MD Anderson Edition: How To Experience Houston’s World-Class Food… And Keep Your Appointments

Houston is arguably one of the nation’s top food cities. Don’t take it from me, a lowly Hub-City dweller, take it from David Chang, in his new Netflix series, Ugly Delicious (episode 4), or his 2016 GQ article titled, “The Next Global Food Mecca Is In… Texas?” And it’s not just Chang with the H-town love. Washington Post ranked Houston 5th in the “The 10 Best Food Cities in America, Ranked” in December of 2015. Food and restaurant guide old-guard, Zagat, ranked Houston 15th in December of 2017 in their “30 Most Exciting Food Cities in America” Most recently Bill Simmons and Joe House ranked HTX second in their Best NBA-Finals Food Cities on The Ringer network food podcast, “House of Carbs: Episode 40”. Actually, you should take my word because I’m a Lubbockite who has equal affections for such unassuming staples as chicken fried steak and enchiladas as highfalutin bone marrows and foie gras. Houston has it all and it is where I want my last meal… Meals.

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Unfortunately I know the scoop on Houston’s amazing food scene because I’ve spent the last two years traveling there every four months to treat my papillary thyroid cancer at MD Anderson Cancer Center. Of the people I’ve talked to who’ve been there, either for personal treatment or to attend with loved ones, I’ve never heard anyone talk about the Houston food scene. This is understandable because as many of you know, MD Anderson is like its own city and it can overshadow the entire Houston experience if that’s why you go. Within the hospital there’s public transport, miles of halls, sidewalks, and campus pavement. There are countless restaurants, dining halls (read a review here), and “convenience stores”. All this makes it difficult to ever leave once you’re there for an appointment. You’ll have to park your car, pay for parking, and make it to your clinic waiting room which usually takes about 20 minutes once you arrive on campus. Most people are also shell-shocked into staying very close after their first experience.

It’s all overwhelming because of the cancer, and the bills, and the where do I park?  

Which one of these 20 buildings do I go into?

Oh, no I’m late for an appointment that it took three months to get.

When should I call my family? Where do I go? Where do I go? Where do I go!?

It’s like the people who work there can just see it on your face, too. That first time everyone was so helpful and so sweet and encouraging. It’s like each time I was about to crawl into a corner crying someone would come up and smile and say, “Need some help finding anything?” And the answer was always yes. I’m pretty sure that’s everyone’s first experience there. So of course you’re not worried about how you’ll get to choose taste some of Houston’s resplendent culinary options, many lying mere blocks away from your quarantine. If you’re like I was, you’re terrified you may have just stumbled out of the gate in a race that swallows its participants. But if you’re like me, each time you return, you’ll want to experience some new fold of the place that’s become a major setting in what is unfortunately a major chapter in your life now. Take it from me, you can experience the edible adventure of Texas’ most diverse city from within the fortress walls. And I’m not talking about Cat Cora’s popup kitchen either. Thanks to an often overlooked (especially in Lubbock) piece of modern technology, you can have your appointment and eat in Houston, too.

I’ve eaten close to 75 meals, most of which were selected through hive-mind download (Yelp, Facebook, asking hipsters) or painstaking (ask my wife) research of breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots throughout Houston’s various affluent and blue-collar neighborhoods. While each meal has been incredible in its own way, it took me until a week ago, on my ninth trip, to stumble upon the H-Town, and in particular, the MD Anderson, food hack I’m going to let you in on. But first, I want to spend some time telling you what this Houston food hack is not.

This Hack Is Not The Houston Food Stuff You Already Know, Like…

The Breakfast Klub: 3.4 Miles from MD Anderson

Close enough (map) to hit on the way to your appointment, but not worth the $20+ you’ll spend if you have to re-park at MD Anderson.

It’s not a reminder that you must order the “Wings & Waffle” plate from The Breakfast Klub (Yelp), no matter how much you like croissants and thus want to order “The Kroissant”. Your wife will do the right thing even if you don’t. She always does.

When In Galveston…

You’ll have to hit Galveston on an off-day from appointments, and you’ll want to see it in the daylight.

It is also not a heads-up to check out Mod Coffeehouse (Yelp) in Galveston if you end up going to the beach to clear your head for a day between appointments. You will be crying out on the Strand for one stinking shop that isn’t selling tourist garbage, but you’ll find Mod because there isn’t much to see on the Strand anyway. It’s also not a hack of where to find really simple, delicious shrimp po boys at Shrimp ’N Stuff Downtown (Yelp).

Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar: 8.9 Miles from MD Anderson

Forget it. You’ll never make it between appointments. Eight miles in Houston is like 36 miles in Lubbock. It’s like dog years vs. human years. We’re all livin’ in a different reality, you know man?

This food hack has nothing to do with Houston Heights Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar’s (Facebook) southern metrocool atmosphere. It’s good enough that we’ve been here on multiple occasions and it’s all been good. Don’t go if you want to hear your table mates talk.

Local Foods Is Crave Worthy: 3.4 Miles From MD Anderson

If there was a place that maybe, just maybe, would be worth a $24 park and re-park accumulation of fees on your next oncological-lay-over, it could be Local Foods. There’s one in Rice Village (map).

It’s no secret, anyone who’s been to the spot-on branded and local ingredient champion, Local Foods (website), knows it is a place you could eat every day and not grow weary. I could live there… in a dark corner scavenging hand-cut and fried tater chips should any fall by the wayside en route to paying mouths.

Ninfa, Inventor Of The Fajita: 5.8 Miles From MD Anderson

Forget it. You’ll never make it (map) and this place is always packed.

I don’t have some special knowledge to pass on to you about The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation (Facebook). Nor do I have a good reason for not ordering the fajitas from the woman who invented them. Order the fajitas.

Taco Truck + Live Music + Beer Patio Combo: 9 Miles From MD Anderson

This action here starts swinging long after the last Main Bldg. to Mays Clinic shuttle powers down for the evening. The driver hangs their keys up, polishes that bronze statue by Elevator A, and hits the lights for the night. You’ll have plenty of time to make it here to blow off some steam before your favorite band starts.

This blog is not about the surprisingly located and authentically delicious La Macro (website) food truck. It brightly beckons from the a corner of the chilled-out Raven Tower (Facebook) yard both just a stone’s throw from Houston’s best live music venue, White Oak Music Hall (website).

