Thursday, April 16, 2009

Yia Yia's Roadster Grill

The perks of using a former Taco Bell

It can only help to open your restaurant in a decaying structure that was once a Taco Bell. First-time customers will have terribly low expectations. And it's easy to exceed them.

I suspect Yia Yia's Roadster Grill, on Bissonnet near Bellaire, has a big following because it continues to excced the expectations engendered by such a lousy location.

For the same reason, I was once a long-time fan of The Last Concert Cafe. The funky, run-down location in the warehouse district surely looked like it was once a bordello. It didn't matter that the Mexican food was average, at best. You feel proud of yourself for finding even average food in such a dingy-looking joint.

Greek food that beats expectations

Yia Yia's Roadster Grill serves a variety of burgers, hot dogs, and Philly Cheese Steak. They also have a handful of Greek dishes -- gyros, souvlaki, Greek salads, and moussaka.

Let's be honest about our city. Houston's Greek food is not very good. There are some decent Greek restaurants with higher quality and more variety, such as Alexander the Great Greek and the overly-commercial-feeling Yia Yia Mary's. But the greek dishes I tried at Yia Yia Roadster are better than similar dishes at other Greek places, like Niko Niko's. And the burgers aren't bad either.

Moussaka

The moussaka is less greasy than some other places (Niko Niko's). The casserole's different layers -- eggplant, bread crumbs, ground meat, bechamel -- are remarkably distinct. The bechamel top is crisped in the oven. In short, it is a very nicely constructed moussaka.

Yet the construction of this dish doesn't quite make up for the fact that the flavor of moussaka is almost always a bit dull.

Recently an acquaintance from Europe explained a theory about immigrant food. When immigrants bring the food of their homeland with them, the food remains frozen at the time of the immigration. Yet in the home country, the local cuisine continues to progress. That may explain why American Italian food is almost all pasta and tomato sauce -- dishes that were popular at the time of mass immigrations from Italy, but have little to do with the best food currently served in Italy.

Although Moussaka looks and sounds exotic, its taste and texture seem a lot like a late 1950's American casserole. These days, Americans don't eat many 50's style casseroles. Which makes me wonder whether modern Greeks eat much moussaka. I keep forgetting that moussaka is not my favorite dish. Still, Yia Yia Roadster's version may be my favorite in town.

Surprising attention to ingredients

I liked the other dishes I tried. Anonymous Child's burger had a nice grill flavor. And her fries were crunchy.

A Greek salad highlighted the good ingredients used in this cheap restaurant. The lettuce was green, cucumbers were fresh and crisp, and feta was deliciously salty. Only the slightly mealy tomatoes were a disappointment -- but then again 95 % of tomatoes are. Compared to the last Greek salad I ate at Niko Niko's, the ingredients here were far superior.

It probably is not worth driving across town to try the Greek food in this popular, run-down Taco Bell building. But if you are near Bellaire, it is a good spot for some decent, cheap Greek food that exceeds expectations.

70 comments:

Misha said...

When I first read "frozen at the time of the immigration" - I got visions of massive refrigeration facilities that process immigrants before they cross the border with their frozen containers of food in tow. Awesome.

Then I realized you meant "frozen in time". Oh well. It was a nice thought while it lasted.

anonymouseater said...

Misha - The sad thing is that I struggled with that sentence, re-writing it several times to try to remove another ambiguity, and then just landed in that one.

Language is a virus from outer space.

Tom Casagrande said...

I’ve driven by the place zillions of times on my way to nearby Bellaire Broiler (which I like a lot as a really good basic burger joint), but I’m not sure having read this that I’ll stop in to the Roadster anytime soon. But that’s not why I wanted to post a comment.

It was your observation about Italian food in America being essentially spaghetti-and-tomato-sauce-based because of the period of time Italian immigration peaked. I have had many discussions with my Italian immigrant grandparents before they died (and with my father and his brothers) about why they Italian food we had – the Italian branch of my family hailed from the central Adriatic coast in Le Marche -- was different from the spaghetti with red sauce stuff prevalent in many “Italian” restaurants. I was told that it had to do with where the immigrants were from in Italy.

During the early 1900s when Italian immigration was peaking, Italy was a far less unitary cultural entity than it is today. For example, regional dialects were the rule, rather than a single universal form of Italian, and the differences in some dialects were so extreme that people from such regions had difficulty communicating with each other.

So it was with food. There were tremendous regional differences. Tomato-based pasta sauces and dried, non-egg-containing forms of pasta were prevalent in the south of Italy (particularly around Naples), and at that time the vast majority of immigrants from Italy were from the south (and Sicily). In other areas of Italy (such as Le Marche), tomato sauces and spaghetti or ziti plays a much less prominent role.

So while I agree that time played a role, I think it was only an indirect role. Rather, it’s my firm conviction that the origin of the Italian immigrants at that time was the more proximate cause, to use a legal term.

Anyway, having spent almost 40 years in the Northeast US before moving to Texas 11 years ago, I have to say that Houston, while a great restaurant town for almost every other type of food, has a paucity of great Italian restaurants. I used to like Simposio before Alberto Baffoni (sp.) left (he was from Le Marche too – maybe that’s why), and while I think De Marco is really good, I won’t pay such ridiculous prices. Beyond that, there isn’t much for a city this size.

Sorry for such a long comment on such a tangential part of your post! Keep up the good eating and writing.

anonymouseater said...

Tom - That was possibly the best, most thoughtful comment ever posted on this site.

One of my obsessions is watching what happens to immigrant food when it comes to the U.S. I have a lot of theories, but no answers. As for Italian food, you are almost certaintly correct. So much immigration was from the area of Naples, and so much American Italian food is like the food in Naples, even if it is frozen in time somewhat.

I also agree with your disappointment in Italian food in Houston. It is one of the world's great cuisines, and its full diversity is not represented well here.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Greeks still eat moussaka. Not a lot, but when eggplants are in season they will eat it every now and then.

Unfortunately Greek food is poorly represented in Houston. It is strange because people eat out a lot and, in my opinion, would appreciate a REAL Greek restaurant with dishes beyond the worn out cliches (which are not prepared as they should anyway).

Anonymous said...

The owner of this place was a totaly jerk to me this evening. All because we presented a coupon that he said was issued by a previous owner and that he had no obligation to honor. When I challenged his rude statement, he only got worse. I was literally shaking after the confrontation. I finally just quit trying to interject my points because he would NOT listen to anything I had to say. I couldn't believe the total lack of business sense and customer service that the owner (Nick) exhibited. I have gone to this restaurant many times, but will never return.

Fibonacci said...

I feel a certain kinship with this review. I, too, have noticed the phenomenon of Greek Restaurants moving in to old Taco Bell stores.

From Ohio to California, I'm slowing collecting evidence with the zeal of a crop circle investigator.

http://greekRestaurantsMadeFromOldTacoBells.blogspot.com

Yia Yia's is but one of many in this curious trend. Godspeed, ANONYMOUSEATER.

Lily said...

i love Yia Yia's Roadster Grill... its great food... i really love it

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