Random Ephemera

Why Some Houston Restaurants Don't/Didn't Have to Be Good to Be Memorable

My wife and I got married in 2001 at the age of 19 (no, she wasn't pregnant). We were very much in love and very, very broke. At the time, we were living in a tiny apartment at the corner of West Alabama and Greenbriar. That's also where we got married. It was a small ceremony, with only a few close friends and family members, presided over by a man whose name we got out of the yellow pages. He handed out novelty dollar bills with scripture verses printed on them, and kept referring to my wife's best friend's boyfriend David as "Amigo." I'm not sure David was even Hispanic. My wife wore a dress borrowed from and fitted for her by a family friend, and I borrowed a suit my dad had last worn in the late '70s. It was a memorable affair. 

After the vows, after dancing in our living room, after my mom cried, after all the guests had left, we walked three or four blocks to 59 Diner. We shared a banana milkshake and took photos in the photobooth. That was the best milkshake I've ever had. 

This memory bubbled to the surface recently, in a discussion that bloomed in the wake of 59 Diner's closing. People were coming out of the woodwork both to mourn its passing and spit on its grave. I haven't much love for 59 Diner as a purveyor of actual food, and I'm not sure many do. Still, I have a fondness for the place, almost entirely informed by that day 15 years ago that set into motion pretty much everything good about my adult life.

I don't mean to attach undue gravitas to the milkshake itself, but there's no denying that the restaurant has a place in my personal history. That's not my only fond memory of that particular greasy spoon, either, but it's a big one. Given the diner's popularity as a date spot for teenagers headed to various formals over the years, I can't imagine I'm the only one who feels that way about 59. 

Likewise, I can't imagine there aren't other spots scattered across the city, beloved by their guests for reasons having nothing at all to do with what's on the plate. When we make the decision to go out to eat, the food is only one of the factors. A staff who greets you like family, like "Uncle Ivan," the GM at a mediocre Galleria-area red sauce joint who would entertain our kids when they were young, giving them "tours" around the dining room while we managed to eat at least half a meal as actual civilized adults; the place you first tried Tex-Mex upon moving to Houston as a child, even if it's now fallen from grace; the place your wife waitressed at in high school; the pizza joint you frequented for off-campus lunch your senior year.

Food being so intimately associated with our sense of self and our place in the world, it's not particularly surprising that we develop relationships with restaurants that stand the test of time, even while the food doesn't. I asked some of my fellow Houston Press writers if they had any restaurant relationships forged in similar ways. I'm pretty sure they all do, but these were the ones willing to share. 

Brooke Viggiano: 

"I totally don't want to admit this but I want to give an answer, so it looks like my hand's been forced: Pizza Hut. I'm not even sure I enjoy it, and yet I'd be devastated if it went the way of Roy Rogers (the fried chicken chain, not the guy...did you guys have those down here?) and ended up only in rundown rest stops. No childhood birthday party was complete without that crisp, buttery crust and questionably stretchy cheese. Later in life, my then high school boyfriend now husband worked at one as a dishwasher and used to bring us leftover breadsticks after his shift. To this day, I'd never turn down those breadsticks."

I can sympathize with Brooke's fondness. I spent a lot of summers reading books for the exclusive purpose of earning my free personal pan pizza, which I mostly wanted so that I could get another crack at the Rolling Thunder console. I still haven't beaten that damn game. 

Chris Lane: 

"Triple A Restaurant on Airline.

The Triple A is still a beloved spot I go to fairly often, because it reminds me of the sorts of greasy spoon diners I'd eat at as a kid. It hasn't changed much in at least 40 years from what I can tell, and the food is middle of the road comfort food. I love it.

Andy's Mexican Restaurant in the Heights.

Really mediocre Tex Mex that's been around forever, but a fun place to go eat late at night after the bars close down.

Doyle's Family Restaurant in Oak Forest.

Ample servings of average comfort food that hit the spot in a restaurant that hasn't changed significantly since I was a kid."

Nostalgia goes a long way, foodwise. Every once in a while, I remember a blissful 12th birthday spent endlessly raising the flag at Pancho's Mexican Buffet. That's almost certainly the most painfully full I've ever been in my life. Thankfully, the memory of that stomachache is just (barely) enough to remind me of how bad that idea was in the first place. 

