Friday, June 30, 2006

Heights Report Part 1 - Old School

"A society that has made 'nostalgia' a marketable commodity on the cultural exchange quickly repudiates the suggestion that life in the past was in any important way better than life today."

-Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissm

The Houston Heights feels older than the rest of Houston. The Heights has more old houses, more old antiques, and possibly more old people than anywhere else in this young city. It also has some old restaurants. Recently, I visited two of the oldest: Yale Street Grill, which dates to 1923, and Triple A Restaurant, which dates to 1942.

The Yale Street Grill is an old style lunch counter. I sat on a stool so I could watch the "chef" (or rather "cook") do her thing. She cooked in an area smaller than my kitchen, with a fry basket, some burners, and an assembly area. With this little space, the menu options are necessarily limited. This menu looked like nothing except the prices had changed in 50 years. The menu offered only the most basic lunch food - cheeseburgers, grilled cheese, tuna melt, club sandwich, chef salad.

I had not tried a tuna melt in a long time, so I ordered it. This tuna melt was as retro as the restaurant. It came on some grilled sandwich bread. It had massive quantities of mayo and more chunks of egg white than tuna. In fact, I never quite tasted the tuna. Perhaps I received an egg salad sandwich by mistake?

I usually don't order dessert, but pecan cobbler was the only item on the menu that sounded unusual. The dish that arrived was a pecan pie with cobbler crust instead of pie crust. Even though the concept sounded unusual, the taste was very old school.

Although I hear the Yale Street Grill's shakes are good, there is no other reason to go there except the nostalgia. The food at Yale Street Grill supports the argument that food today is much better than in the past.

The Triple A Restaurant is on Airline next to Canino's Farmer's Market. Supposedly, they get their vegetables fresh from the market -- but then they cook the hell out of them. That is not a bad thing for some vegetables, such as the mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and mustard greens that I ordered on my last visit.

Although Triple A has the feel of an old cafe, with waitresses who have surely worked there for decades, the food is more like a Southern cafeteria than a lunch counter or cafe. Each day they offer a series of chef special entrees. On my last visit, I ordered a stuffed bell pepper, a dish I have not had since my childhood. This bell pepper had been cooked so much that it had only slightly more firmness than the mashed potatoes. It surrounded a giant ball of ground meat with subtle spices. This dish was the same as the dish I remembered from my childhood. And I like that dish, even if it violates a half dozen rules of cooking that I have embraced since then.

The highlight of the meal was a basket of cornbread. It was as cornbread should be - moist and not sweetened, which heightens the corn flavor.

The Triple A was a more successful exercise in nostalgia than Yale Street Grill. Admittedly, my father used to take me to the Triple A in the early 80s, so I have fond, real memories of the place. And I can testify that it has not changed one bit in 25 years. But I also like the food better than Yale Street Grill. I easily can make a tuna melt at home that is far superior than the tuna melt at Yale Street Grill. But the stuffed bell pepper at the Triple A -- well, I might be able to make it, but it would take a hell of a long time to cook.


Anonymous said...

Your quote doesn't make much sense in this context.

anonymouseater said...

Explaining an introductory quote is like explaining a joke. If you have to do it, then it probably didn't make much sense in the first place.

Still, I'll try. Our society has made food nostalgia a cultural commodity. By doing so, we have rejected the idea that food was better 50 years ago than it is today. As illustrated by these two restaurants, food was not better 50 years ago than it is today. The real appeal to these places is nostalgia, not superior food.