Friday, December 19, 2008

local food at Avenue Grill

For a food philosopher in Houston, one of the greatest quandries is this:

What is our local food?

All the pricey restaurants talk about local ingredients. But usually their "local" means locally grown, by small-production farmers. It rarely means indigenous ingredients. (Apart from Gulf seafood, we don't have many). And it rarely means local-style cuisine.

Does Houston even have a local cuisine? You might say that Houston's local cuisine is the diverse cuisine of its many immigrant communities.

Yet there are older food traditions here that date back to the 19th Century. As a sixth generation Texas, I should know. At family reunions and Baptists churches in rural East Texas, I have encountered local food.

This kind of food is dying out in Houston. But you can still get it at a few places. One of them is Avenue Grill.

Avenue Grill

This little steam-table cafeteria near the corner of Washington Avenue and Houston Avenue has been serving local dishes for years. It has a faithful crowd of police, traffic court employees, traffic court jurors, and the kind of lawyers who don't wear expensive suits and ties.

Yesterday, I had lunch at Avenue with two other lawyers. Let's call them "Bob" and "Jim." None of us wore expensive suits or ties.

Bob ordered chicken fried steak and gravy. Jim had beef enchilladas. I got chicken and dumplings. Avenue makes a quintessentially East Texan chicken fried steak, fried in the manner of fried chicken. The chicken and dumplings had a wonderfully gummy texture and a strong, chicken-broth flavor.

Somehow, we all ordered greens. I assume they were collard greens, but the chalk board did not specify. Greens are very local. Although cooked a little too thoroughly, they had the correct earthy, bitter flavor of good East Texas greens. My side of pinto beans also was sufficiently Texan.

Avenue serves a generous basket of yeast rolls and unsweetened cornbread. This is exactly the sort of bread I remember eating on the lawn of small churches in East Texas.

Can our local cuisine ever get respect?

I enjoy Avenue Grill. I wish Houstonians would take this sort of food more seriously.

I asked Bob and Jim why East Texas food has been relegated to cafeterias, steam tables, and cheap cafes. I wondered why no one will open a high-end restaurant that combines local produce, contemporary techniques, and traditional East Texas recipes? Bob mentioned Ouisie's Table. It dabbles in local cuisine. Yet its menu includes just as many non-Texan dishes like rare tuna, curry, veal picatta, and crepes. (Crepes? Get a rope.)

Then again, maybe this sort of food simply can't be fine cuisine. Maybe it belongs in little joints like Avenue Grill, Barbecue Inn, and This Is It.


Anonymous said...

Don't trust anymore. They work with business owners to delete less favorable reviews so that all you read is the positive ones. The restaurant owners are forced to buy ads to get negative comments removed.

Jacey said...

I haven't been to Avenue, but in my opinion, you can skip Ousie's. My dad had his wedding there a few years ago, and the food was mediocre at best. I certainly wouldn't suggest it as a trademark Houston establishment.

Rubiao said...

I've always driven past Avenue Grill on my way to Stanton's and the Heights, and I finally stopped a couple Saturdays ago for breakfast. I had the pork chop and eggs, and wound up the sickest I've ever been. I don't know if you can blame restaurants for food poisoning or not, but this was one of the worst feelings I've ever had. Unfortunately, the meal wasn't that good to start with, which was disappointing as I really wanted to like the place. I shall not be returning.

Larissa said...

I've eaten at Avenue Grill far more than I want to admit, and I have never gotten sick.
Remember Fox Diner, that was local! Where else can you have a choice between Hummingbird or Red Velvet cake?

neverfull said...

thanks for the tip on chicken and dumplings. i love it especially during colder temperatures.

the C&D at this is it! is my go-to but it is so greasy b/c the chicken is bone-on, skin-on.

at max's, the dish is bland. red lion's is pretty good, they had it on the menu last winter but i haven't checked to see if they've brought it back this season.

i'm going to try to make it to avenue grill this week. thanks for the craving.

Anonymous said...

I would say that Monica Pope at T'afia is using as many local ingredients as possible and really does a ton to support local growers and farmers/ranchers. While the cuisine may not exactly remind of old-school texas cuisine, it is phenomenal and really is local.

anonymouseater said...

There is no question that T'afia has long been at the forefront in serving food grown by local farmers. Quite a few other restaurants do the same thing (to name a few: Reef, 17, Rainbow Lodge).

But many of the ingredients at T'afia are not indigenous to this area. And the style of cuisine is not even remotely local. It is more California/International.

T'afia raises some interesting questions about what we mean when we say local.

Larissa is right. Fox Diner was an excellent place for high-end local food. So was a restaurant named Sabine in the mid 90s. I was sad that it did not stay with us longer.

Bill Burge said...

Go back to Ouisie's and try the roasted quail with wild boar sausage. I think it has actually changed my life.