Whenever it’s time for lunch or dinner, my mind starts to drive. If I’m at the office, my mental route is east, down either Cesar Chavez Street, with all its great Azul to Arkie’s variety, or East Seventh Street, which could be the best avenue for the appetite in Austin. Surveying the dining options starts the pleasure process. If I’m at home near Martin Luther King Jr. and Airport boulevards when hunger hijacks my attention, my mind moseys south to East 12th Street, where the consistent La Morenita Mexican restaurant and the aptly named Maxine’s Soul Kitchen provide good options across the street from each other.
Sometimes my mind can motor as fast as the camera from Run Lola Run and it spends a lot of time tearing down Chicon Street, from East 12th to Cesar Chavez: Galloway Sandwich Shop, Nubian Queen Lola’s, TJ’s Seafood, La Michoacana and Mr. Natural are fave grubberies on that glorious culinary corridor.
Before I moved to my new ‘hood two years ago, I had no idea there were so many great funky joints to eat east of Interstate 35. When I lived in Hyde Park, east side cuisine meant Sam’s BBQ and El Azteca. It was eenie meenie miney mo, barbecue or Mexico.
But I’ve always been a follower of the “eat where you live” philosophy, and after two years of chancing dives and diners, of turning my cholesterol into mo’lesterol, I’ve discovered that a person could be content eating exclusively on the east side. Then, a few months ago, a documentary called “Super Size Me,” in which the protagonist ate every meal at McDonald’s for a month, caused a stir and got me thinking. What if I did an article about eating every meal in East Austin for a month? I even had a working title: “Superfly Me.” My editor looked at me like I was a brave soul, going to great sacrifice for the sake of a story. But, in reality, when he gave the OK, it was like assigning me to report on the backstage scene of a gentlemen’s club. Sometimes this can be a really good job (and sometimes you’ve got to write about what’s going on with the Austin Music Network).
A side order of quirks
Southern cooking, Cajun cuisine, barbecue, hamburgers and Mexican are the Big Five of comfort food, and there are excellent examples of each in East Austin. I haven’t been able to find good pizza, and Asian restaurants are about as prevalent as Pat Boone songs booming out of car trunks, but there’s plenty of everything else here.
The subject of “Super Size Me” gains a lot of weight and suffers other health problems after his month at Mickey D’s. After spending all of July eating my way across East Austin, I felt a different sort of change, more mental than physical. Even as I’d gained a few pounds (if you want to know what you’ll weigh after eating at Maxine’s, just step on a scale holding your plate of food), I had a little more swagger in my step. When genuine love and care and a lifetime of experience are passed on through food preparation, eating out can be spiritual.
But sometimes you get a bad piece of meat.
During my monthlong “challenge,” I had some of the best meals of my life, but also some of the worst. Sometimes on different days at the same restaurant. The maverick diner has to take chances.
I sought out the joints that had some character, that were as far away from America’s food-court mentality as you could get. The east side has its own way of doing things, that’s for sure, and at first I was slightly irritated by some of the quirkiness I’d encountered. Jonesing for a hoagie one afternoon, for instance, I went to the Galloway Sandwich Shop and discovered that it’s not a sandwich shop at all, but a cafeteria-style home cooking joint. The first time I went to La Michoacana, meanwhile, I stood at the food counter for several minutes and no one took my order. Finally, one cook pointed to the line at the grocery checkout and said something in Spanish that probably translates to: “You gotta pay first, Mr. Clueless.”
Another thing that takes some getting used to is that every restaurant east of the freeway seems to have a 19-inch TV with bad reception, tuned to Jerry Springer or Oprah or Judge Whoever.
I used to feel a little uncomfortable about being the only white person at a soul food joint, but after July I’ve come to understand that nobody cares what race you are when they’re looking down on a plate of smothered pork chops. Besides, it’s like when comedian Chris Rock is ragging on white people in his routine, then throws in an aside that present Caucasians are excluded. “You cool,” he says to the whites in the audience. “You paid money to see me.”
Food is generally only as flavorful as the person who cooked it. “Soul food” is more than a down-home marketing term; the best meals tell a story, like when you’ve had some of Nubian Queen Lola’s crawfish etouffee, you know she’s from Louisiana and that she cooked side by side with her mother since she was old enough to stir a wooden spoon. But that’s only part of Lola Stephens’ story.
She moved to Austin from Lake Charles, La., in 1980, soon after graduating from high school. Austin was supposed to be a brief stopover on Lola’s journey to Hollywood stardom, but when she got a job here as a cashier she never made it any farther west. In the late ’80s, Stephens was unemployed and homeless for two years. But she got back up on her feet and now raises four daughters, three adopted from a friend.
Early this year, Stephens saw a “For Rent” sign on the former location of Nanny’s, a much-missed home-cooking joint at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street, and she said the Lord came to her and said, “That’s your place.” Stephens had no money, but scraped together $500 from friends, relatives and kind-hearted strangers, to pay a month’s rent. She painted the place purple and yellow, Mardi Gras colors, and hung beads from the ceiling. On the board outside she scrawled spiritual messages, but she still didn’t have the equipment to open. “There was this white man who would drive by and he asked me why I wasn’t open yet,” Stephens says. When she said she needed money for pots, pans, a cooler and other essentials, he took her shopping and spent more than $1,000. Nubian Queen Lola’s opened six months ago.
