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Getting to the Soul of Houston

Two ham hocks are commingling their steamy juices with the soupy boiled cabbage on my plate. The lady behind the serving line at Alfreda's Cafeteria on Almeda asked me if I wanted the cabbage in a separate bowl. I assured her I did not. The sweet potatoes and red beans, yes, but not the cabbage and ham hocks. They are better off married. I can't wait to dig in and savor the down-home combination. And I will -- as soon as Steve Wertheimer gets finished with the hot sauce or, to be more accurate, the hot sauces. He has one in each hand.

"I like the clear Cajun pepper sauce on my green beans and the Louisiana red sauce on my rice," Wertheimer says, shaking the red bottle violently. He is a tall, striking man with a mane of longish white hair and black glasses. Today he is wearing jeans and a wrinkled polo shirt. I first bumped into him 15 years ago when he was selling barbecue at a Lake Austin bar. He had partnered up with a legendary black Southern cook named C-Boy Parks, and they were doing catering gigs from a portable smoker. He went on to take over the Continental Club in Austin, which became one of my favorite hangouts, so I was delighted to see him open a twin club here. And since Wertheimer grew up in this area, I also figured he might be able to lead me to some good food.

"I love eating in Houston," Wertheimer says with a smile. "You can't even find soul food in Austin anymore."


Alfreda's Cafeteria on Almeda

5101 Almeda

(713)523-6462. Hours: daily, 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Lunch special: $3.50
Ham hocks: $2.50
Vegetables : 90 cents

"Hard to sell ham hocks to vegans," I mutter with my mouth full.

"Here in Midtown, I've got This Is It [207 Gray, (713)659-1608] and Alfreda's within a couple of blocks of the club, and they're both great," Wertheimer says, while I sit back and savor the first plate of soul food I've had in a long time. The sharp cabbage and hot pepper sauce supply the high notes, while the saltiness of the ham harmonizes with the choir of creamy red beans, sticky honey yams and buttery corn bread on my palate. It's a meal as sweet and satisfying as the final hymn on Sunday.

Alfreda's Cafeteria is a small restaurant with a row of booths along the windows and another row of tables nearer the cafeteria line. The walls are brick, the decorative dividers are brick, and the floor looks like brick too, although it's vinyl. "Thank you Houston for 35 Years and Counting," it says on Alfreda's business card. It also says, "Black Family Owned."

Wertheimer ordered the hamburger steak, which is more like a baby meat loaf. On the side he got an order of rice covered with gravy, along with some green beans. He has also cut a jalapeño into polite bite-size chunks, which he eats with a fork along with his food. Wertheimer is so enthusiastic about the green beans that he has leveled the whole stack before I get a chance to taste them. I do get to sample the meat loaf, which is studded with green peppers and simmered in a tomato sauce. It is dense and meaty, with very little filler. The brown gravy from the smothered steak, another of today's specials, was spooned over the top of the rice. The seasonings of these dishes are mild, but adjusting the heat level with the available arsenal of chiles and hot sauces is part of the fun.

"I really wanted to take you to the Richmond Drive-in for enchiladas," Wertheimer says. "That was my favorite restaurant growing up. My father picked up a big order of enchiladas to go every Sunday night when I was a kid. They came in a foil-coated cardboard container that gave them this weird taste. But the drive-in is out of business now."

"You grew up in Richmond?" I ask.

"Rosenberg, actually," he says. "You know Richmond and Rosenberg are the twin cities of Texas," he says with a laugh. Wertheimer's father owned a drugstore in Rosenberg and also served two terms as the town's mayor. His parents now live in the Galleria area. Wertheimer recently bought a condo on Kirby, and he is spending three or four days a week in both Austin and Houston. "It's a pretty easy transition," he says. "All I know are Bohemians in both places."

I asked Wertheimer what he would do different here. "We're not going to change the format, but we're finding out what works. It's an education process," he says. While the two clubs will both feature touring headliners, local bands will entertain the happy-hour crowd. The Austin club does a land-office business on Tuesdays thanks to Toni Price's "hippie hour" show. So far in the Bayou City, blues acts like I.J. Gosey and Carol Fran have drawn best in the early time slot.

"I hope the two clubs can work together. For instance, I am hoping that I can lure some great zydeco groups from Louisiana to do a show in Houston and then one in Austin. Having two bookings might make it worth it for them." I wonder if there's a local zydeco band that might spice up the happy-hour mix.

"Have you had any good Cajun food in Houston?" I ask him, since we're talking about Louisiana.

"Only at New Orleans Po' Boy Shop [3902 Main Street, (713)524-5778]," he says. "But what a place that is." I go by the sandwich shop with the green-painted windows all the time, but I have never gone in. Mainly because I have never really been convinced that it's open for business. There are a lot of out-of-business bars and restaurants with plywood nailed over their windows in this part of town. I thought this was one of them.

"It's open," he says. "You should see their collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia."

"What do you like there?" I ask.

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"The oyster and shrimp poor boys are good, but my favorite is the cheeseburger poor boy. It's just a regular cheeseburger, but then it's cut in half and dressed on a poor boy roll. Awesome. Great french fries too."

Wertheimer closes out his lunch with a slice of pecan pie. On the recommendation of the lady behind the counter, I opt for the sour cream cake. It looks like a simple pound cake with white icing, but it is stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth moist. I am tempted to get a cup of coffee to complement it, but I make do with iced tea.

Meanwhile, Wertheimer is telling me about a couple of young guys who have just taken over a bar next door to the Continental Club. Along with the Fusion Cafe [3722 Main Street, (713)874-1116], two doors down, the block seems to be hopping. "It reminds me so much of South Congress," he says. What were once blocks of vacant storefronts just south of the Congress Avenue bridge have become the hottest part of town over the last several years. The silver-haired club owner is betting that the same thing will happen in this part of Houston.

As we drive from Alfreda's on Almeda back over toward the Continental Club on Main, we pass through a residential neighborhood with lots of large houses, some in poor repair. "This is where my father grew up," Wertheimer says. "This used to be a big Jewish neighborhood before everybody moved out to Meyerland or Memorial or, in our case, Rosenberg." For Wertheimer, I suddenly realize, investing in this rundown Houston neighborhood is more than just a real estate gamble; it's a return to his roots.

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