This is Bayou Diaries, a biweekly column by Bryan Washington chronicling his life and history in diverse, expansive Houston.
Last week, I drove past a phở bar I used to frequent on Wheeler. The walls are still a faded purple, and they’ve been boarded up for a minute. The place and the people who worked there were good to me—this mother and her sister, always yelling in Vietnamese; the son, slouching, texting on his flip phone. But now their spot’s a fast-food joint mostly held afloat by students.
It’s a pretty succinct analogy for culinary expansion in Houston. Compared to most cities in the States, restaurant space isn’t pricey. The menus are often put together by hand. Plenty of places don’t even have names. They’re staffed by whatever family’s on-hand, and lauded for decades until they finally aren’t. Whenever I’m running errands, or bringing folks into town, or hungry or lonely or loafing through the day, I usually make up some bullshit excuse to pass by that building. Which gives me an excuse to think about it. And I always do.
When you’re talking about Houston, you’re really talking about food. And you’re not really talking about food in this country unless your conversation’s covering Houston. Anthony Bourdain passed through the city last year, and loads of out-of-towners lost their minds, but virtually all of his revelations were old news to locals. To say that we have a lot to choose from doesn’t do those layers justice. There are hundreds of cuisines in this city, with thousands of restaurants brandishing them. And while authenticity certainly plays a role in their meals, the accoutrements surrounding each flavor palette are less hard-line facts than suggestions: What’s really genuine about our culinary culture is the blending and adapting and adopting by its residents.
Vietnamese-Cajun, for instance, is hardly innovative here. It’s no shock to find Salvadoran folks cooking pounds and pounds of biryani. Italians, Egyptians, and Thai folks simmer hot pot in bunched-up strip malls, beside spaces selling dakos and étouffée and char siu. In the Medical District, there’s this spot called M&M Grill, which stands for Mexican and Mediterranean, since they serve shawarma, and guac, and halal chili con queso, and the place is always packed.
It’s impossible to generalize in a city of Houston’s expanse, but a true thing all over is the city’s obsession with dining. And food, more so than anything else, was how I first came to explore the city. The neighborhood I came up in was mostly pale, and very middle-class, but the circles my family moved in were especially diverse. My father swapped fried chicken and collard greens for chilled miso soup. My mother found her jerk chicken on the North Side, but she was partial to vermicelli and white wine on Wednesdays. Some nights, I fell asleep to the hum of our neighbors in the kitchen—folks from Cuba and Spain and Iran and the Philippines—drinking and laughing and dancing around yucca, with guisados and tahdig lining our stove.
When I left home, of course I wanted to replicate that. But I was also broke as shit. So I searched for lunch specials from hub to hub. If you played your budget right, you could find your yakitori in one end of the city, your bulgogi in a second, and your banga in a third. For a while, I took all my dinners in a cantina with afternoon drag shows and three-dollar shrimp enchiladas. Later, I only ate at this Cajun spot, where the Taiwanese couple who owned it argued about the AC for hours (“Too expensive!”), but their shrimp and grits and coffee were the best I’ve ever had.
And the thing is, there wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about any of that. I thought I was just eating. But so is most everyone in Houston.
A meal can tell how you’re going to vote. A meal can tell you what you do in your free time. A meal can tell you where you’ve been in this life, where you currently are, and where you’ll probably end up. When there’s an emergency, you ask about food. When there’s a celebration, you ask about food. It is the one thing you can assure yourself you’ll come back to, day after day. We are born, we’ll be taxed, and, eventually, we’ll die, but in between—we’ll eat.
Nowadays, the neighborhood I stay in is a culinary mish-mash. There’s a taqueria sitting next to a pastry shop sitting next to Thai take-out behind a bougie brunch diner. The other day, I stopped in a Middle Eastern joint a few intersections away, packed with Mexican construction workers and a pair of Carribean women gossiping beside them. We all ate from the same table. The same scruffy waiter served all of us. And we all thanked him, in our own ways, as he passed by us with some water.
So another thing about Houston, and one that’s obvious until you’ve left, is how it forces you to interact outside of yourself, breaking and blending cultural boundaries in a way most American cities don’t. Visitors often gawk at the way our black and brown communities gel. Or how, on any given day, you’ll have heard three or five or seven different languages. And of course that familiarity is a byproduct of so many communities sharing one space, regardless of how sprawling, but what eases those interactions is commonly found in diners and drive-throughs and restaurant booths.