Assisted by her daughters, ranging in age from 11 to 17, Stephens works 18-hour days to keep her dream alive, sometimes catching a nap on a cot in a back closet. Then, on Sunday, the only day her restaurant is closed, she feeds the homeless out of her back door. True story.
TJ’s Seafood, a Vietnamese-owned restaurant at East Seventh and Chicon streets that caters to African Americans, is another curious joint. It opened in 1992 at a former location of Gaylord’s Hamburgers, whose decor has barely been touched. The reason the seafood is relatively cheap ($6.95 for a 12-piece jumbo shrimp dinner) is because there’s no middle man: Co-owner Jennifer Tranh’s mother owns a shrimp boat in Port Arthur and supplies the 10 seafood restaurants all over Texas and Oklahoma that are operated by her 12 children. The Tranh family harvested shrimp in Vietnam before they fled Communist rule in 1975. Knowing these sorts of details almost makes up for TJ’s soggy French fries and the tasteless side salad that a picky hamster would send back.
More slices of heaven
* Maxine’s Soul Kitchen, 2931 E. 12th St. (220-3650). Maxine Carlock and her husband, LaVern, bought the old Soul Kitchen about a year ago, and they’re still messing around with the menu. Beef tips and rice, Salisbury steak and hamhocks are perennials, but Maxine has been known to whip up an oxtail stew or pepper steak if someone asks. After working in the food service industry for 30 years, cooking mainly at nursing homes, this is Maxine’s first restaurant and if a recent visit, which found Longhorn football legends Johnny “Lam” Jones and Donnie Little humming in approval, is any indication, she’s scored a touchdown.
* Taco Sabrosa, 5100 E. Seventh St. (385-8898). The cleanest-looking taqueria in town, with a spacious courtyard and very reasonable prices, this place has, quite literally, a lunchwagon soul. The old coach that used to sit at the corner of Shady Lane has been built into the kitchen, which serves up a mouth-exploding al pastor taco called the Gringas. This is one of the few good Mexican restaurants on the east side open late on weekdays and at all on Sundays.
* Tony’s Southern Comfort, 1201 E. Sixth St. (320-8801). Not spectacular, but consistently good, the opening of this down-home eatery about a year and a half ago signaled an east side re-vittle-ization. Best chicken-fried steak east of the Broken Spoke.
* Gene’s, 1209 E. 11th St.(477-6600). Along with Ben’s Longbranch BBQ, this is the top spot where West eats East. Most of the Cajun dishes are just so-so, but the shrimp po’ boys are tops. (Clothing tip: Wear a bright shirt to Gene’s to make sure you’re not invisible to the wait staff, which I have been a couple of times.)
* La Michoacana, 1917 E. Seventh St. (473-8487). This place is so real, so plucked out of Mexico, that I’ve been there a couple dozen times for fajita tacos and I’ve never heard a single customer or employee speak English. Even the confusing parking lot screams Nuevo Laredo.
* Mr. Catfish, 1075 Springdale Road, (927-6666). Known for serving the best fried shrimp in town, this place also serves up some stellar sides of gumbo, red beans and rice and homemade hushpuppies.
* Los Comales, 2136 E. Seventh St. 480-9358. In the mood for cheap, flavorful flame-broiled steaks in a classic south-of-the-border setting? This place won’t let you down.
* Mi Madre’s, 2201 Manor Road (322-9721). Although it’s officially considered East Austin, I don’t think of Manor Road that way. It’s uptown. But I decided to extend the boundaries for the story because I wasn’t about to go a month without those perfect, plump breakfast tacos from here.
There goes the Pulitzer
All right, here we go. Confession time. Although I vowed to eat every July meal in East Austin, I had to give myself a couple of exemptions. On July 5, after a day of tubing in San Marcos, I ate with family at Rivendell, a Hobbit-themed health food restaurant in S.M. They were hungry; I was hungry; we were 30 miles from East Austin and besides, it was a federal holiday. Lapse No. 2 was also unavoidable at the time. I had three 10-year-old kids in my charge for a day and I couldn’t think of a place in the neighborhood that they, all eaters of only things yellow, would enjoy. This was before I knew about Mr. Catfish, so I took them to Dave & Buster’s.
OK, I admit it. I broke my vow, not once, but twice.
Jim Romenesko’s media news Web site oughta be all over this scandal. (“Journalist Betrays Public Trust By Eating At Hobbit-Themed Restaurant.”) This project, which began so well-intentioned, may end in disgrace, but if it makes any difference, I’m still eating every meal on the east side.
I’ve learned to savor the flavor, to embrace the pace of Austin’s eastern time zone. All the little quirks spice up the experience, I’ve found. Or, more to the point, once you’ve sat down to a plate of Maxine’s beef tips and rice or gnawed around the bone in Nubian Queen Lola’s pork chop sandwich, Bennigan’s just ain’t gonna cut it.