In one of the great election movies of our time, Wag the Dog, CIA agent Mr. Young gives some helpful advice about food: "There are two things I know to be true. There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war."
Okay, maybe it was more about war than food. And there's definitely such a thing as inferior flan. Whatever. We all know what's important around here, and it's not global warming or war or the economy. It's food!
Clearly I'm joking. Here at Eating Our Words, we understand that not everything is about food. We just kind of wish it was. Talking about food all the time would make things less complicated, and everyone would be fat and happy.
Tuesday, November 5 is election day, and in Houston, the most exciting race is the mayoral battle. While we've been following the debates closely to learn about the candidates' platforms, we haven't heard much talk about the Houston dining scene. So we called the mayoral candidates to discuss their thoughts and feelings about local food.
We were able to get in touch with three of the nine candidates by our deadline, but these three candidates represent the Democratic Party (incumbent Annise Parker), the Republican Party (Eric Dick) and the Green Party (Don Cook). They provide a great political cross-section, and their thoughts on food happen to differ almost as much as their politics.
Note: Before you vote, please take a moment to consider each candidate's goals for the city, and not just his or her favorite restaurant. Though you are more than welcome to consider that as well.
Don Cook, Green Party
Where do you go for a nice meal out, like a date night or a birthday dinner, and why? Radical Eats. I know (owner) Staci Davis from when we were both on the board of a radio station. She does some unique things with vegan foods.
If you have to grab a quick lunch, what's your go-to spot, and why? I'm afraid I usually don't eat lunch. I usually go with whatever other people I'm with want to do. At most places, you can manage to avoid meat if you look hard. When it comes to fast food, I actually will go to Burger King because they've had a veggie burger on their menu for years now.
What changes have you noticed in the Houston food scene in the past ten years? Vegetarianism is becoming bigger. There are more vegetarian items on menus than there used to be ten years ago. And more vegan restaurants.
What would you like to see more of? Well, I was mentioning Burger King...When the fast-food places have more vegetarian options, that would be a good thing.
But I do support, perhaps more importantly, that restaurants should pay their people a living wage and give them benefits.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding from outsiders about the Houston food scene? I don't know about misunderstandings, but I know people are very attracted to meat. Once upon a time, being able to eat meat was associated with dining well. I have three reasons for being vegetarian: It's less cruel to animals, generally speaking it's healthier, and with so many people around the world going to bed hungry, eating meat is not sustainable.
What restaurant do you think is the most underrated in Houston? Radical Eats.
Do you have a favorite chef in Houston, and if so, who? Staci Davis.
What do you cook for yourself when you're at home? I've been a vegetarian since 2004, and from time to time I've aspired to veganism. I'm just not a gourmand. I'm the kind of person who eats to live, not lives to eat. I'm a lazy vegetarian. When you think of vegetarians, you think of people who are really into the zen of cooking and eating. I'm looking for real simplicity. At the grocery store, I get the veggie wieners and falafel and veggie meatballs -- stuff I can just heat up in the microwave
What are your feelings about food trucks, and if you're elected, do you anticipate making any changes to the current food truck ordinances? I think that probably minimally there should be some protection regarding health. I think food trucks could have some health concerns, but no more than in restaurants. I also suspect there's some lobbying from some brick-and-mortar restaurants to keep the competition down, which is unfortunate.
Eric Dick, Republican
Where do you go for a nice meal out, like a date night or a birthday dinner, and why? Depends on what kind of food I'm in the mood for. I like Korean food, and there's a shop, H-Mart, that has a lot of good Korean restaurants inside. I also like a variety of Vietnamese. I like Van Loc. As far as more of an upscale meal, I like Laurenzo's. It's a little on the pricey side. And for steak, I like Taste of Texas.
If you have to grab a quick lunch, what's your go-to spot, and why? I find myself going to this little hidden Chinese restaurant in Oak Forest that's called Eastern. Their prices are good, and it's really just solid Chinese food. I also like Pappas BBQ off of 290. Their half a chicken is really good. And sometimes I'll find myself going to Luby's.
What changes have you noticed in the Houston food scene in the past ten years? I think we've gotten more late-night restaurants. I remember in the last about 15 or 20 years, we didn't have many late-night restaurants. There was House of Pies, and Rico's Triangle off of Main. We've always had Spanish Flowers, and they have good late-night food. And Chacho's is a really good place. I've also noticed a number of really genuinely good restaurants in the Washington area, but we've had a number of them close or move into the Montrose area. I feel like there's been a shift.
What would you like to see more of? I think more food trucks. And we don't have many Ethiopian restaurants, and the ones we have, I haven't fallen in love with.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding among outsiders about the Houston food scene? How good it is. I think Houston has a booming food scene, and a lot of people don't know that. Houstonians like to eat. Oh, and another thing we've gotten more of are the food trucks. I'd like to get more of the creative, artsy-style food trucks.
What restaurant do you think is the most underrated in Houston? You know, something like some of the older-style restaurants like Triple A's. I think it's kind of a hidden little treasure with homestyle food and fresh-ground hamburgers.
Do you have a favorite chef in Houston, and if so, who? No, not really.