There’s actually an izakaya downtown illustrating that point: Walk in, and you’re seated by a Somali hostess at the door. A Filipino kid might take your order in skinny jeans and a tie. If you sit close enough to the bar, you’ll see it staffed with a bunch of young Mexican guys, switching codes between English and chilango slang. But in the middle of your meal, before you ask for a noodle refill, the Japanese owner will check to see how you’re doing—was the food to your liking? Was it enough? Was everything well? On your way out the door, everyone on staff shouts “mata kondo”!
Food determines history. History determines trajectory. Trajectories shape who you are, who you’ve been, and who you’ll probably become. Food is culture and culture is food and food is finances or the lack thereof, and when one chunk of this trifecta is missing, it all comes back to whatever you’ve stuffed in your mouth. There’s a direct relationship between who you are, what you’re looking to consume, and how you’re expected to do that—but the thing about Houston is that it collapses those walls, folding them into imperceptible creases.
Except, of course, they’re still there. There is who cooks in Houston, and there is who eats in Houston. If you’re doing either of these things even casually then you can’t (and shouldn’t) run up on that conversation without talking about race.
Because even if there is culinary diversity, maybe it isn’t such a boon if whole chunks of your population can’t afford it. Or if their recipes are shoddily scribbled, flipped, and spat out downtown for triple the price. Or if, in the midst of that appropriation, credit isn’t being given where it’s due; since it’s safe to say, in an abundance of cases, that if you’re eating soul food in Houston, or Italian food, or Colombian food, or Filipino food, or cheeseburgers and fries, in a sense what you’re really eating is Mexican food. Because those are the folks, more often than not, who’re cooking it, serving it, and bringing it to the table, even if they aren’t necessarily the faces of these kitchens, or receiving due credit for it at the front of the house.
As Houston expands, our conception of who belongs should expand along with it. I’m certain that it will. One hundred percent positive. But we’ll have to fight for it, and it won’t be even a little bit easy, and I’m no less sure about any of that either.
Every city’s privy to its own mythology, but Houston’s residents occupy a nebulous space outside of that: At this particular moment, we don’t really have a thing. A thing like New York. Or a thing like New Orleans. Maybe our thing is the convergence of loads of things. And in the midst of that, we have great food.
Swathes of my very particular experience can be summed up by my old spot on Wheeler. I’d walk in most afternoons, make small talk with the son working the register. He’d stir an iced coffee while his aunt slapped the sides of her toaster ovens, and I’d ask for a banh mi with runny eggs, and his mother would ask why I didn’t try the sausage. So, eventually, I’d try the sausage. And it’d be good. Fucking delicious. And then, a few weeks and fifteen sausage banh mi later, she’d ask why I didn’t try the pork, because that was her specialty. We ran through their whole menu. Why didn’t I try this, when I should be eating that. Why was I eating that, when what I really needed was this.
Slowly enough, I was drawn into their reality: The sisters were from Haiphong. The son was born in Texas. This was their third restaurant, and they had a slow clientele, mostly service workers and layabouts (like me) and the odd patch of Vietnamese men who came through to talk shit. Once, the aunt asked me where I was from, and I told her (here), and she asked where my parents were from, and I told her (not here). Then she touched my hand. She said that made us the same. Her family wasn’t from Houston, either, she said, and we had to stick together.
I couldn’t cook for anything back then, so that place was as good as home. I’d read or write or do nothing, and this family let me do that. When I broke up with the ex, I all but moved in during the day, until one day the aunt looked at me, frowned, and asked why I didn’t just find someone else. I said something like, It’s not that simple, and she just waved all of that away. She told me to bring someone; it would help us both. You can order whatever you want, she said, and I laughed.
Only I never got the chance to do that. At one point, their hours started getting patchy. They’d open some days, close on others, and when I asked what was up, the mother would shrug. Her sister nodded along. It wasn’t anything they hadn’t seen before. And I shrugged, too, because, of course, they knew best—until one day I locked my bike by their gate but they’d cleared out. The whole space was empty. No sign on the door. Nothing. I tried riding back the next afternoon, and then the one after that, but the door was still locked, and the only things that changed were the bits and pieces they’d taken with them.
One day, maybe a week after my last lunch, I caught the son packing some boxes by the door. He was alone. Of course I ambushed him, and he smiled and told me they were looking at a new property in Bellaire. He said they were closing in on a deal. But they couldn’t afford two rents at once. I gave him my number, and my email, and told him I’d drive out there if I had to, and he said he’d let me know.
It’ll all work out, he said, and he was positive about it. There’s plenty of space here. We’ll figure something out. We’ll let you know.