On the original menu, owners Neil Sackheim and Randy Pace featured Jewish deli favorites such as chopped liver, blintzes, and lox and bagels; unfortunately, Houston failed to catch on. (I can understand chopped livers' poor reception, but lox and bagels? Shocking, even in a city where blueberry bagels reign supreme.)
Fortunately, you can still order Sackheim's grandmother's chicken soup when it appears on the deli's rotating soup menu. (All soups are $2.50 for a cup, $3.95 for a bowl.) Homey, and thick with noodles, chunks of chicken, carrots and parsley, it reminded me of the kind of soup my Aunt Julie used to make for special occasions "good for what ails you," as she would say.
Carter & Cooley is most famous for its baked potato soup, served every Thursday, but personally, I loved their French onion soup. A deeply flavored broth loaded with onions, big hunks of bread and lots and lots of melted cheese, it puts many more expensive restaurants' onion soups to shame. In fact, the only soup that I can't rave about is the cream of broccoli: Although richly flavored, it's just too thick.
Ironically, considering that C&C once aspired to be a Jewish deli, my favorite sandwich is the BLT ($4.95). Too often a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich consists of lettuce and tomato garnished with a puny couple of slices of bacon. Not here. The requisite crisp white toast, leaf lettuce, ripe, juicy tomato and mayo are foils for eight (yes, eight!) slices of bacon, cooked perfectly not too crisp, not too limp.
Carter & Cooley also makes a mean Reuben ($5.50). Slices of imported New York corned beef are layered on rye bread with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, mustard and Thousand Island dressing, then toasted to nongreasy perfection. Okay, the rye bread could have been a bit more sour, but it is, as they say, a nice sandwich. And like all the sandwiches, it's accompanied by a good garlicky pickle and potato salad, as well as a whimsical vegetable assortment: one olive, a baby carrot and part of a celery stalk.
The New Orleans muffuletta ($5.95) arrives on a nontraditional Italian focaccia, a nice idea. Executed properly, this piled-high meat-and-cheese sandwich is chiefly a vehicle for olive salad, and Carter & Cooley does not disappoint. Their rendition is a good one, heavy with olives and olive oil, garlic, capers and herbs.
The chicken salad sandwich ($5.50) wasn't as spectacular. Although the chunks of chicken were moist and flavorful, the mayonnaise dressing was a bit too sweet. Some herbs (tarragon, maybe?) might have corrected the balance.
By the cash register you'll see a display of small, individual-serving pies ($2.50), made especially for the restaurant by 86-year-old Dorothy Perry. I enjoyed the blueberry version, its luscious filling covered with a rich, flaky lattice crust.
Once, when leaving the restaurant, I complimented Sackheim on my sandwich. "You know," he said, "when you concentrate on doing only a couple of things, you'd better do them right." A wise philosophy.
Carter & Cooley Company, 375 West 19th, (713 )864-3354.