What do you cook for yourself when you're at home? I used to cook a lot, but since I've been practicing law, I don't really have time. I like making Indian food. Once you figure it out, it's easy. I like chicken tikka masala. And making homemade pizza.
What are your feelings about food trucks, and do you anticipate making any changes to the current food truck ordinances? I'm pro food trucks. I would make some changes. The rules regarding the propane tanks are kind of nonsensical.
You know, Annise Parker said the same thing. Well, I guess that's one thing we agree on.
Mayor Annise Parker, Democrat (incumbent)
Where do you go for a nice meal out, like a date night or a birthday dinner, and why? If it were a big family meal it would be Chinese, just 'cause it's great to mix and match. We love barbecue, we love Chinese and we love Mexican. When we go out as a family to celebrate, that's generally what we do. We celebrated my daughter's graduation from high school this summer at Fung's Kitchen. I love all kinds of barbecue, and I'm a devoted Goode Co. fan, but I just discovered Oak Leaf over in the East End. It's under-appreciated, so I made my whole staff go with me out there. There are so many great Mexican restaurants. Since I live in Montrose, Mexicana is the go-to staple, but I also love Spanish Flowers near Northside. When Fast Company magazine was in town interviewing, I took them to Irma's.
We have an amazing, wonderful cuisine here, and I enjoy all of it, but I don't have much opportunity to eat out. When I do, it's the staples: Chinese, Mexican and barbecue. It's like the Holy Trinity for Houstonians.
If you have to grab a quick lunch, what's your go-to spot, and why? My favorite is the farmers' market on Wednesdays. The food trucks, but also the vendors. I have yet to have something that wasn't good there. My latest favorite is the churrasco grill at Churrasco To Go. That's like one of those sandwiches you just want to throw your face in. I look forward to Wednesdays because I know I'll have a fabulous meal. Unfortunately, the rest of the time the staff usually goes somewhere and brings me something back.
What changes have you noticed in the Houston food scene in the past ten years? Clearly, we have gone much more chef-driven. In the past, we had some amazing chefs in Houston, and they had their restaurants, but we weren't recognized in that way, and there weren't people coming to Houston with the goal of creating cutting-edge, experimental cuisine. Nor do I think we had at that time a real appreciation for it, and that has changed a lot. While lots of folks still go for the tried and true, our food scene is not just because food tourists come in from New York; it's driven by Houstonians who appreciate what's available.
What would you like to see more of? There's so much happening now. There are young chefs doing really, really amazing things, but we still have those tried and true spots. You can still go have a spectacular meal at a Tony's, which is just a top-notch restaurant. I think we have everything.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding from outsiders about the Houston food scene? They know us from Tex-Mex and barbecue and chili. Which is why, when I was elected mayor, everyone was like, "Wow, that happened in Houston? Houston elected a lesbian mayor?" It's the same with the food scene. "What, you mean Houston is where all these hot young chefs are competing on the national shows are? Houston's where this is happening?" It's been here, and we've known it, but the difference is the rest of the world now sees it, and it's taken us awhile to get the respect we deserve.
We also have some women restaurateurs. When you think of the great chefs, it's still a male-dominated thing, but everybody here reveres Mama Ninfa. And Irma Galvan, raising her family while operating her restaurant. Tracey Vaught building Backstreet and, of course, Hugo's. Gigi Huang, taking over for her dad. Monica Pope. We're a place where women have gained respect.
What restaurant do you think is the most underrated in Houston? Oh, I can't venture to guess.
Do you have a favorite chef in Houston, and if so, who? I do not. I have lots of restaurants that I like to try, but I don't follow a chef.
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What do you cook for yourself when you're at home? Well, I grew up on my grandparents' farm where we raised cattle, so I am a meat-eater. But I have a backyard garden, so depending on the season, I have vegetables. Right now I have tomatoes, okra and beans, so I do eat fresh veggies when I cook at home. And I'm the cook in the family. Kathy bakes and does desserts, and I get a meal on the table. Not as much as I used to, though, because our girls are gone all the time and they eat at odd hours.
The older I get, the more I feel like I'm channeling my grandparents. As soon as I get home, I go out in the backyard to check on my crops, waiting for that first tomato, waiting for the okra to get long enough.
What are your feelings about food trucks, and do you anticipate making any changes to the current food truck ordinances? I like food trucks. I support food trucks. The only thing I've been trying to do is to have one standard for food trucks across the city. The idea that we should have one policy for downtown and another policy for out of downtown is silly. The original version as it came to me was we would have food truck zones downtown. I want the rules to be the same for downtown. We make food trucks available for our City Hall Farmers' Market, and there's a little method to that madness. It's going to be really hard for a council member to say that it's dangerous to have food trucks downtown because a propane tank could blow up when we do it every Wednesday. Really? That's the stupidest argument.
One of the most controversial changes that's being discussed is food truck parks. Other than a few neighborhood associations who take issue with food trucks that don't move, the restaurant association is the biggest impediment. They came in and strong-armed council members. Restaurants are the most heavily regulated industry outside of medicine. If I operated a bricks-and-sticks restaurant, I wouldn't like it either if a mobile vendor was parked in front of my restaurant. But on the other hand, business is about competition.