It's been three weeks since Hurricane Harvey unleashed its rains upon Houston, and for the residents of this great city, that means many different things. For restaurants, it's the hope that folks will once again return to dining out like normal, bringing much-needed sales after businesses had to close their doors for days and weeks at a time.
The Houston Press food writers wanted to share the stories of their first meals dining out after Harvey. For most of us, it meant seeking comfort, not only through food, but through the connections and relationships we have with our neighbors, families, friends, local businesses and even with strangers.
What did your first meal out in Houston after Hurricane Harvey mean to you? We'd like to hear from you. Please tell us about the first meal you had out in the comments or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll share the best stories.
Nicholas Hall: I was out of town for Harvey, working out of my company's backup control center in Austin. My experience of the storm was secondhand, through Facebook updates and gaudy, wide-angle news shots of swollen bayous and flooded neighborhoods. It was a helpless feeling, though a very different one from that felt by those in the middle of it. After the storm, when I came back to Houston, the waters had mostly receded. My neighborhood, Montrose, was mostly intact. The high-water marks told the tale I'd followed from afar. My first meal out, nearly two weeks after the storm itself had come and gone, was at Paulie's, my favorite neighborhood haunt. Every time I visit, I feel as if it's been entirely too long. That feeling was amplified by the outsized nature of my absence in the midst of Houston's living history. Seeing the place filled with happy patrons, normalcy spread across their faces and their tables, reminded me of what Houstonians who've lived through storms like Harvey, or Allison, or Alicia know better than most: Houston floods, and Houston rises from the waters. That's a lot of weight to place on a bowl of bucatini amatriciana, but a weight the food — and the city — can bear.
Cuc Lam: Given that we were out of the country during Harvey, first thing the boyfriend and I wanted to do was help in any way possible. After preparing hot suppers and breakfast tacos for Walnut Bend neighborhood volunteers the first weekend after the storm, we participated in a local fundraising event at the Tasting Room at Uptown Park. On Thursdays, the chef cooks something fabulous on the patio. We lucked out to stumble upon jambalaya cooked in a ginormous paella pan. We were rewarded for our donation to support local Harvey Relief efforts with a glass of bubbly. Then freshly shucked oysters, charcuterie (and a few bottles of Prosecco) ensued. They are running this offer throughout the month of September!
Erika Kwee: Is there any better comfort than a steaming cardboard carton overflowing with greasy lo mein noodles or fried rice? Houston seems to think not, judging by the number of patrons hanging out at the Rice Box on the Sunday before Labor Day. When we walked in, there was just one woman in line, lightly quizzing the cashier on gluten-free options; by the time we stepped up to the register, a small crowd had formed behind us. Despite the chaos wreaked by Harvey, it was comforting to see that the consistency at Rice Box was unwavering. The service was friendly and fast, the shrimp and Chinese sausage chow fun was tasty, the broccoli and tofu was hot and saucy, and the egg rolls were perhaps the crispiest I've seen yet.
Jamie Alvear: Flooded streets and closed roads kept me separated from my family during Hurricane Harvey. On Saturday, September 2, we were finally reunited and decided to grab a bite at Pinkerton's BBQ. Grant Pinkerton stayed open during the storm to feed first responders and the local community, so I was happy to support his business. The restaurant was packed and happy chatter filled the air. We devoured chopped beef sandwiches, potato salad and beans. There was still lots of post-hurricane cleanup to do, but at that moment we were thankful to be together enjoying a great meal.
Jennifer Fuller: The first thing I ate out after Harvey was this rustic barbecue brisket-stuffed baked potato served underneath crystal chandeliers and fancy gas lamps. Since Dickinson BBQ was flooded, owner Keith Lilley started operations for his barbecue restaurant inside his swanky Cajun-fusion restaurant next door, Marais. Only Marais’s lower deck bar was flooded, allowing both restaurants to temporarily operate out of Marais’s main dining area.
Lorretta Ruggiero: The night before Hurricane Harvey began, my family and I had dinner at the local neighborhood Mexican restaurant, Del Pueblo, that also employs my teenage daughter. We sat on the patio, enjoying the evening with margaritas and queso. I took a photo of the sunset over the restaurant, worried about the hurricane and its predicted rainfall.
At home, we hunkered down to watch the news. When we weren’t glued to our television, we were calling family, texting friends, and checking Facebook. Meanwhile, our own street became a river. Cypress Creek had invaded our front yard. Five days later, we had friends we couldn’t reach in shelters and neighbors being evacuated by helicopters and boats. For us, the waters finally receded, leaving only a soggy mess in our garage. The sun came out on Tuesday and we knew we needed to get out of the house. So, we went to our other favorite Mexican restaurant, Casa Imperial.
The sign out front said “No more beef fajitas,” which of course was exactly what I was craving. The restaurant was packed. It was the first time in nine years that we had to wait for a table.
When you have just made it through one of the worst natural disasters in American history, a frozen margarita is a great salve. I blame the stress of Harvey for the fact that I had three. The chips and salsa tasted a little of burnt oil, and the grilled onions with the chicken fajitas were raw, but it didn’t matter. Everybody will be flying by the seat of his pants for a while, the restaurant industry included. Allowances must be made. We will all be back to ourselves soon. Maybe even better.
Brooke Viggiano: While I wasn't around to weather the storm, I did quite obsessively check in from afar; and it was pretty damn beautiful to see how the city banded (and continues to band) together in a time of tragedy. King's Bierhaus was one of the many restaurants that offered support, inviting locals who could safely make it to gather for a beer on the house after the worst had passed and even hosting a Labor Day fundraiser. I hit up the biergarten upon my return, and I can say my jägerschnitzel sandwich never tasted better.
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Gwendolyn Knapp: I believe it was Tuesday night when the cohort and I ventured out onto Westheimer in Montrose. Before that I'd just stayed inside watching the news and obsessively calling grocery stores to find out what was open, and also once walked to Pak's through the sideways rain to get wine — they actually have a decent white Bordeaux there, judgment zone, mmkay — and those horrible little mini chocolate doughnuts that never die, no matter how long they stay on the shelf. I don't know why, but I love those damn things.
The traffic was crazy. It looked like a busy weekend, and restaurants were either already closing, just totally out of food or completely overrun. There was a line about 50 deep at The Burger Joint, stretching into that mini parking lot that it shares with Aladdin, which was already closing up. We decided to just grab a glass of wine at Camerata, which was pretty quiet, but come to find out, they actually had a small food menu going. We ordered a cheese board and a jar of chicken liver mousse to share and slathered it all over Ritz crackers — they had no bread, for obvious reasons. It was nice to be out, and some people we knew rolled in and everybody was in good spirits, but I still just felt bad, guilty. I don't know.
That Sunday, I had my first full meal out at Himalaya with a giant crew, about 12 people, and it was incredible. The Hunter's Beef with that addictive creamy mustard sauce. The buttery saag paneer and soft garlic naan. The traffic over there was insane. I think it took more than ten minutes just to get out of the parking lot back onto Hillcroft.
I also ate at Molina's Cantina on Washington for the first time later in the week. It was perfect Tex Mex comfort food — queso, sizzling fajita, frozen margaritas with salt. Every seat on the bar's patio was taken, which was nice to see, since most Houston restaurants have been in need of business. I know I am relatively new to the city, not even eight months in, but I still felt really grateful when my lunch jam, Thien An, reopened as well. There's one woman there who makes the best banh mi. She knows the perfect ratio of jalapeño to meat, so you get that heat in every bite, and the bread is always perfectly toasty. I swear I did a happy dance when I walked in and saw her working back there.