Sunday, September 20, 2009
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.