Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lola at breakfast

Ken Bridge

Houston is going be hearing a lot about Ken Bridge.

Another blogger recently called him "a genius." Of course, he's not a genius like Marco Wiles or Scott Tycer. He's more a genius like Tillman Fertito -- but in an Inner Loop sort of way.

There are 2 secrets to his success.

1 - Bridge knows his target: the Inner Loop's mid market. His restaurants -- Dragon Bowl, Pink's Pizza, and now Lola -- identify under-served niches and exploit them. His food is rarely great, but almost always good.

A few years ago, I called Dragon Bowl's dishes "clueless" but "fun." Yet now I eat there at least once a month. It isn't authentic Asian food, but it has the flavors to make me return.

2 - Bridge believes in hard work. I've seen him stir frying veggies at Dragon Bowl, spinning pizza dough at Pink's, and now manning the griddle at Lola's. When he opens a restuarant, he becomes a line cook. And he stays until he knows everything is going just right.

So this morning I found Bridge flipping pancakes at the newly opened Lola. A bead of sweat was dangling from his chin. His nearly shaven head was glistening. He was working hard, really hard.

Lola - pricey diner food

At Yale and 11th, Lola is Bridge's diner-concept restuarnat -- imagine something in between Houston's cheesy 59 Diner and San Francisco's upscale Fog City Diner.

Or think of it as an Inner Loop Denny's -- just a whole lot better.

The breakfast menu is exactly what you expect: omelets, huevos rancheros, pancakes, chicken fried steak. Dinner includes meat loaf, flank steak, braised pok ribs, and miso sea bass. And lunch runs from burgers to a roast-beef-debris sandwich.

The pricing is aggressive. An omelet is $11. Pancakes, $9. A burger, $10 -- plus an extra buck for cheese! Dinner prices are closer to what you might expect -- $12 - $18.

At first the pricing surprised me. But then I thought Bridge must know what he is doing. He knows that people will pay a 50% mark-up for higher quality. And Lola may be his highest quality venture yet.

A plate of eggs

"Breakfast Lola" is the basic Houston breakfast -- eggs, bacon, grits and bacon ($11).

I was most impressed with the grits - consistently textured and flavored with parmesan. Grits work best with some salt and and a little fat. Some of Houston's better grits (for example, Breakfast Klub) do that with butter. But Bridge does it with parmesan. It is one of the best bowls of grits in town.

The eggs were good quality, but too watery for my "over easy" order. Of course, it is hard to fault a kitchen serving a huge crowd after having been open for two days.

Applewood smoked maple bacon was far more flavorful than most diner bacon. And the sourdough bread was better than most diner toast.

Even the coffee was noticeably richer, smoother, and higher quality than the vast majority of Houston breakfast joints.

Why Lola will do well

I will report again after I eat some lunches and dinners here. But this one simple breakfast plate proves to me that Lola will be a hit. There are times when everyone -- even funky Heights residents -- craves basic diner food.

Most Heights residents won't eat at Denny's. And most Heights breakfast joints are lousy. So Lola fills a gap.

Bridge is pushing simple, comfort food to a crowd who is hungry for it. He knows that if he increases the quality, he can get people to pay a lot more for it.

Bravo, dude.


Rubiao said...

It really does fill the gap of non-Mexican casual food in the Heights, which is the biggest downside of living there, the prospect of actually having to eat at 11th Street Cafe. When I looked at the prices it seemed too expensive for breakfast and lunch and a bit too cheap for dinner. That pre-opening dinner was unfortunately disappointing, not that you can tell very much from those. They tried to do too much and the food suffered for it.

I do hope this place works out, but I hope they do a lunch/breakfast special every day at around 6 bucks. Menu looks great.

Matt said...

Had breakfast there yesterday, and my take is about the same. Competently prepared food with good quality ingredients, but an aggressive price point.
That said, since it's counter service, to compare the menu prices to table-service establishments, you should add 20% to the latter.
Breakfast for 2 with coffee is going to come close to $30, probably about $5-10 more than you'd pay at, say 11th St or Yale St, but it seems about $5-10 better, too.

Daniel Hinojosa said...

Breakfast shouldn't cost over $10 no matter where you live. Have you ever heard of Tele-Wink off of Telephone Rd. That's a real breakfast!

chris shepherd said...

I wouldn't change a thing. You have to understand that quality costs money. Ingredients cost money. He is not using cheap see through bacon or synthetic cased sausage. If you want quality you pay for it. $11 doesn't seem to me like that much for what you get. it's counter service and the man won't put a tip line on the check. Trust me I have asked him for a long time to do it. I believe that Ken and his places will do very well. Keep on rollin' Ken

Anonymous said...