Phaedra Cook: 

"Let’s not fool ourselves that the food at 24-hour diner House of Pies is actually great. (Well, some of the pies are, I guess, although I always get either the chocolate silk or the coconut custard every time.) Anyone recommending House of Pies to an out-of-town visitor should add this caveat: “It is kind of a greasy spoon.”

Well, it is, and service is unreliable, too. The wait staff may dote on guests or may make it clear that they’re not having a good night and would rather not be there. The coffee is usually best described as hot water with a touch of brown. The eggs are, well, eggs and the corned beef hash almost certainly comes out of a can. (Ask them to “burn it” so it arrives with a pleasing, crispy crust.) The cottage fries, which are like flattened tater tots, aren’t bad but won’t reinvent anyone’s world.

That’s not really the point of going to House of Pies. The Kirby location is one of the few 24-hour establishments inside the Loop and the Westheimer location is homier than Chacho’s or Doneraki, both of which are just down the street. Furthermore, it is some of the best people-watching in Houston. Everyone from police officers to strippers to couples on dates to families with young kids go there. The crowd that gathers is an amazing cross-section of Houston’s melting pot. Also, it’s the only restaurant I ever dined in where the manager came out and made balloon animals for the diners at 1 a.m.

Say what you will about the food, but there are few places where anyone can show up and automatically fit in more naturally than at House of Pies. Yeah, it is kind of a greasy spoon—but go there anyway. There’s almost always a good story to tell afterward." 

I've loved canned corned beef hash for longer than I'd care to admit. Especially when it's crispy, as with Phaedra's helpful HoP hack; that thin, crackling shell giving way to gently mushy nuggets of potato and what can really only be classified as "grainy meat pudding" makes for a genuinely lovely bite of food in its way. Still, I think Phaedra's exactly right when she says the place is really about the stories, whether they happen at House of Pies, or in the previous hours that led you there in search of something greasy and salty to soak up both the booze and the experience. 

Ellie Sharp: 

"The only one that keeps coming to mind is La Tapatia on Richmond, because it was probably the first 24-hour Mexican restaurant I'd ever been to and I thought it was pretty cool to have a flight arrive at IAH at midnight and go straight to dinner at 1 a.m. Since then I've only been back a handful of times and always feel a little disappointed with the food but still have fun remembering what it was like to be an Houston newcomer and what it was like to be 23." 

I miss 24-hour La Tapatia, but I don't miss La Tapatia. I go there every once in a while, simply because it's literally a block away from my house, but the food really is mediocre. Still, it holds a special place in my heart as well, but mostly on account of this little nugget from local psych rock heroes The Linus Pauling Quartet: 

As I was working on this story, longtime Bellaire haunt Hong Kong Chef closed its doors. When I mentioned that I'd never been, a friend suggested that, perhaps, Hong Kong Chef belonged in this category. Curious, I posed the question on Facebook. 

My friend Chris White didn't go quite so far as to say the food was bad, but his relationship with the place was clearly predicated more on familiarity and history than on taste: "I wouldn't say I 'don't love' the food. It was neighborhood Chinese takeout from my high school days. I remember it fondly alongside the likes of the former Bandanas Grill on Beechnut: Of a certain place and time in my life. Much like the Rice Kitchen on Holly Hall - across the street from my first apartment. Is it shut down? No idea. But the memory is there."

Joshua Martinez of The Modular food truck feels much the same way, seeing Hong Kong Chef almost as a talisman of time and place: "I grew up in the city of Bellaire and this place has been a part of my whole life. The place was a time warp and it felt like home. Comfortable since you could come here and know nothing has ever changed.  It was just our neighborhood joint going back to 1979 til now. The place was no frills. I kind of looked forward to eating in the back room dining room. It was like I was going to a secret space. Again not the best but fond memories of growing up eating at this place. Nothing changed ever."

Ultimately, I won't mourn the loss of 59 Diner. I will, however, remember it fondly. I'm pretty sure, somewhere in a box in the attic, is a strip from the photobooth up front. My wife in a white gown, me in a borrowed suit, both of us with ridiculous smiles plastered on our faces. There may or may not be a drop of banana milkshake on my lapel. That makes up for a lot of mediocre meals. 

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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