Hugo Ortega, there, I mentioned him. That’s for anyone who says you can’t talk about Houston food without paying homage.

You may make it here during a lull in your appointment schedule, but you won’t make it back in time. This place is all about slooooow, luxurious eating. No one is in a hurry here and if the food weren’t so good it may bother you.

I also have nothing to say of Houston’s Mexican-cuisine golden boy, Hugo Ortega (just Google this James Beard Award winner if you don’t know). You’ve already heard of Hugo’s (map, 3.5 miles) chips-and-salsa-stand-in spiced peanuts. And you no doubt expect the queso flameado to have steak and be neatly loaded into four fresh tortillas at your table-that crap is on Yelp. Including talk of carnitas and barbacoa being some of the best you ever had. So it’s only logical that you’d stumble upon the Malinche Margarita and be so smitten by it that you pick up a bottle of peach brandy and pineapple juice on your way home from Preston Smith Airport, just so you could recreate it to sip on as you unpack your bags. This is not the Houston food hack I want to tell you about.

Rodeo Goat For The Win: 4.7 Miles From MD Anderson

Again, this is a place best experienced after the sun sets. It’s near Minute Maid Park, too (map).

I don’t want to mention Rodeo Goat (Facebook), either. They opened their first “Icehouse / Patio Bar” location outside of DFW in Houston recently and all I can really say is HopDoddy who?

The El Real: 3.5 Miles From MD Anderson

We actually hit this place between appointments one time. It’s real good and it’s a Houston tradition for Tex-Mex. Try the Tin-Can Tacos and the Margs are Eater-ranked, Houston great.

When in Rome..

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I do have a hot tip about El Real (Yelp), although it’s not the main point of this article. When at El Real, do not mistake the sweet tang of salsa gone bad with flavors which may naturally occur in atomic level spicy salsas. Back story here. Just follow your wife’s lead and quit eating it. She will do the right thing; she always does.

Snoooooooooze, ahem?: 3 Miles From MD Anderson

You could easily make it here (Facebook) between appointments (map). The hard part is tryna park your car some place around all these bougie-ass hipsters. You’ll definitely wait in line a good 20-30 mins. and you’ll probably walk a couple of blocks from your car, too. *Bring yoga pants

@snoozeameatery chilaquiles benedict.

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What can I say—it’s really for people who want to make the most boring meal of the day their biggest. There, I said it. Breakfast is a snoozer of a meal. To be clear, Snooze, An AM Eatery (website) is really good, and not boring, but unless you’re running a marathon you’re going to waste a day’s appetite on eggs, gravy, potatoes, and pancakes. And I want so much more for you in life.

Here’s Your Houston/MD Anderson Food Hack: Uber Eats

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Maybe a lot of you have already figured this one out, but I wept when the idea occurred to me. No more cafeteria food or overpriced salad bars with tan tongs that barely open wide enough to grab the cherry tomatoes you’re dreading forking because you know they’re going to squirt your clothes. No more completely counterintuitively unhealthy chow to choose from a stainless steel steam table. No more mess hall meals during those long stretches between appointments. No more early morning coffee lines 10 deep at the single Starbucks in the Main Building. No more Starbucks always being closed at the Mays Clinic. Uber Eats can bring it all to you from a variety of 4 and 5 star options. Best of all, you can see the car getting closer and closer—something that brings immense satisfaction. You thought the Domino’s pizza tracker was badass… wait until you see your delivery driver make a left at the light 4 blocks from you.

There’s bubble tea, Hobbit Cafe, the Halal Guys, burgers, 3rd wave coffee, shawarma, Ethiopian, fish, Mediterranean, pizza, Amy’s Ice Cream, sorting by gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan. You can even select options by delivery time. Best of all you can take your food to one of the many open spaces and parks outside. I found that the best way to wait on appointments, last minute test scheduling, and paperwork processing is by sitting at a picnic table waiting for sushi. Sushi is a particularly excellent option for Uber Eats because you don’t have to worry about it getting cold or soggy—we had the best sushi of our lives at MD Anderson. It came from The Fish and was just a short elevator ride away. We didn’t even have to fork over $12 to get our car.

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Beef Ribeye Rolls
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Blazing Tuna Roll

This place is worth a try. It was fresh and expertly constructed. I didn’t break a single piece and I have all the dexterity of Edward Scissorhands with some chopsticks. I never eat the ginger that comes with sushi. But this ginger had an addictively fresh taste to it, like it was dug up, straight from the dirt seconds before slicing and serving. Another reason I’ll go back is their menu. They have some pretty inventive offerings, not to mention some traditional fare. They have ramen, poke, sous vide Akaushi beef, a Kobe burger, truffle fries, buffalo chicken wontons, and more stuff I can’t wait to try. Obviously I’m hoping to try it under different circumstances, but you walk this road for long enough and you begin to realize – you better take it however it comes. Because the idea of being swallowed in this race against one’s own biology makes life’s simple pleasures all the more exquisite.

 

Lubbock, Czech Yourself: A Kolache Rundown

I could be wrong, but it seems like we’re receiving a hot dog for every single kolache we order.

I’m not sure who to blame for this, but it’s time I said something. I don’t think the pastry-based snacks sold to us at every local donut shop are what we think they are.

The first time I noticed this was at a co-worker breakfast. I had just moved to Lubbock. In planning the breakfast, someone said “Oooh, I’ll bring kolaches”. Everyone thought it a great idea and offered their recommendation for the best spot to get them. I knew something was amiss here when someone yelled, “Get extra mustard!”, and someone else said, “…and jalapeno!”

But I ignored the warning signs, like I always do when it comes to food. Like one time in Houston, at the Montrose Tex-Mex palace El Real, I ordered some of their Habanero salsa which had a funny aftertaste. It was a taste I could only describe as a very peculiar… whaang. 

That salsa definitely had a whaang to it.

But every time I ate it I explained the faint funk away. I’d take a big bite then say something to my wife like… hmmm, I think there may be mango in here… She’d respond, “I don’t know. I don’t like it.” Meanwhile I’m loading another chip. Then three more chips. Then I’d say something like… you know, I bet these Habaneros were roasted which would probably explain the sweetness… She wasn’t buying it for some reason. She knew better. Turns out that hint of mango was probably something bacterial along the lines of a Clostridium perfringens. That delicate sweetness my seasoned palette was picking up was probably a little bugger known as Bacillus cereus. I figured this out over the next two days as the drawn-out relationship between the salsa and me resolved in much contempt.

