Getting Inspired at Esther's Cajun Cafe & Soul Food

My eyes lit up when I saw the picture posted by my friend Paula on Facebook: All that the caption said underneath was "smothered pork chops...banana pudding to share." It was close to lunchtime and the dilemma of where to go had suddenly been solved.

But I didn't know where the bounty of delicious-looking soul food was from. Paula quickly solved that question after I demanded, in all caps, to know where she was eating: Esther's Cajun Cafe & Soul Food. I hightailed it over there immediately, running into Paula and another friend as they were leaving. They laughed at my Facebook-inspired fervor, but couldn't blame me; the meal they'd just had, they said, was spectacular.

It was with good reason that Kevin Shalin listed Esther's in his roundup last week of under-the-radar restaurants. Despite my love of soul food and its relative proximity to my stomping grounds, I'd never heard of Esther's until last week.

I wasn't the only one, though.

In front of me in line for Esther's short and sweet steam table was a woman who was having a difficult time choosing vegetables for her entree. I couldn't blame her. Yams, mustard greens, okra, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, cabbage, black-eyed peas, and still more to choose from; how does one decide?

"Is this your first time here, honey?" asked the woman behind the steam table with a grin.

"Could you tell?" laughed my line mate in response. She ultimately went with two of Esther's suggested sides -- yams and greens -- and then it was finally my turn. Even with just one person in front of me, it seemed like an interminable wait while staring down a tray filled with pork chops and mashed potatoes.

Along with my meal I grabbed some stewed okra, a slice of chocolate cake and a lovely peach tea that tasted as though it had chunks of frozen peaches used as ice cubes when it was being cooled down. It was a cozy, homespun meal to match a cozy, homespun environment. It's hard not to feel instantly comfortable at Esther's.

Although the stewed okra proved too tough and undercooked, I found no fault with the buttery mashed potatoes or the tender pork chop with buttery rice beneath it. Paula had warned me before I went inside that the potatoes were yellow -- whether from using Yukon Gold spuds or from all the butter, she wasn't sure. Who cares. They were the best mashed potatoes I've had in Houston, roughly smashed with the skins still on and a heavy helping of creamy butter smoothing it all out.

It was enough to feed two, so I took it to go along with my untouched chocolate cake for a second meal later on. But before I left, I was reminded with a smile from the cashier that Esther's does crawfish boils on Saturdays. As if I needed an excuse to return.

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Katharine Shilcutt