressively correct."

Pat Brown doesn't like the taro cakes I have selected from a cart, so I wolf them down while he attempts to shovel some beef-filled rice noodles off the plate and into his mouth. Ocean Palace is generally a big hit with the Central Market man. And I'm glad to have turned him on to my favorite weekday dim sum lunch.

I doubt that Central Market's debut in Houston will induce as much tortured introspection and liberal angst as it did in the People's Republic of Austin. But it will obviously change the way people shop here. And we will also find out just how many Houston foodies there are.

In a recent letter to the editor regarding my review of Tony's (see "Still Your Father's Tony's, April 12), a longtime Houston waiter named Patrick Browning took exception to my opinion that people now go to restaurants to learn about food rather than to see and be seen. According to Browning, the people I described are in Austin, Chicago, New York and San Francisco, not here. "Houston's a great restaurant city, but not a great foodie city," he wrote. If he's right, Central Market and Pat Brown are in trouble. But I am willing to bet that Browning and others are underestimating the city's nascent food scene.

"Is Houston a foodie city?" I ask Brown as we finish our tea.

"Absolutely, more so than Austin or San Antonio," he says.

By foodies, I am referring to amateur enthusiasts, people who subscribe to food magazines, and who engage in cooking and eating as a leisure activity. But Brown stretches this definition to include food professionals. Houston has a larger population of cooking school and hotel and restaurant management graduates than any other city in Texas, he says. Which makes it much easier to staff the Houston store.

"But what about nonprofessionals?' I ask.

"There are lots of Houstonians who already drive to our stores in Austin and San Antonio -- these people have waited a long time for us to get here," he says. But there is another huge group in Houston, according to Brown, and they are the store's primary target. Call them latent foodies: people who are interested in food but have never before had a place like Central Market to learn about it.

"These folks will walk into Central Market without even knowing what they're looking for," predicts Brown. "And we will show them what they want."

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