Tomorrow I turn 40. So I have been remembering my favorite Houston foods and restaurants from my childhood.
These are my 10 favorite Houston classics -- 5 still here, and 5 that only live in memory:
Houston classics you can still get
1. James Coney Island Chili Cheese Dog. Thankfully, JCI is still here. For 85 years, JCI has been serving amazing chili dogs. The secret is the chili. Apart from the cumin, there must be something wickedly decaden in that chili to make it so good.
2. Antone's Po Boys. Antone's is a little older than me. Their po boys -- and their stores -- may seem ordinary now. But in the mid 1970s, stepping into the Antone's on Taft or South Main was like being transported to Europe. And the classic po-boy was one of the most exotic sandwiches in town. Even now, there is something very unique about the mixture of sweet and sour chow chow, sweet pickles, and salty meat and cheese.
3. Triple A Cafeteria's rolls. I had very good cafeteria rolls at Luby's, Picadilly, Black Eyed Pea, and Cleburne Cafeteria. But it is hard to beat the basket of rolls and moist, unsweetened corn bread that they have served forever at the Triple A. The Triple A has been around since 1942, and I assume they have been overcooking their vegetables ever since then.
4. Barbecue Inn's stuffed crab. Houstonians have always gone nuts over crab. The stuffed crab at Barbecue Inn is the first crab dish I learned to love. It is not much more than a casserole of bread and crab stuffed in a crab-shaped tin shell. But it it is comfort food that brings back many memories.
5. Ragin Cajun's oyster po boy, boiled crawfish. I did not know cajun food before I found the Ragin Cajun. Now it is owned by the Mandola's and has become a 4-location chain. In the late 70s, this was undoubtedly the best cajun food in town.
Houston classics now lost
1. Alfred's Deli bagels and lox and eggs. I have never had bagels that came close to their unique, egg-washed bagels -- sweet, chewy, absolutely delicious. It also was at Alfred's that discovered the joy of eggs scrambled with lox and onions. Like the bagels, I have never found a better version. Alfred's made me want to be Jewish -- except then I might not have had the JCI chili dogs.
2. Monterrey House's tamales. Ok, maybe this was not a Houston classic, but a nationwide chain. Still, Monterrey House was my first Mexican food, which I remember better than my first girlfriend. Over time, the quality declined seriously. But when Monterrey House first appeared in Houston, its dense beef tamales with chili gravy taught me to love Mexican food. Plus, I dug the brown sugar candy at the bottom of the basket.
3. Felix's enchiladas. I was in mourning for a week after Felix's closed. Felix was where I learned to love the classic, Tex-Mex, cheese enchilada with gravy. My friends and I would collect yard-mowing money and ride our bmx bike to Felix's just to get those enchiladas. Today, Mexican food in Houston is much, much better than the ground-meat and American-cheese based Tex Mex of the 70s. Still, when Felix's closed, we lost an icon.
4. Britain's Broiler Burgers. This burger store across from Memorial City was quite possibly my first burger. It had a merry-go-round that moved slowly so that kids would not throw up. It also served a remarkable flame-broiled burger with sharp cheddar cheese. It was a unique flavor that I rarely see replicated. Just like I rarely see any more spinning rides in kid's restaurants.
5. Asian Restaurant. This mostly-vegetarian, mostly-Chinese restaurant and Weslayan and Richmond served remarkably tasty, restorative food. Almost every dish was completely different from food I have had in any Chinese restauarnt. Plus, prices were cheap.
mashed potatoes and brown gravy at Picadilly Cafeteria (closed)
crepes at the Magic Pan (closed)
chess pie at Luby's (open)
breakfast at One's-a Meal (1 location still open, but not quite the same)
enchiladas at the Mexicatessen on Crosstimbers (closed)
pepperoni pizza at Antonio's Flying Pizza (open)
eggrolls at North China near Memorial City (closed) [Correction: it's still open. Woo hoo.]
fish at Monument Inn (closed)
fried fish and fries at Alfie's Fish 'n Chips (closed)