A Dine’s Worth of Difference Houston’s out to Lunch (and Dinner, Too)

February 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Houston is known to the outside world for many splendors: oil, gas, traffic and their offspring, smog. Others have heard of NASA, the Texas Medical Center, the Astrodome and on and on. When it comes to touting our pluses, we all know the drill (on or offshore). But one of the joys of living here — besides cheering for the Texans — is great eating. It is said that Americans eat to live and the French live to eat. On both counts, Houstonians go back for seconds.

We partake of every taste, ethnic background and drive-thru. This cornucopia of calories also means we go out a lot. According to the Zagat Restaurant Surveys, Houstonians dine out more often than residents of any other major American city. In fact, Houstonians go dining an average of 4.2 times per week compared to the national average of 3.2 times per week.

There are 6,425 restaurants in Houston, including white table clothes, sit-down franchises and fast-foods joints, but excluding our schools, hospitals and convenience stores with their mouth-watering two-month-old hotdogs and sketchy soft serve ice cream. Eating out is an $8 billion-plus annual business in this metropolitan area.

The Houston Yellow Pages lists 47 pages of restaurants (compared to 25 for air conditioning and 20 for churches), plus listings for food brokers, food consultants, catering, etc. Each month, H TEXAS lists and profiles all sorts of different eateries — Asian, Fusion, Asian/Fusion, Contemporary (which apparently means the food is fresh), Road Kill, Global and Yankee. This brings us to our geographical smorgasbord (we have Scandinavian restaurants, too). Our eating tastes come from everywhere because we come from everywhere. HISD students represent 84 different languages and nearly one out of every four Houstonians is foreign born. No wonder we have 87 foreign consulates, third most in the nation.

We make the U.N. General Assembly look as homogeneous as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. This is reflected in our cuisine — Houston’s melting pot is really more of a cafeteria line. You want a good, authentic Mongolian yak fat cake? Could you be more specific? Upper northwest Mongolian or urban peasant yak fat cake? There is a wonderful Serbian-Mongolian-Salvadorian café in the Heights–Vlad’s Little Bit of Bator Cantina. Ask for the chef, Lars-Erik. Conversely, while we celebrate outside influences, we must not underestimate our own, homegrown offerings, which look pretty good to visitors. Example: On Sept. 17, 1989, after visiting NASA, out-of-favor Boris Yeltsin dropped in unexpectedly at a Randalls on El Dorado Blvd. and Galveston Road, south of Ellington Field. He wandered the aisles for 20 minutes and commented, “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this kind of choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev.” Historians recount Yeltsin’s eye-opening visit to a Houston supermarket as the beginning of the fall of the Soviet Union. Look it up.

Image: Steve Dern (Robber), and Oliver Malms (City)

Beyond our freeways and skyscrapers is another aspect of our appetite: agribusiness. In 2006, the latest year available, 229,393 acres (19.12 percent) of Harris County were classified as agricultural/timber land. Incidentally, that number is shrinking because we keep turning farmland into housing developments. On this acreage, we produce agricultural products valued at $364 million a year and growing. We raise beef, vegetables, rice and corn, and hatch 1.2 million eggs a year. To paraphrase Blue Bell, we eat all we can and ship out the rest: Agricultural products represent 17.4 percent of what is shipped from the Port of Houston.

We’ve got astronauts, but 2,173 of Harris County residents list their occupation as farmer, fisher or forester. At the other end of the food chain, 88,541 people in the county are either food preparers or servers, aka cooks and waiters.

Yes, other American cities have some great places to eat. New York City is the winner hands-down. Unfortunately, in New York City it is often hands-up. Otherwise, where’s the competition? Kansas City has great steaks, but how’s their chili con queso? New Orleans has wonderful Cajun cooking. And that’s all they have. Go to Elgin for barbeque and to San Antonio for fine Tex-Mex. (We shall know we’ve lost control of the immigration situation when we eat at Mex-Tex restaurants.)

Each city has its specialty, but Houston has excellent food in all of the above. It is my own oft-quoted theory that Houston’s melting pot tastes better because of location. We are at the crossroads of Mexico, Louisiana, the Gulf and the rest of Texas. So we get great Tex-Mex, mouth-watering Cajun cooking (remember that we received 250,000 Katrinians, and many never returned to the swamps), wonderful fresh seafood from the Gulf, and Texas steaks and barbeque from our ranches. No other city can make that statement.

But we are witnessing conflicting movements in our eating habits. Go into any bookstore and you will see aisles of books on food. Cookbooks frequently top best-sellers lists and celebrity chefs have their own restaurants and TV shows. Indeed, there is an entire cable network, the Food Network, totally dedicated to eating and restaurant critic ranks among the most envied positions. However, we are also in the midst of an economic downturn. People are losing their jobs and survivors’ salaries are being reduced. America has slipped on a banana peel and may be forced to eat it. One of the first cutbacks on the family budget is eating out.

Yet experts predict 2009 will be a rare year, well done. Let’s look at the big, middle and little pictures. According to the National Restaurant Association’s 2009 Restaurant Industry Forecast, industry sales nationwide are anticipated to reach $566 billion this year, an increase of 2.5 percent above 2008. As for Texas, that same forecast predicts our state will lead the nation in sales growth in 2009 to hit $35 billion (up 4 percent) and will employ more than 1 million Texans. We’re Number One!

Richie Jackson, executive vice president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, says, “Even in these tough economic times, it is clear that the Texas restaurant industry is the best place to do business in the nation. While our country is coping with the weakest economy in decades, Texas restaurateurs continue to buck the trends and post positive sales and job growth.” And locally, we’re also expected to do better than the rest. Rene Zamore, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, says Houston restaurants seem to be somewhat bucking the economic trends. But Zamore also points out that restaurants are getting hit with a one-two punch: a worsening economy and the rising price of food, which began well before the recession. “Many of our members reported positive numbers for the holiday season, but are bracing for a slower than usual January and February.”

So there we have it. Houston continues to feast, but business may slow from very good to only good. Speaking of dining, eat your heart out, Politburo.

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