Off the Wall

Tunnel Explorer: Flavors

Have you ever burned the roof of your mouth, then spent the next week poking at that spot with your tongue, worrying it over and over despite the pain caused by touching the wound? I'm the type of person who does that. It's a morbid fascination, I suppose.

That same sort of gross fascination occasionally fuels my behavior in other arenas. Take, for example, Katharine Shilcutt's recent warning about a particular underground eatery. "Whatever you do," she admonished, "avoid Flavors in the McKinney tunnel. Possibly the worst catfish and the worst French fries I have ever had anywhere ever ever ever. And bizarre service, to boot." Like a flap of burned skin hanging from the roof of my mouth, that couldn't be left alone.

Not long ago, I headed down to Flavors to see it for myself. It's a very nondescript spot, tucked in next to Miller's Café. A thin strip of tables sits beside a steam-table counter. The place seems chronically empty, at least the handful of times I've walked by. For some reason, it always has the feeling of being in the process of shutting down, or like it was only ever partially open, to begin with.

The day I stopped by, the brightly colored menu board in front of the space advertised a surprising daily special, filet mignon for around six bucks. I don't know about you, but something about a $6 filet from a mostly empty lunch counter tucked into the downtown tunnels fails to inspire confidence or whet my appetite.

I spent a moment looking over the menu, an odd mishmash of the usual lunch counter fare along with a handful of upscale-aspiring dishes, and was about to leave when at last an employee emerged from the back. He seemed excited to see me. I hadn't really intended to eat there that day, merely treating this as a recon mission. He was so eager and earnest, though, that I simply didn't have the heart to leave.

He ran through the day's specials, clearly enthusiastic about the filet, feeling me out and trying to reel me in. I wasn't about to go for the filet. I settled on crawfish étouffée, instead, passing up the offer to "blacken anything on the menu." Don't ask me why. I know it's not exactly consistent to snub the beef and settle on seafood.

I was encouraged a bit when the guy gave me a stern-eyed warning about the spiciness of his étouffée. "We like things a bit hotter than you might be used to down here," he cautioned. "We like flavor." When I assured him I would be fine, he scooped some rice into a Styrofoam container, and ladled some étouffée on top. $6.50 seemed a bit steep for a smallish portion, but fit with the typical tunnel markup.

He didn't lie about the heat. It was by no means overpowering, but was certainly spicier than I would have expected otherwise. The lightish color indicated the use of a medium roux, a suspicion reinforced by the nutty base flavor. Aside from that, I tasted mostly cayenne, onion, and bell pepper, without much in the way of seafood flavor. It wasn't bad, but the flavors were a bit muted and muddy.

There was a decent concentration of crawfish tails, but their rubbery texture and almost complete lack of flavor pointed to a sack of their brethren in a freezer in the back, and criminal over-cooking. Texture issues proved the biggest problems. In addition to the rubbery tails, the rice was overcooked and mushy, and the gravy had an oddly gloppy texture, a combination of grainy and gelatinous that made me wonder if there were some other thickener at work, instead of just roux. Corn starch came to mind.

Overall, I don't know that I'd come down on Flavors as hard as Katharine did. I suppose the service was a bit odd, but mostly in its eager effusiveness. The food was institutional at best, but certainly not the worst I've ever had. Then again, I didn't have the catfish. Maybe I need to go back. . .

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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