Southwell’s

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:

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On Grits

One of the things that I get asked fairly often is, “How can you eat grits?”  More often than not, it’s Richard, asking after I’ve snuggled into the couch with a bowl of cheese grits on a weekday night when I’ve had an intense craving for comfort food.  Other times, though, it’s people that are actually from Texas — people that I expect not only to enjoy but to celebrate grits — but who are either repulsed by grits or simply unfamiliar with them.  These people confuse me.

Grits were an integral part of my childhood and they remain a huge part of my cultural identity.  My mother would make grits for me on cold mornings before I headed off to the bus stop for school.  They will stick with a child’s stomach all day, making lunchtime a mere social gathering as food isn’t yet a necessity.  I remember her serving them to me on our old, wooden breakfast table with a huge pat of butter and some cream poured on top.  I would slowly swirl the grits until all of the ingredients were emulsified into the warm, creamy breakfast cereal and then gulp it down with relish.

Every church potluck included at least three different types of grits dishes:  regular grits, grits with sausage, grits with shrimp, grits with cheese, runny grits, thick grits, etc.  In fact, it’s a running joke that you can’t have a Church of Christ potluck without grits.

When we did a holiday buffet in middle school, I insisted on bringing cheese grits, much to the chagrin of my mostly foreign schoolmates.  No one except my English teacher, a down-home Southern belle, touched them.  But she and I ate nearly the entire dish.

And as an adult, when it’s my turn to bring breakfast for our breakfast club at The Day Job, I always bring grits.  I consider it my mission in life to turn as many people onto grits as possible.  I’m pleased to report that I’m doing much better these days than my failed attempt in middle school.

Why grits?  Why eat something that has the visual consistency of wallpaper glue (as Richard so lovingly puts it)?  Why do I have such strong feelings for what is, essentially, corn porridge? Continue reading On Grits

Bistro Provence

Location:  Bistro Provence
Date:  November 14, 2007
 

Robb Walsh, who is quite possibly my favorite food journalist and who we Houstonians can proudly call one of our own, has a timely review of Bistro Provence up at the Houston Press.  I say “timely,” because I just ate there for the third time two weeks ago.  I had mixed emotions about my last visit, so I’m glad to see that a professional food critic has vindicated my feelings about the place, whether he knows it or not.

We took my Day Job boss to Bistro Provence for her ten-year anniversary with my company.  Since there were six of us, I called the restaurant the day before our lunch to make sure that they could accomodate six people during their busy lunch rush.  The person who answered the phone sounded harried and uninterested at the same time, even though I made sure to call around 3:30 pm (hoping to catch them in between the lunch and dinner rushes).  He snootily told me that they don’t accept reservations, something of which I’m very well aware, and I told him so.  He responded with, “Okay, then you know we don’t take reservations.  Just show up and you’ll be seated.”  And then abruptly hung up the phone.

The next day, the group of us showed up at 12:30.  The parking lot was full, as always, but we were heartened by the fact that several tables outside on the popular patio area were empty.  Inside the restaurant, several other tables were empty as well, but they were all two-tops: nothing large enough to accomodate our group.  Every table seemed to be inhabited by — quite fittingly — actual French people enjoying their traditional long lunches with bottles of wine.  The boss loved the quaintness and “authenticity” of the place, and she happily agreed to wait for a table.

…this was a bad idea. Continue reading Bistro Provence