The calls for mustard and jalapeno should have been all the warning I needed to appropriately set my expectations of the kolaches, but I held out hope for the next morning’s breakfast. Many Habanero salsas actually have mango as a main ingredient. The two pair together like beans and rice, like chicken and waffles, like Lubbock and… Amarillo. So I’ll take another bite. So maybe these Lubbock Texans knew how and what to eat with their kolaches. I was expecting to see little square yeasty rolls with a crater right in the center. And in that crater in the center, I was expecting to see fruity, jelly dollops of purples and deep reds dusted over top by powdered sugar. I was also expecting to see a few with cream cheese. I had no idea where mustard and jalapeno would enter the equation, but I was ready to let it happen.

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Turns out LBKers think a hot dog is a kolache if it’s eaten before noon. I’m not sure who is to blame for this farce, but to set the record straight: anytime you put anything resembling an Oscar Meyer wiener in a bun adorned with yellow mustard from a squeeze pack… you’re dealing with a hot dog and those aren’t for breakfast, unless your life depends on it and I’m not going to say you’ll never find yourself in that situation.

I hesitate to point the finger at the Asian donut shop owners here, because how are they supposed to know what’s what? We can’t expect them to learn Czech or Slovak in addition to the English language. I want to say it’s their fault, I do. But I’m telling you right now if I went to Saigon and started selling Bún thįt núróng to everyone and calling it Sopa Seca De Fideo with Pork, I guarantee you someone would say, “We call this Bún thįt núróng.” All I’m saying is maybe we should tell them it’s a hot dog.

“What I’m saying is this: there are a lot of variations on the delicious American classic and maybe I’m not ready to give Czechs credit for all the work West Texans have done to codify mustard and wieners as standard breakfast fare.”

I get it, I was almost fooled myself when I saw the flaky, pastry-style hot dog bun fully enclosing the wiener. It did seem like something else… something with European roots. But I was reminded that hot dogs and their buns come in all shapes and sizes these days. For instance, the Fenway Frank at the Red Sox stadium is served in a flat-bottom split-top bun, the same as the lobster rolls that can be had throughout the New England region. Wienerschnitzel, or Der Wienerschnitzel as anyone over 45 calls it, has an option for a pretzel bun. In places like Manhattan you can get a bagel dog, which is a wiener fully enclosed in a bagel the shape of its wiener contents. A Montreal-style dog has coleslaw on it. What I’m saying is this: there are a lot of variations on the delicious American classic and maybe I’m not ready to give Czechs credit for all the work West Texans have done to codify mustard and wieners as standard breakfast fare.

There are risks to misclassifying them. I’m worried if you don’t quit calling these hot dogs kolaches, the first time you have a real kolache you’re going to call it something else setting off a false pastry recognition chain of events that will sooner or later have you misidentifying pastry foods you previously knew the names of. You’ll be saying empanadas when you mean cronut, and you’ll call croissants Kellogg’s Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts, and I don’t want that for you. Hell, I don’t want that for anyone.

I’m suggesting a movement to claim the kolaches we know and love from the Czechs. I’m hoping even Czechxans will agree—the West Texan kolache has strayed too far to not have its own uniquely branded designation.

I’m open to suggestions, but here are a few to get the conversation started:

  • Dirty Dog – Did you see the sky on Sunday?
  • Sunup Rollup – Get it?
  • First Light Frank – Because it’s a… Get it?
  • Windy Weiner – Did you see the sky on Sunday?
  • Breakwurst – It’s a wurst for breakfast.
  • Weinerfurst – A weinerwurst, first thing in the morning.
  • Pigs In A Blanket – Because, who are we kidding, isn’t this what it really is? I think someone said Kolache because it sounds more exotic.

Lubbock Kolache Rundown

6. Rise ‘N’ Shine Donuts 

This is like a hot dog on a fresh bun. It tastes like a bun you’d buy from the fresh deli, not the bread aisle of your neighborhood United. It’s semi-sweet, tasting like it was sweetened with honey instead of sugar. It actually tastes better than one of those Market Street baked goods. You know the ones that are pretty good but they’re 53 minutes away from turning hard as a rock and only 3 hours away from being completely covered in mold.

5. Donut Depot

Donut Depot’s kolaches are slightly better than Rise’N’Shine’s. Not only do they have a better bun-to-weiner ratio, they also throw a curve ball with their ham and cheese offering. Even if it was just a rolled up piece of lunch meat, it seemed special because I didn’t see one like this any place else. And I received a complimentary cake donut, which had the perfect amount of sweetness for me to love and my wife to say, “This doesn’t have any flavor.”

4. Daylight Donuts

If I had to guess, Daylight Donuts’ kolache is probably an area favorite. The bun is like a deep-fried funnel cake type of bun. It’s biscuity, doughy, and semi sweet. I think it’s actually donut dough without the glaze or cloying sweet accompaniments. If they could find a way to lighten the batter up, it might rank higher. But as is, it is a bit too dense.

3. Jack ‘n’ Jill Donuts

Jack ‘n’ Jill’s kolache may look like an ordinary hot dog wiener cloaked in leavened lightness, but it’s the leavened lightness that has it ranking so high. This dog’s bread jacket is flakier and lighter than anything gnoshed so far. They could have slam dunked the competition if the contents were reminiscent of anything other than an Oscar Meyer hot dog, but alas, these are hot dogs we’re dealing with.

2. City Do-nuts

Forgive the whack weenie in the photo, but a breakwurst can only look so appealing splayed across the cold stone of a marble cheese tray on my kitchen counter. There’s one reason this kolache has the slight edge to Jack’N’Jill. Its bun is more neutral. It’s less yeasty and it really lets the sausage shine. The texture of the bun is a little more delicate, too. It’s the best bread I tried, and the frank… Seemed like a standard ole’ weenie, unfortunately.

