An icon of the barbeque world here in Houston is closing.

The uninitiated quickly learn what eating, Bush-plate style, is all about. A poster on the wall of the barbecue joint explains that the presidential feed consists of beef ribs, links, potato salad and beans — all for $9.79. No substitutions.

A veritable stampede of cattle has been served up as burgers and brisket at Otto’s since the restaurant’s founder, Otto Sofka, grilled that first burger at his family’s grocery 56 years ago. Otto’s wife, Annie, their son, Marcus, Marcus’s wife, June, and three of their seven children all have pulled duty at the business.

Otto’s may seem like a timeless place. The hands of a Schlitz beer clock never budge from 10 minutes till 2. The restaurants exude an authenticity that competitors can only covet. But time does move forward, and Sofka admitted that her business has been eroded by a growing public acceptance of the virtues of healthy eating.

Amid the Bush memorabilia and religious and patriotic artifacts on the walls are signs advertising new items on the menu: grilled chicken breast sandwiches and turkey burgers. Also displayed is a plug for HeartBrand beef, which is touted as “good for your body, heart and waistline.”

“As you see, we’ve enhanced the menu,” Sofka said. But, she added, business has been slack.

“It’s been a great ride, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But now it’s time to go.”

Otto’s is one of the first places that I can remember eating barbeque with my father, who is a true barbeque connoisseur.  It was rare that we actually went out to eat barbeque, since so few restaurants could meet his exacting expectations or turn out a rack of ribs or a pork butt quite as well as he could at home.  But Otto’s was always a favorite of his, especially the Bush plate as described above.

In a recent article in Conde Nast’s, Otto’s was listed as one of the “legendary dealmaking entities” across the country.  A place where “…business is discussed, ideas are hatched, and deals are often sealed over a meal rather than in an office.”  Otto’s is consistently listed as one of the best barbeque joints around, at low-key websites like and at high-end review houses like Zagat.  But sometimes, accolades just aren’t enough.

Otto’s was always one of those restaurants that seems trapped in an indeterminate time period, somewhere between 1965 and 1972, similar to another old favorite, Bellaire Broiler Burger.  It’s become quite unfashionable as of late to be “old” in Houston, though.  Houston seems to be purging itself of all buildings and memories prior to 2000, tearing down beautiful old houses and replacing them with shoddily-built, stucco McMansions and replacing wonderful old structures like Otto’s with faux-stone strip malls that, inevitably, only reach about 50% occupancy and sit there looking pretty but dead, even more of an eyesore than what they replaced.  This particular corridor of Memorial Drive is particularly susceptible to gentrification, having already lost the classic “One’s-a-Meal” diner years earlier only to see the 5,782nd Starbucks and 30th Texadelphia take its place a few months later.

And it’s just as sad to me that people are becoming so “health-conscious” (actually, “image conscious” — I fear that Houston is rapidly becoming the new Dallas sometimes…) that they can’t appreciate good comfort food in moderation.  Sure, you don’t need to be eating burgers and barbeque for every meal.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go enjoy a plate of brisket on the weekend or grab a good, oozy burger with some friends over lunch.

The whole thing just makes me sad.  But the only thing to do now is to go grab a good Bush plate at Otto’s while I still can.  I recommend you do the same if you have the chance.

Cuisine Cartography

I graduated from college with a degree in cartography.  Like many other post-grads, I’ve found very few real-world applications for my degree (at least, ones that pay enough to live off of…) and so I work in a completely different field now.  That said, I still have a deep appreciation for the art of cartography and the beauty of maps.  Take, for example, these fascinating maps of food (and be sure to click on each heading to visit the page where I found these lovely maps):

Totem Foods of North America


I’m kind of startled to see that Houston (and San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Brownsville, the entire Valley, etc.) falls into the “Gator Nation” belt.  Now, don’t get me wrong; I love alligator as much as the next person.  But I definitely wouldn’t categorize it as a Totem food here.  And I can’t imagine trying to serve someone alligator in the Valley.  Houston’s close enough to Louisiana and the swamps of East Texas for alligator to be fairly standard cuisine, but that’s not true in points west.

In reality, the whole portion of the Gator belt starting with the Texas-Louisiana border and heading west should be an amalgamation of the Corn Bread & BBQ Nation and the Chile Pepper Nation.  Mmm…  Now who wouldn’t want to live in that nation?

Continue reading Cuisine Cartography

Southwell’s – UPDATED

After doing some browsing through other bloggers’ opinions of Southwell’s (this opinion in particular), it appears that I was mistaken about my not-so-dearly departed Dubl-R!  Also, I think I’ve found a new favorite food blog.

The Texas Burger Guy has reviews of nearly every landmark burger joint in this great state.  The reviews are, much like a good burger, addictive.  He covers the gamut of burger joints in Houston: Lankford Grocery, Christian’s Totem, Bellaire Broiler Burger, and even my old neighborhood restaurant, Sam’s Deli Diner.  And I was even more gobsmacked to see that my beloved Dubl-R was listed among the reviews!

According to the review (which was posted in 2006, well after I graduated from Baylor), Dubl-R is still operating at its old haunt on Herring Avenue.  The review doesn’t go into the specifics of why it originally closed down circa 2001 and it doesn’t discuss the heretic Dubl-R outpost at Baylor.  I’m okay with this, though; maybe the reviewer isn’t familiar with this snippet of Dubl-R’s history.  I’m just thrilled to see that the Dubl-R of my memory is up and running again!

I guess I’ve got a reason to go back to Waco for the next Homecoming now.


Southwell’s (I-10 & Echo Lane location), Houston, Texas
November 30, 2007

There are days when, being a red-blooded American girl, I crave a cheeseburger. Nothing fancy on those days — no cracked peppercorns or Havarti cheese or sauteed onions, although all of those things are delicious. Just a fully-loaded cheeseburger: patty, cheese, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. And on those days, I usually find myself at Southwell’s.

Southwell’s is a well-established burger joint with several locations here in town. I frequent the one at Echo Lane and I-10, since it’s just down the street from both my house and my office. Although I adore Southwell’s, I understand that it’s not everyone’s favorite. And why would it be, in a city with as many great burger joints as Houston? My personal favorite is Bellaire Broiler Burger and all of its late 1960s glory, but that doesn’t stop me from grabbing a good, juicy burger at Southwell’s.

When I lived in Waco, my favorite burger place was a rundown joint in one of the many “bad” parts of town. It was called Dubl-R, and for all its inaccessible parking, shady patrons, yellowed linoleum and torn vinyl seats, I loved it. It wasn’t the prettiest sister, but it was the sister with the mad burger flipping skills.

Dubl-R’s burgers were classic: fresh beef patties, the tops of the buns glistening with grease and the entire concoction whacked flat with the palm of the cook’s hand as he manhandled it into its white paper wrapper. They oozed happiness and — for me — the joy of knowing that I was enjoying something that most other people in Waco wouldn’t, simply because they never looked past the exterior of Dubl-R to come inside.

During my senior year, Dubl-R closed down. I was crestfallen. I tried to enjoy the burgers at Health Camp, down the road, but nothing compared. And then, to my complete astonishment, Dubl-R reopened right next to Baylor’s campus. Not only did they reopen, they had restyled themselves into the kind of subtly hip place that college students would inevitably flock to by the hordes.

Suddenly, the place was overrun with my fellow classmates. Dubl-R began to showcase cottons (the awful slang term at Baylor for sorority and fraternity event T-shirts) on their walls. They began to pander to the college masses. What’s worse, their burgers began to suck. Once again, Dubl-R was dead to me.

I’m coming to a point here, I promise…

Southwell’s is like a strange hybrid of the lost Dubl-R of my memories — the Dubl-R with the excellently greasy burgers that doesn’t exist anymore — and the one today. Southwell’s is mostly overrun by what I politely refer to as “yuppie scum.” At my local Southwell’s, nearly every car in the lot has a Memorial High School sticker on it and everyone inside would fit in quite comfortably at my alma mater. It’s clean and neat inside: no linoleum floors, no sticky booths with cracked seats.

However, Southwell’s has managed to retain great burgers amidst all of this. Their menu is simple and straightforward, belying the attitudes of crowd they routinely serve. Their burgers are served in the same white paper wrappers, their waffle fries in the same red plaid paper boxes, as burger joints throughout the decades. Their cheese fries are unabashedly drenched in half a gallon of cheese. And their cheeseburgers would be at home in the Dubl-R of my memory.

And at the end of the day, I don’t care if I have to endure the shrieking children of clueless, vapid, self-absorbed parents or their Range Rovers parked across three spaces in the parking lot; the endless lines of chattering, high school volleyball players and their constantly-ringing cell phones; or the droves of chubby, red-faced wheelers-and-dealers who clog the lines at lunch, answering their Blackberries and telling off-color jokes to their business partners. It all fades away when I’m burying myself in this: