Sidewalk Cafe in the Tunnels

I almost literally stumbled into Sidewalk Café (1000 Main), a small lunch counter located underneath the Esperson Building, while walking from one end of downtown to the other. I was intending to duck into the downtown outpost of Thai Spice, whose sign hangs right above Sidewalk Café, when I noticed Sidewalk's advertisements for Korean lunch specials. I approached the counter and tried to get a feel for the place. Sidewalk Café is ostensibly a sushi joint, but that's not what intrigued me. I was more interested in the day's offering of bulgogi and various banchan selections.

I opted for half bulgogi, half marinated chicken, and a little bit of each of the three banchan available. For around $7, I got a takeout container filled with two meats, rice, cabbage kim chee, and two kinds of pickles -- not bad for an accidental tunnel discovery.

I tried the bulgogi first. It had a well-balanced flavor, with brown sugar, soy and caramelized onion standing out clearly. There were nice hints of char and smoke, as well, lending the beef more character than might be expected from a small, counter-service joint in the bowels of the tunnels, wedged between a Seattle's Best and a McDonald's.

The marinated chicken paled a bit in comparison. It was full-flavored and fall-off-the-bone tender, and even the breast meat was properly cooked and juicy, but it was a little one-note. Aside from a general roasted taste, there was only a vague sweetness and mild chile kick to add interest.

The banchan, on the other hand, were pretty fantastic.

Regular pickled cucumbers were fresh and crunchy. The cuke flavor shined through brightly, with a nice briny flavor that permeated the fruit rather than simply coating it. A deep undercurrent of toasted sesame ran throughout, providing contrast to the otherwise crisp flavors.

The spicy pickled cucumbers were basically the same, but with a hefty dose of earthy, spicy chile paste applied. They didn't really offer much heat, but actually served to highlight the fresh taste of the cucumbers even more.

The cabbage kim chee was pungent with garlic and chiles, and bore a slight but pleasant funk. It was slightly acerbic, and spiked with bright acid. Through all of this, the cabbage flavor still managed to find its way to the surface.

It was the best lunch I'd found in the tunnel thus far, both for the quality of the food and the unexpected nature of the discovery, and I feel reinvigorated in my search for good food in the tunnels.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall