A very quick trip to Houston gets me looking for one meal with a sense of place.
My daughter and I planned to spend less than 15 hours in Houston. She would be focused on competing in a fencing tournament, and I would be cheering her on from the parents’ pit on the sidelines. Yet, somehow I felt this weird compunction to mark the visit with a Houston-appropriate meal.
I always need to immortalize any trip, no matter how insignificant, with some bite of food that tells me I am in a particular place at a particular moment. Once I had to make a connection at the Copenhagen airport on a flight home from Italy. The timing was so bad, the terminals so far apart, and the passport control so confusing that the flight attendant basically told us to run. It was a mad dash, and yet by the time we arrived at the gate and were swept onto the plane I was clutching an open-face sandwich.
Houston would be no easier. Though I had done a little research on the Galleria shopping mall area where we would be staying and had even gotten some recommendations from the Houston Chronicle’s great restaurant reviewer, Alison Cook, this would not be a trip that would conform to the requirements of a proper meal.
We arrived at our Galleria hotel at about 9:30 p.m., blinking in disbelief at the grand scale of things. It seemed seemed like how I’d imagine a mega-mall from Atlanta’s dystopian future. We stashed our rental car in the labyrinthine underground parking lot and asked at the front desk if there was any place we might find dinner, traveling on foot.
“You’re in luck!” beamed the receptionist. “The Cheesecake Factory is right next door!”
“And…” I prompted.
“And lots of restaurants,” he continued. “Just keep walking, and you won’t go hungry!”
We hewed to the side of the mall and peeked into a swank Chinese restaurant called Gigi’s Asian Bistro that was just closing. “Slow night,” said the hostess with a pouty face.
We stopped for a moment and soaked up the grand vision of a two-story cow palace called Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. A torch-lit patio fronted the parking lot, and I observed a table of four tipsy, expensively attired fiftysomethings sprawled on the lounge furniture. A woman in a sequined minidress had her stocking feet tucked under her, and when she turned her head to beam at her husband, her exuberant pouf of blonde hair moved in unruffled unison.
“You rather eat at Sullivan’s,” she teased him, naming a less-expensive steak house.
Okay, this is Houston, I thought. But a steak seemed like a lot for a late-night meal. So we ended up eating mediocre sushi at a place called Kona Grill. Anywheresville.
The next day was spent in the confines of a local fencing academy, where we gratefully snarfed slices of lukewarm pizza brought in by local parents.
And then we left Houston. In a minute we were back on the freeway, and I looked with some longing at the billboards hawking oversized Mexican cantinas.
We returned the car, breezed through off-hours security and found ourselves on the concourse, starving, with an hour or more to kill. Then I saw a branch of Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen — the Houston-based chain that serves Gulf-style seafood. I remembered very much liking the gumbo at the one in Norcross. This would be our Houston-enough meal. We were here.
“Come on,” I said to my kid. “Let’s get lunch.”