1. Sugar Brown’s Coffee

There are several things right about the made-from-scratch kolaches at Sugar Brown’s. To start with, they’re adorned with sprinkles of salt and herbs, which doesn’t sound like a big deal but the crunch you get when you bite into a salt flake is a different kind of satisfaction beyond taste alone. The hot dog-to-bun ration was also spot on with these. And speaking of hot dog, this one was good. It tasted better than Oscar Meyer, in fact they may have even splurged on these because they tasted juicier than the others. The only thing I didn’t love about Sugar Brown’s kolache is the bread. It had the sweet, crustiness of a pie crust and the dense heft of a buttermilk biscuit. It was a little too dense, although not as much as Daylight’s. City Do-nuts has pretty much won me over with their airy wispy white cloud buns.

Despite the fact that City Do-nuts may have a better meat kolache (whatever that is) in all its simplicity, Sugar Brown’s may just be the best. Because there, at least you can get a real kolache with fruit and cheese.

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Who did I miss? Who has your favorite kolache in LBK?

My Dad Says He Can’t Stand Chili’s Hipster Food

Once my dad was in a coma for about three months. He went into it weighing around 190 pounds, and when he awoke he weighed about 75.

My family spent an entire summer camped out at the hospital — too afraid of what we might miss if we ventured too far away. We lived off fast food, we huddled around puzzles and a portable DVD player, and we slept on the commercial-grade, low-pile carpeting of the ICU waiting room floor. For a time, the doctors had no idea what was wrong with him. His body shut down, system by system, each one replaced by equipment that would do the job temporarily.

I started writing about food around the same time. You’re going to think I’m sick in the head when I tell you this (you’re right), but one thing I got a kick out of was describing food to my dad in his visitors log. Alongside the get-well-soons, when-you-get-betters, and  keep-fightings, were my daily food entries. Oh, and I should say that all these fourteen years later, my dad is doing well. A miraculous recovery—the doctor’s words. Because making Dad laugh is one of my lifelong goals, my letters usually went something like this:

Dear Dad,

I brought you a supreme crispy beef taco from Taco Bell because I thought you’d be hungry for the way that cool dollop of sour cream squeezes out of that crisp shell into the palm of your hand when you compress it to take that first bite. I also have a Baja Blast for you hear to wash it down with… But it doesn’t seem like you’re that hungry today, so I guess I’ll eat it.

Love You, JJ

The next day’s entry would describe Schlotzsky’s, then KFC, and on and on.

I think I always knew he’d wake up and read them all and get a real kick out of it. He did. While we may both agree in the humor of those food notes, we don’t necessarily agree about food. My dad is no different from most white middle-class dads born in the 50s in this, his standard for food is determined by the answer to three simple questions: does it require utensils other than a fork? Is it microwavable? Does Miracle Whip go with it? If you can answer yes to even one of those, it’s food. Also, spicy is always a ‘no’; Cheddar’s Chicken Tenders are always a ‘yes’, and Oscar Meyer Ham’n’Cheese loaf beats the iPhone easy if we’re talking high points of American innovation. On second thought, I bet my dad didn’t even like any of the food I wrote about in his visitors log.

A few weeks back at a cookout, my dad was turning down offers for food because he was heading out to meet a friend. When we asked where they were meeting, he said, “Stinkin’ Chili’s!” For a moment I was surprised because Chili’s seems to have it in their business plan to know exactly what will make dads glad. So why then was my dad sad? He said, “I can’t stand Chili’s, it’s a hipster place. A hipster restaurant!” Reason, “…because I never know what to get there; their menu is all weird.” This got me thinking… hard. Is Chili’s a hipster place? What do I get when I go to Chili’s? A burger, but I don’t know what kind. What’s a hipster? I might not know the answer to that.

In the days thereafter, those Chili’s “vintage” found-footage commercials played over and over in my mind. Could my dad be onto something when it comes to food commentary? Or am I just becoming more like him in my old age. Have I gone crude-food? Am I a meager-eater? I did recently get the warm and fuzzies on a road trip with my wife when I copped a pack of Hostess Raspberry Zingers and some Cheetos just like dad likes. Come to think of it I even threw my head back to pour Cheetos into my mouth straight from the bag, bypassing the amateur look of orange-powdered fingers. Genius. A move I picked up natural as a first language from seeing my dad do the same thing a hundred times before. Next thing you know I’ll be pouring handfuls of M&Ms into my warm palms and shaking them like dice so they don’t melt into the cracks of my hands as I toss a few into my mouth at a time. I hadn’t been to Chili’s in years, but something about the afros, flannel shirts, and Foghat beckoned me. Maybe Chili’s was a hipster place now, and I’ve just grown out of touch. I had missed the cool factor cred bestowed upon Waffle House by hip kids with dirty fingernails and tattoos. If Chili’s is becoming a thing, I don’t want to miss it, too. Not because I want to jump on the bandwagon, but because I’m always interested in seeing Gen Y’ers successfully transform some unremarkable circumstance into the most pretentious phenomenon of the day.  They’ll normcore anything these days. So I headed to Chili’s.

A guy is still sitting at the bar alone, unashamedly answering his phone every five minutes, “Nuthin… At Chili’s just drinking beer.”

I went in searching for signs of hipsterdom. It was July so I looked for beanies; tall, heavy boots; waxed mustaches; NPR, tight man-shorts; Navajo; baggy woman-pants; wizard beards; fixies; Coachella; kombucha; ringer-tees; almost half-sleeve tattoos; top shirt buttons buttoned; pinky rings; turquoise; pipe tobacco; MacBooks; Infinite Jest; PBR; headbands; ankles; irony; What the Health, sarcasm; plaid; unwashed denim and finally, an unreasonable fear of America suddenly becoming Nazi Germany overnight because deep down they just don’t trust themselves to not get swept up in the next Beer Hall Putsch. I didn’t see any of that. Chili’s is virgin territory, ripe for takeover.

Chili’s is exactly as I left it, six years ago, after I spent up a gift card on a couple of new burgers they were calling “craft”. The reality is, steaming hot fajitas still get danced through the restaurant by 20-somethings with circles under their eyes. The water glasses are still made from that cloudy plastic, and the bartender still calls you ‘brother’. The Presidente margarita is actually pretty good, even though I’ve never seen someone shake it the appropriate 25x needed to achieve the intended effervescent frothiness. A guy is still sitting at the bar alone, unashamedly answering his phone every five minutes, “Nuthin… At Chili’s just drinking beer.” The crew is still unexpectedly excited about how their fried pickles are pickled and battered in-house, and a 21 year-old bartender still can’t pronounce all the liquors in the margarita–but intimately knows the story of the founder’s trip to Mexico, where he discovered the Presidente brandy that gives the signature marg its flavor. He’ll confuse bourbon for brandy when he’s telling you. Chili’s still isn’t great, but it has a few “reasonably clean” booths if you get there at the right time, according to a couple defining their search for a spot in the bar. I didn’t see any hipsters. Just some basketball shorts, flip-flops, cut-off sleeves, wranglers, frat-tees, tube socks, and Harley-Davidson caps.

