Radical Eats's Radical New Restaurant Sets Up Shop in Northside Village

Handpainted words on an old window advertise tacos, tortas and menudo in bright red and yellow lettering. This little white restaurant with red trim at the corner of Fulton and Catherine used to be just another taqueria in the neighborhood. These days, its new tenant -- Radical Eats -- doesn't sell menudo, but it does sell tacos. In fact, its specials today include fried okra tacos and fried avocado tacos.

Construction on Fulton is kicking up gritty waves of dust as Radical Eats's owner, Staci Davis, points to the front facade of the old building. "This is where the mural is going to be," she says.

It's already taking shape, striking black lines radiating out from a cherry tomato speared on a fork. The paint is dripping a little bit in the heat, the 17th consecutive day of 100 degree temperatures this summer. Despite this, the garden behind Radical Eats is in full bloom. Amaranth and basil grow in one planter; corn and okra in another.

Back inside, Davis takes a seat at one of the laminate wood tables in the old taqueria. "The whole place came with most of this stuff in it," she says, gesturing in particular to the checkboard pattern of ceiling tiles with Chinese dragons on them. "There's no indication that this place used to be a Chinese restaurant, though," she chuckles.

They've painted some of the old wood paneling blue and hung art on the walls -- all of it made from recycled materials -- but haven't changed much else so far. "I'd love to sack all of this," says Davis. "Get a sod roof, solar panels, paint some more murals." But for now, Radical Eats is taking baby steps.

A man starts to walk toward the kitchen and Davis stops him. "Greg, you need a hat," she reminds him. Many of Davis's employees are part-time here at Radical Eats, which is as much a restaurant as a commercial kitchen. Greg grins and ties a bright green bandanna around his head, then sets off to work.

"Some people just work here for the Internet access," she says. Others, like her plumber and her website designer, work in trade, a website for some tacos or an unstopped sink for some tamales. It's a system that is wholly communal in nature, and one that's unusual for a city like Houston that celebrates capitalism at every turn.

In fact, Davis is counting on that communal approach to help Radical Eats raise money for its next big project. Although the restaurant has only been open since July 3, Davis has big plans for this patch of land. She's currently raising $8,000 for a wine and beer garden that will be located at the back of the restaurant, mixed in along with the actual garden she already has growing out there.

More than half of that amount -- $4,200 -- is dedicated to the immense cost of obtaining a liquor license from the TABC. But she's convinced that it's necessary to help her fledgling restaurant grow: "Beer and wine will bring more locals into the place," she says. "And help with revenue, of course."

The way in which Davis and her team at Radical Eats is raising that money is as radical as the restaurant's name would imply: They started a Kickstarter account this past Monday where the community and its customers can chip in small amounts to raise the total $8,000 that's needed.

Three days in, and people have already thrown their support behind the project: "We've raised $1,200 already," Davis beams. And in the restaurant's spirit of bartering, people pledging cash to the project won't come away with just a sense of community: thank-you gifts are available at almost every level of donation, PBS-style. Instead of a tote bag, though, patrons can receive locally made mugs and hula hoops, cooking demonstrations, a dish named after them and -- yes -- T-shirts.

On this quiet Wednesday afternoon, Radical Eats isn't getting a lot of traffic. Davis admits that Wednesdays are her slowest days of the week. The Sunday brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. is already shaping up to be the busiest, though. "We ran out of food," she says of last week's brunch.

A Hispanic man walks in, seeming to recognize the place from its former incarnation, asking if they have any tacos. The friendly woman behind the register, one of Davis's seven employees, doesn't speak much Spanish, but manages to communicate that yes, they do have tacos. But they're avocado tacos, which doesn't seem to interest the man. He leaves.

Davis only seems fazed for a moment. "Eighty percent [of our business] is Internet traffic," she says. "People who read about us online. The other 20 percent is walk-in traffic, and they usually come back."

Those who have read about Radical Eats online are likely long-time connoisseurs of the vegan and gluten-free food that Davis has been cooking for decades, even when she was still an employee at Whole Foods. "I was one of the old hippies," she laughs. Davis started out in a shared stall at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market with the Emile Street Community Farm, selling prepared vegan meals and becoming locally famous for her massive veggie and breakfast tamales.

Before long, she was catering to vegan rock stars -- yes, rock stars -- and selling prepared foods like the tamales to local coffeeshops like Antidote and Black Hole. A short stint working in the kitchen at Heights Ashbury, a coffeeshop on 19th Street, prepared her to own and run her own place. Davis's tacos and tamales were, for a time, more popular than the actual coffee at Heights Ashbury.

Her menu has stayed true to its roots since that time: Mexican classics that are vegan and gluten-free. Aside from the fried okra tacos and the silky-smooth fried avocado tacos in wonderful homemade tortillas, there are also butternut squash tamales and a green chile stew that uses textured vegetable protein in place of pork. You don't even miss the pork, and you'd never know the tortillas were vegan either. On one counter, you can help yourself to freshly-made aguas frescas.

The food is made with ingredients Davis buys herself from the Urban Harvest each Saturday as well as bumper crops that friends of hers bring in when they can't use them. It's as seasonal as food can get. What she doesn't use goes into a compost, which is picked right back up by one of her friend's farms: City Farm No. 9.

Davis has even bigger plans for Radical Eats down the road: a coffee program, longer hours, a refrigerator from which to sell her prepared food on-site, that sod roof and solar panels. For now, though, she's excited to get her community-funded liquor license and beer garden up and running in time for the fall.

"We're going have a big party," she smiles, looking forward to hosting her longtime customers as well as Radical Eats's heavily Hispanic neighborhood. "We're calling it Octoberfiesta."

See more photos from Radical Eats in our slideshow.

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