Ate dinner there yesterday though it turned out to be dinner since they aren't serving the whole menu. While I love Dragon Bowl and Pink's I really thought I skip ever returning to Lola. I didn't even notice the price, but that's probably cause I was eating at dinner time and paying dinner prices.

Huevos rancheros: My over hard eggs were done in a way I've never had them before, and I loved that. The tortillas were sad sad sad. They need a new supplier (Chilosos?) or a new recipe. The rancheros sauce was "competent." While I was loving looking at my black re-fried beans when they arrived, they didn't really impress me either. If I return to Lola, it will be simply to let people know that I want to support local Heights restaurants. I may give them a second shot once their real dinner menu comes on board.

Anonymous said...

Moved to Houston - and the Heights - from Canada at the end of June and CRAVE a decent diner experience. Looking forward to giving Lola a shot.

What's up with French Toast ion Houston... somebody please tell me where to get a good order of French Toast... my kingdom for... ahh never mind, you get the jist.

Katharine said...

You hit the nail on the head. Ken Bridge is a genius when it comes to figuring out the next unfilled niche in the Heights and filling it -- and filling it well at that.

I might not have been impressed with the cheeseburger, but I am impressed with the concept. I'm sure they'll do as well as his other restaurants and I can't wait to go try the dinner items. :D

Eater said...

Why would anyone be impressed with the concept instead of the food. I go to a restaurant to eat.

cdnsteelman said...

Well - we tried Lola for breakfast this morning... $28 bucks and change... both had variations on the Lola Breakfast. Agree the grits were good and the coffee was decent - that said the rest was a write-off. That the place was a zoo only proves how desperate we are in the Heights for a decent breakfast joint. My wife's scrambled eggs we terribly undercooked and both of us found our "toast" to be nothing more than slightly warmed bread... no trace of toasting. We'll likely try again in a month or so for breakfast to see if the execution improves. We'll also try for a casual dinner one night soon as the evening menu looks interesting with entrees priced similarly to the breakfast plates. I really don't mind paying top dollar for breakfast but I sure expect a lot more than what Lola delivered when paying top dollar

Anonymous said...

had pancakes w/eggs this morning, no meat; constantly called yes maam and so was my friend; we are about 20+ years difference in age - a polite yes would do; eggs were good, don't get everyone's wild take on the grits - thot they were bland; pancakes on menu are 7, i was charged 9; add eggs $2 more; didn't take the meat less $1 but take grits instead $3 - since when is meat $1 and grits are $3? i don't know if i would eat there again; i agree w/another comment; since when do you eat somewhere because of the concept; i saw no great thing going on here but did love the yellow paint on the wall - would be great if it did turn into something good for the neighborhood instead of another place which is fair and costs $35 before you leave; coffee was good.

cdnsteelman said...

Well - we went back to Lola's to try dinner... just under $30 bucks for steak frite and chicken pecorino. The parmesan fries were the highlight... the rest was so very college cafeteria! My great hopes are now quite tempered and I will definitely give them time to get the execution right before I darken their funky-cool telephone booth doorway again.

FYI - while there may not be a tip line on the bill there were certainly no shortage of plastic tip jugs by the tills.

Substantially underwhelming.

LDLee said...

Went there for breakfast this morning. For the Heights, yes, it is better than 11th Street Cafe and Dry Creek, about as good as Java Java. However, Barnaby's and Breakfast Klub have it beat by a mile.

We both had the Breakfast plate. Eggs were serviceable, but how do you screw up eggs? Oh yeah, ask 11th Street. The bacon was excellent but two slices is a skimpy portion, especially at $11 for a breakfast platter. The parmesan grits were miserable -- sticky, lumpy, dry, tasteless. If you want good grits, go to The Breakfast Klub. The hash was decent, but too much of it.

At Lola's, Bridge seems to have modified the Pappas model -- serve large portions. price according to the size of the portion not the total cost in the meal, thereby yielding a higher margin. Bridge's twist is to lower labor costs even further without lowering the price accordingly yielding an even higher margin.

In sum, decent, but not great food, overpriced in a sterile, faux diner atmosphere. Better food at Barnaby's and Breakfast Klub. Better price and atmosphere at AAA Diner or Denny's.

kitty said...

Just tried Lola's tonight because of some of the comments. I love the Parmesan Fries, and my husband thought the chicken fried steak was delicious. Definitely going back for breakfast.

Eddie Spettro said...

The chicken and waffles are the jam! I'm going back for dinner tonite.

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Michael said...

I too thought the breakfast prices were a bit high. I paid over 13 bucks for my breakfast..eggs ok, bacon ok, the potatoes were a big mistake...they should stop by the house of pies & try the hash browns there...I like potatoes slightly crispy not soggy. It wasn't even crowded when I went. I suspect the potatoes were sitting in a giant vat waiting to be scooped onto the plates of unsuspecting victims. I won't be going back.

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