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Chili’s is no Cheddar’s that’s for sure, just ask Dad. It’s no “scratch kitchen”. And as far as knowing what to order, Cheddar’s calls their Chicken Tenders, chicken tenders. While Chili’s gets all wrapped up in hipster lingo, calling them Chicken Crispers. What’s a crisper? I can sorta see how they lost dad. I wouldn’t call it a hipster place, but I’ll be fine if I only get to visit once a decade. Chili’s isn’t good, but it’ll do in a pinch. Like when you’re laid over in an airport, or like when you’re a busy parent with hungry kids who need to eat cheap, or maybe you’re joining your crude-fooder friends for Five Dollar Margarita Night (Thursdays). Chili’s will do just fine when you’re in a pinch, and I guess that’s why they’re known to make a dad glad. Convenience. And the Eagles playing on the sound system.

But not my dad, I guess he’s never been in a bad enough pinch.

Excursions: A Hub City Dweller Breaks Bread Near Santa Fe

“…above all things, however, over-indulgence must be avoided and a monk must never be overtaken by indigestion; for there is nothing so opposed to the Christian character as over indulgence, according to our Lord’s words, “See to it that your hearts be not burdened with overindulgence.”

Chapter 39, “On the Measure of Food,” St. Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries

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Santa Fe is easily the best food city within reach for most Hub City dwellers. Even if you know this to be true, I guarantee you haven’t experienced the food secret I’m about to let you in on. I’m not talking about the slow burn of The Shed’s “Christmas” treatment, the greasy perfection of Blake’s Lotaburger, the flaky, crusty bliss neatly arranged in Clafoutis’ glass cabinets, or even the quirky pop-up shop experience served by Holy Spirit Espresso at the standing-only store. You already know about all that stuff. You may even know the most secret knowledge, like that getting a hotel near the square is the only way to do it, because it puts the best breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots on the short side of a 10 minute walk through the spectacle that is America’s oldest capital city. I’m not here to tell you about any of that. I want to tell you about an eating experience I had there recently that’s a lot more immersive than that.

Northwest of Santa Fe, near Abiqui, 13 miles off scenic U.S. Highway 84, Christ in the Desert Monastery juts upward from the Chama River Canyon floor. It’s a welcome sight for anyone traveling the jarring, dusty forest road that dead-ends there. A warm meadow separates the buildings from the river that’s been carving out the canyon for who knows how long. The monastery is a well-known destination for a variety of reasons. It was designed by the famous designer, George Nakashima; it was on a TLC documentary in 2006; their website, one of the first in its “industry”, was one of the world’s most visited in the mid 90s; because of this, they received attention from major news outlets. They’re also well-known for their chants album, “Monks in the Desert” which garnered them a spot on the “Today Show” in 2012. The monastery is also adored among the Catholic faithful. Thomas Merton, the prolific and intellectual writer/theologian/monk/priest/hermit/jazz-lover called the monastery the, “..best monastic building in the country.” Its dramatic surroundings are no doubt part of that equation.

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“Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ, for he is going to say, “I came as a guest and you received me.”

Chapter 61, “On the Reception of Guests,” St. Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries

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A ministry of the Order of Saint Benedict is their emphasis on hospitality. They receive guests and serve visitors who want to facilitate a quieting of the mind and spirit. Guests are invited to share in the “monastic way of life” which includes work, prayer, and hours of observed silence. It takes a while to get used to this, because though you may see people frequently, speaking is only truly condoned in sparse increments. This is liberating. At first, I felt a tinge of guilt every time I looked at another visitor in the eye without saying hello, how are you, or where’d you get the beer? Who knew the expectation and obligation to exchange life’s daily pleasantries carried so much weight? I went hours and hours without speaking to anyone. I didn’t miss it… until meals were served.

“…every table should have 2 cooked dishes, on account of individual infirmities, so that he who for some reason cannot eat of the one may eat of the other.”

Chapter 39, “On the Measure of Food,” St. Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries

Meals have to be a serious endeavor for anyone claiming a commitment to hospitality. The monks didn’t disappoint. Our first meal in the refectory came with instruction from the Abbey’s guest-master, Brother Andre, a short monk whose hands flapped the robes’ big sleeves around when talking. He gave each guest a cloth napkin and told us to store it in a cubby hole in the wall when not in use. He positioned himself in front of the closed double doors to the dinning room, “Dinner is a buffet here; help yourself.” He propped the doors open to the bustling communal hall. Gregorian chant music played on a sound system and monks hauled trays of food in, one after the other, as if they were presenting a foreign king with the region’s best fare.
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The sound system is drowned out for a few moments with the clink and clang of clean dishes and cups being stacked for the taking. Wooden chair legs groan across the floor as people take their seats. Ice crunches in big bowls when the scoops plunge to fill glasses. Then the cubes crackle and pop when tea and water rush in from pouring pitchers. Plastic twist-tied bags get cut open with a serrated bread knife revealing fresh loaves. There’s a hollow sawing sound as the teeth of the knife chew into the bread’s crusty exteriors. Crumbs splinter off.

The first dish is a creamy soup with long-cut carrots and sugar snap peas that refuse to be easily gathered with the ladle intended. A few inches from the soup, a white rice is waiting. I take a steamy spoonful and dump it in my soup. Next, a pan of meatballs begs for attention by casting its tomatoey aromas straight at my face. The pinto beans follow suit. They make a good point that I need something to balance the tomato’s acidity and legumes’ earthy starches are perfect for that. The corn salsa convinced me to scoop it up on color alone. The deep red and green roasted bell peppers diced up alongside purple onion then cumin dusted was the perfect jolt of color for my suddenly dreary looking meatball and beans crowded plate. But there was still enough room for salad. Barely.

