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Houston Eateries Fire Up Following Hurricane Ike

By Alison Cook, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

September 17, 2008 - The comforting aroma of grilling hamburgers swept along Prairie from the Hubcap Grill late Monday morning, two days after Hurricane Ike. It was the smell of life itself. Hungry downtowners, their lives out of kilter, followed their noses into the tiny restaurant, where they crowded six deep at the counter.

Somewhere in the back, I could hear owner Ricky Craig fielding burger orders, but the big shoulders of first responders and other large gentlemen blocked him from view. I desperately wanted one of the Hubcap's luscious, hand-formed cheeseburgers on a focaccia-style bun, but I had to get back to the office, and I just couldn't wait.

As I drove off, I gazed longingly at the lucky souls dining al fresco in the Hubcap's narrow courtyard at 1111 Prairie. An autumnal note of cool freshened the air -- a gift of the gods after the dank, sweltering weekend without electricity -- but this wasn't the way any of us had envisioned our first picnic of the season.

All over town, restaurants large and small were struggling to set themselves in order again and start feeding the public. At Reef, the stylish Midtown emporium of Gulf Coast seafood, an orange Titan industrial generator chugged noisily on the front terrace as staffers hauled soggy baseboards out to the curb. Partner-manager Bill Floyd had run a cord from the generator to his glassed-in wine room to keep his thousands of bottles cool.

"They're at 64 degrees, and I'm fine with that," he said. "That's my single biggest investment, and I'm going to protect that."

In back of the restaurant, chef Bryan Caswell's dad, an oilman, was setting up another generator borrowed from one of his rigs in Louisiana. Caswell was taking stock of supplies and hustling to open the restaurant's Third Bar at McGowen and Travis as soon as power was restored -- perhaps as early as Tuesday, they'd been told.

"We'll do sliders and fried shrimp," said Caswell, "because who knows what will happen with our fresh Gulf fish supply?"

The important thing, he noted, was just to open the doors, "because people will be getting cabin fever and want to get out."

Reef's marvelous window wall, looking out on downtown Houston, survived unboarded and unscathed. Considering the eight-foot-long gutter that had impaled an exterior metal awning, that seemed like a miracle. The only physical damage came from water that entered through a hole knocked in the ceiling. A few temporary baseboards and the place would look fine again.

When the power went out, said Floyd, "We iced down everything we could and gave it away. What we've got left now is all toast."

A faint fishy smell from the rear of the restaurant bore him out.

Caswell sold some of his food to the Lancaster Hotel downtown, where they were running low. Milk, fish, bacon, cheese, collards, fried mac and cheese and 60 crab cakes that Reef had prepped for a canceled party all ended up at the hotel. Caswell and his family stayed at the Lancaster, along with the Tony Vallone (as in Tony's restaurant) family and at least seven Reef regulars, all lining up for food and "begging for a hot shower and a warm meal." Thus is normalcy established in times of trauma. The faster Houston's restaurant industry bounces back, the easier it will be for its citizenry to bounce back, too.

The simplest comforts can loom large in times of uncertainty.

Classic Donuts on Hillcroft at Beechnut was open Sunday morning "with hot cake donuts and constantly brewing pots of coffee," related my editor admiringly when we compared notes after the weekend. Everything at the donut shop seemed to cost round numbers -- 50 cents or a dollar. No change was being made.

Starting Saturday afternoon, people swapped intelligence about which eateries were open as if it were some sort of precious storm currency. A young man and his girlfriend who had come downtown to survey the damage lingered on a sidewalk outside the Chronicle, breathlessly telling anyone who would listen that restaurants along a patch of Richmond in Montrose were open: Maria Selma, Pueblito Place, and up along South Shepherd near West Alabama, Zake Japanese restaurant and Jenni's Noodle House.

Owner Jenni Tran-Weaver had power all weekend and was able to open at 5:30 p.m. Saturday for dinner. They were still cooking Vietnamese fare Monday, although they had quit answering the ringing phones and installed a chipper answering-machine message: "It's Hurricane Monday, and we're open from 1:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

"We're not taking calls for to-go orders, but the line moves quickly. We have a limited menu, but we do have vegetarian options. Noodle on!" it exhorted.

"Limited menu" was Monday's watchword. By lunchtime, the posh 17 restaurant at downtown's Alden Hotel had pushed the tables and chairs back from their safe gathering place in the center of the dining room. The cutlery gleamed, the white tablecloths looked freshly starched, and lunch service was about to begin, for whoever showed up.

Hostess Shawn Washington said they had salmon and short ribs, and that there would be a $48 dinner special. They'd be open all week, she said, and the menu would be what it would be. Like all of downtown, where the electric cables are buried, the hotel had had electricity all weekend.

At Frank's Pizza on Travis near Market Square, frantic pie assembly was taking place, but hopeful walk-in customers were sent away with salads or sandwiches.

"We've run out of cheese," these supplicants were told. The pizzas lining the racks in plain view were for delivery only.

A block away at 914 Prairie, a modest luncheonette with the ineffable name of Felafel Frenzy was serving up excellent felafel plates, complete with hummus dip, green salad and the most adorable chickpea patties ever, shaped like miniature donuts frosted with sesame seeds.

Some restaurants outside the powered-up downtown bubble figured out how to open anyway. The resourceful Arnaldo Richard, chef-owner of Pico's beloved Mexican restaurant at 5941 Bellaire, had engaged a huge refrigerated truck ahead of time, so that by lunchtime Monday he was able to serve customers grilled fajitas, freshly made guacamole and salsas, beer and soft drinks. Tables were set up outdoors under the famous thatched palapa, which fortunately did not blow away in the gale.

Richard reported that a supplier had promised him 600 pounds of ice to be delivered later in the day, at which point he could start making margaritas again for a grateful public.

Margaritas can be fine medicine, but so can a hot breakfast. "Taqueria de Jalisco was open this morning," reported my friend Lisa, who lives in Meadowcreek Village near South Houston. "They had everything except bacon, even fresh-squeezed orange juice."

The place was full of first responders, she said. She bought tacos for her neighbors, but she came away with something more important than breakfast.

"I had eggs and coffee," she told me, "and I felt safe."

dine.features@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, Houston Chronicle

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