Too many people treat salad like a plan B option they’re obligated to attempt based on what their doctor told them about their cholesterol. To them it’s a necessary evil. But to those monks, the salad is a sanctified metaphor for the divine balance achieved in nature, set forth at the beginning of time by the Creator of all things. Or maybe it’s just a salad to them, but to me, it was a religious experience. Crunchy croutons and firm tomatoes. Soft herbs and crisp cabbage. Salty olives and sweet raisins. Spicy onions and cool bell peppers. Rich olive oil and acidic vinaigrette. The greens were dry and cool and the tomatoes were all carefully seeded so it wasn’t soggy, wet, or wilted. The salad was masterful. It was anything but an after-thought.

After plates were loaded, the room quieted. The chant CD played through the sound system uninterrupted except for the sounds made by the 50 or so spoons, knives, and forks involved in the business of dinner time. The twenty or so monks sat on one side of the room while the 20 visitors sat directly opposite. The tables were long and made of heavy wood, probably crafted by the monks at some point. A monastery must be self-sufficient. For instance, the hot sauce at the table, “Monk Sauce”, was made by a monastery in Arkansas, and it was exactly what the soup needed that day. In the monastery gift shop one can find monk-made communion wafers made someplace and leather-bound journals made another. The Christ in the Desert monks have a line of beer. While monks brewing beer is a tradition as old as the Old World, their “Monk’s Ale” was the only monastery owned brewery until recently, when it sold as most “craft” breweries are want to do these days.

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Meals are something special at the monastery. Not just because the food is simple and delicious, but because it’s a communal meal… in silence. You notice more. You notice how a monk brings out 3 blocks of cheese with a big smile on his face after everyone has already begun eating. Words unspoken tell you it was his responsibility to have it out sooner, but he forgot. One monk raises his hand, two fingers, and eyebrows and you understand he wants the forgetful monk to brink him slices of the white mild block. The cheese knife knocks against the wooden cutting board twice as thick slices fall away. You notice how people eat, too. Three asian monks drank hot tea at every meal from tall, clear glasses. Why they didn’t use tea cups, I’ll never know. One young redheaded monk held his soup bowl 2 inches below his chin, never putting it down, even eating bites of fresh bread from his free hand between spoonfuls. He either had severe neck problems that caused him not to be able to crane down over his bowl, or he had, in his mind, found the ingenious work-around to compliment the extreme inefficiency of the western way of soup-eating. One east-asian monk ate what appeared to be all dinner dishes from one bowl, with a spoon. Each spoonful contained lettuce, beans, rice, meatballs, and soup. Now that looks efficient. The silence can get a bit awkward while eating, and there’s no place to look accept straight ahead to the table of monks across the room looking back at you.

Unlike the dinner buffet, lunch is full-service, called the main meal. Instead of playing the chant music at this meal, a monk stood at the microphone reading St. Benedict’s Rules for Monasteries line by line. I learned how a man becomes an abbot. That’s not what kept my attention though. Instead, I discovered fresh baked bread. How has a spoonful of peanut butter or a schmear of Nutella across the airy plane of a slice of fresh baked bread stayed foreign to me for so long? I was so completely enthralled I mostly missed the clockwork ticking of the monks’ food service offering. At main meal, each dish is paraded before you like frankincense to baby Jesus. If you’re lost in a simple slice of bread, as I was, you may miss the fact that each dish is a new concoction utilizing the previous day’s fare. The vegetable soup from the night before has some tomato and spaghetti noodle added to it; the lentils have cozied up to diced potatoes in what appears to be a twice baked casserole. Not only is the food simple and filling at the monastery, it’s loaves-and-fishes sustainable. But I was too lost in my bread to notice the simple bliss and versatility of simple food.

I think that’s what the monastery is all about. It’s about the refreshing sustainability of simplicity. Even when it comes to the food. The monastery left a lasting impression on me. I doubt it was the effect the monks were going for, but as soon as I got home I found a bread machine on Trading Up and have been baking bread every weekend since. Four months later and I’ve only recently gotten close to the perfect white bread recipe. I’ve heard it said man cannot live on bread alone. I get that. Now I understand why he thought he could in the first place.

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Flippers Tavern: Flipping the Bird to Monoculture

The only reason worth drawing a distinction between a hot dog and a brat is so that you can understand what kind of bunned bliss awaits you at Flippers Tavern on Avenue Q.

A hot dog, unlike a brat, has a smooth, processed interior. A brat has a coarser, more natural grind. Hot dogs are emulsified meat product squirted into conveyor-belted casings by a plunging, automated stainless steel phallus that’s tip eventually needs replacing after it accumulates a certain number of factory hours. Brats on the other hand, and particularly Flippers Tavern favorites, are handmade in Post, TX, by Jackson Bros. What I’m saying is, even though Flippers calls their menu items “dogs”, there’s a big difference between a hot dog and what Flippers is slingin’. Flip’s is too punk rock to not downplay their strengths though.

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Flippers is a brat bar serving up funky combos that would make your dad’s head explode. I don’t know your pops, but mine is the kind of All-American guy who’s been eating a microwaved Oscar Meyer weiner on sliced bread with Miracle Whip for as long as I can remember. So, just the idea of a brat like Flip’s “French Tickler” (brie, curry cranberry mayo, red onion jam) would make him short-circuit, pondering the very fabric of his existence. Flip’s condiment game is second to none. With a handful of fresh, non-typical hot dog flavor bombs (for example: ginger, cusabi, lemon garlic aioli, pineapple) they’re able to deliver something that satisfies intercontinental hankerings.

Flippers is a brat bar serving up funky combos that would make your dad’s head explode.

Luckily, you don’t even have to make it far into the menu before you realize Flippers Tavern is a special place. It’s got something the vast majority of local eateries struggle to find. No, it’s not a nickname. Flips has something restauranteurs usually hire consultants, agencies, and fast-talking out-of-towners to get. It has a strong brand. Too much food these days lacks a point of view. Not Flips. It has a personality all its own. Flippers Tavern has perspective, and when it comes to food, that makes for a unique experience that’s too hard to find in today’s monocultural landscape.

You don’t have to wonder what Flips is about. Flippers Tavern is all about making you question clean-cut nostalgia. Can a hot dog-that Ned Flanders 4th of July staple of red-blooded Americanism be obliterated and re-built to showcase a streak of multi-national rebelliousness? Yes (try the best thing I’ve ever had there, this month’s Thai Breaker). Flippers conveys the punk rock, anti-establishment morsel that’s to be found in everything. You don’t look around and see the wall-to-wall pinball paraphernalia and think about your 5th grade youth group outing to Buffalo Nickels Arcade. Rather, the universe magically bestows upon you the seedier context, the real history of pinball, which is that it was illegal in most major cities until up until the 1970s. It was a mafia racket in New York and Mayor La Guardia smashed machines in citywide raids. Punk rock! Even the Buddy Holly cut-out on the front door metaphysically imposes less than wholesome knowledge about the area’s golden boy. You’re not reminded of the chaste and virtuous Peggy Sue when you see it. Rather, you’re suddenly aware of Holly’s brief encounter backstage with Little Richard’s girl, Angel. You’ll see the world different at Flips and you’ll be better for it.

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Even the Buddy Holly cut-out on the front door metaphysically imposes less than wholesome knowledge about the area’s golden boy.

Flippers keeps the offerings fresh, too. There is always something new and delicious to try. Whether it’s one of their special dogs, a monthly-updated compilation of thematically unified deliciousness, an old menu standard, or a build-your-own, you can bet your dog will come correct. If the thought of mauling a messy, saucy bun-bound wad of everything you need for nutrition and pleasure intimidates you, try the wraps. They are clean to eat and the brat inside comes sliced which means you won’t have to work hard to tooth-snip the sometimes cumbersome casings for a clean bite. Speaking of cumbersome, there are two other things you might notice. First, the food and service can be on the slower side of the spectrum. It’s not a bad thing because there’s plenty to take in, but planning your visit accordingly is worth it. Second, it’s not exactly comfortable. But it’s worth it because everything you give up related to anatomically accurate tables, or booths that are easy to sit at without having to climb into like some kind of culinary cockpit, you gain in shear wonderment at the fact that all the tables are shiny, lit up, pinball machines. Tell me that’s not rebellious… to eat a full meal off a surface that wasn’t designed to hold it.

Your desire to please everyone is making you boring, and if we’re looking for boring we’ll probably go somewhere faster and more consistent.

Lubbock, while growing to offer all the conveniences and corporate options of cities twice its size, is ground zero for passive food and dinning experiences. It’s franchise land, corporate world. Every burger place is the same except for the color of the cup and the cut of the fry. Every Mexican food place is the same except the queso and the order in which the menu items read. Sure, some of it is better and some worse, but why does it all have to be so tepid and uninspired? Is it the fear of offending someone if their menu is too bold? Perhaps they’re worried their oeuvre will be seen as too ambitious for West Texas. Or have they resigned knowing secretly Lubbock is being slowly overran by food tweaked in a corporate office boardroom in Dallas, so why even bother? It’s time small local owned eateries follow Flipper’s lead and flip the bird to monoculture. Nobody wants an indy to look corporate, so please quit trying. Your desire to please everyone is making you boring, and if we’re looking for boring we’ll probably go somewhere faster and more consistent. We genuinely want to see pictures of your family and Dallas Cowboys’ or NASCAR memorabilia covering every square inch of your establishment. We don’t care if it doesn’t look “franchisable”. We want it to look real. Honest. We want more food with a point of view. We want more places like Flippers Tavern.

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Hemorrhoidal: ghost pepper chews and chips, five pepper BBQ sauce, roasted red peppers and roasted jalapeño relish.

Lubbock (On Tex-Mex): Garcias

What I Ate: Chile Relleno with Chicken, Beef Enchilada, Stuffed Sopapilla with Chicken and Beef.

I have a soft spot for Tex-Mex food. I love stringy, melted cheddar cheese. I love seeing little cubes of diced red tomatoes nested on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce. I love crunchy tacos, nachos, quesadillas, and fajitas. I love tomato-based enchilada sauce when it covers the entire plate. At Garcias, when they bring you a plate like this it’s usually so hot it’s bubbling like La Brea, releasing a brothy essence of depth and deliciousness. I know it’s not popular to like Tex-Mex food, but it’s places like Garcias that make me not give a damn about what’s popular.

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Those things may be true to some extent, but a meal at Garcias is enough to make you remember sometimes food is about putting something in your face that tastes good.

I’m not sure how Tex-Mex became the scorn of opinionated eaters, but it’s definitely a thing. It’s not authentic enough; it’s not nutritious enough; it’s not diverse; it’s too cheesy or greasy. Those things may be true to some extent, but a meal at Garcias is enough to make you remember sometimes food is about putting something in your face that tastes good.

Any Mexican food establishment’s overall worth must be heavily weighted in favor of the quality of their chips and salsa. The chips need to be warmish, the perfect thickness, and fried adequately through. Chips that are too thick are a culinary hazard. Stay away and the roof of your mouth will thank you. Too thin and you’ll be fishing remnants out of the queso your entire meal. Plus, you’ll eat twice as many thin chips because the only way to use them as an appropriate delivery method will be to structurally reinforce them by stacking at least three back-to-back before you scoop. And get ready for true disappointment when the top layer of chips is gone from the basket because everything underneath will be obliterated into mostly crumbs.

Garcias chips are perfect. They’re always hot and they’re as thick as they possibly could be while still remaining crisp and airy. They’re cooked perfectly, too. I’ve never seen any soggy, limp grease sponge chips; nor will you see any that have been fried so long and sloppily that they seem to have reverted back to being a kernel of dark brown corn. You know those crusty pieces of chip that hang at the bottom of the basket, looking so strange and caramelized, you just have to know what they taste like. So you bite it, and it hurts your teeth. Garcias chips will not hurt you.

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These perfect chips are reliable enough to scoop cooled queso, shovel sections of enchilada, and, of course, serve as a crisp, delicious spoon for beans and rice.

Salsa has a user experience factor to it that should not be overlooked.

The salsa is really good at Garcias. It has just the right amount of sweet heat. It’s a thicker kind of pureed salsa, which just makes sense. You can actually dip a chip in it and take it to your mouth without making a messy trail of pepper-juice across the table leading straight to your piehole. Lots of salsas are too watery, too mild, and served in a bowl that’s too shallow (molcajete). Salsa has a user experience factor to it that should not be overlooked.

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The Green Sauce will light you up. Any Mexican establishment who won’t provide the necessary means to up the heat factor is boring… looking at you Chuy’s. Garcia’s has seasoned-salt on the table.
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There are plenty of brooms around ensuring the floors are swept often.

Wait a sec, does my server even still work here? Is it still lunch on Tuesday?

Garcias service is always on point. I know some of you millennials yearning for authenticity with allegiances to places like Aranda’s and Autlan might not care about good service, but I think you’ll be surprised by the experience of being taken care of. You won’t have to sit and wonder, 20 minutes after you’ve finished your meal, do I pay at the register? Did I already pay and I just forgot? Did my server get hit in the head and forget my face and thus the reality of our business relationship? Wait a sec, does my server even still work here? Is it still lunch on Tuesday? Because the position of the sun is making me feel like it’s breakfast on Wednesday. Not to rag on “authentic” places only. I don’t know if I’ve ever been served a hot plate at Chuy’s. Every ounce of queso I’ve ever tasted there was cool and congealed long before it passed my lips. Every serving of beans had the stale crust of oxidation across the top of it. Lukewarm food doesn’t happen at Garcias.

The staff operates like there’s some whip-cracking plata-o-plomo ride-or-die expo homie with an itchy trigger finger just waiting for someone’s dish to go cold at the order-up station so he can throw the runner into the Salamander and leave them there until the cook needs the space again. That’s the kind of motivation Garcias staff seems to have when your food is ready. The sauces and cheeses are bubbling and boiling when they get to your table. The fajitas are so hot a cloud of billowing mist of Maillard mass rolls out and up and off the plate as they are rushed to the ordering table with a laudable kind of urgency. You can hear the pyrotechnic sizzle of a fajita plate from anywhere in the restaurant. Hot food has real production value at Garcias, and it won’t go unnoticed.

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Chile Relleno. Beef Enchilada. The Relleno is egg-battered then fried crisp. The sauce is Espanola sauce (kind of salty). That’s something very different for Mexican food in our region. Espanola sauce is one of the Five Mother Sauces in French cuisine. Instead of using a chile and tomato based sauce, Garcia’s Espanola sauce is a beefy, vegetable stock, reduced roux type of sauce. Reduced further, and without tomatoes, it becomes a demi-glace; Add red wine to create a Bordelaise. It’s definitely different for Mexican food ’round these parts.
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Waiter suggested Stuffed Sopapilla. Sweet but balanced nicely by the richness of the protein. Our server, Christian, is the best server I’ve had anywhere in Lubbock.

It’s food from the borderlands, where we live. It’s not the bastardization of some timeless and perpetual cuisine. It’s food that represents a history of cultures entwined.

At Garcia’s, there’s no cotija cheese, goat cheese, Nopal, molcajete, tomatillo, al pastor, lengua, caldo, caldero. There aren’t many vegetables or dishes with fiber. The only beans are refried. It’s not authentic in the way that would allow hipsters, foodies, and cultural appropriation police to sleep at night. It’s not authentic in those ways. But of course nothing is.

Garcia’s is authentic Tex-Mex. It’s food from the borderlands, where we live. It’s not the bastardization of some timeless and perpetual cuisine. It’s food that represents a history of cultures entwined. At the end of the day, Garcia’s is where owner, Sylvia, showcases her very own Mexican recipes, the recipes she’s always cooked. That’s as authentic as it gets.

 

MD Anderson Edition: Waterfall Cafe

What I Ate: Breakfast Burrito, 10-inch tortilla, with bacon, egg, and potato, and Daily Special with egg, bacon, hash brown, and biscuit.

You think about a lot of things when you get to your first appointment at Houston’s world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center. If you’re me, at least one of those things is food. The fold out maps you can get (every bit as feature-rich as a map you’d get at a national park) at several wall kiosks around the facilities boast 10 different eating options around the campus. They all have modern eatery names like The Oaks, The Lantern Cafe, and Fresco’s. The first day of poking, prodding, petting, and interrogations got me feeling ravenous with hunger; we ended up settling for a late breakfast at Waterfall Cafe.

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We spent the first 30 minutes of the day jumping curbs, spinning u-turns, and whipping our necks left-to-right looking for signs before happening upon the valet main-entry.

I realize only a select few of you will ever have the opportunity to experience the fare at the cafeteria-style Waterfall Cafe as I did: with metastatic papillary thyroid cancer (fewer than 15,000 for males according to American Cancer Society). But if you ever do end up there, you’ll know what to expect. Now getting to Waterfall is a trek, but everything is at this city-within-a-city. Coming from the Main Building (go there, you get free valet parking your first trip, and you quickly realize it’s worth paying for even if it weren’t free: we spent the first 30 minutes of the day jumping curbs, spinning u-turns, and whipping our necks left-to-right looking for signs before happening upon the valet main-entry), you’ll take the mile-long sky bridge to the Mays Clinic-don’t worry there’s a shuttle for the bridge. Once in the Mays Clinic, look for the tree sculpture, then boom, Waterfall Cafe.

Take a Look at the Menus Below:

With a breakfast taco bar, Morning Grill, morning selections, and daily selections; you can find some proper fueling at Waterfall Cafe. After all, you’re in the world’s premier cancer institute. A fact not lost from the moment you get within a few miles of Houston’s medical district. Shiny-windowed buildings jut skyward from massive ferns and palms, each an outpost for some upper-crust Texas university research facility. These are the front lines and you can feel it. But you also see vegetable gardens, waterfalls, lush botanicals, serene nooks, and still crannies engineered to offer weary searchers deep breaths and moments of zen. Luckily there are places with food, like Waterfall Cafe, because once you arrive at MD Anderson, you don’t want leave. At least not until you’re better.

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A breakfast burrito made with rosemary potatoes because the pepper potatoes were gone. The guy who made it extended his body fully across two stations to rob a handful from the Morning Grill woman.

But it’s different over breakfast, because breakfast is what we did before we were sick. We came together around pancakes and biscuits and orange juice and oatmeal. But at Waterfall Cafe, it’s what you do after you’ve found out you’re sick, too.

The dinning room experience at Waterfall Cafe may seem ordinary to the non-afflicted, but for patients it’s something altogether different. It’s like wound-licking. It was the first time I experienced a bit of camaraderie over some normal human activity: eating. In fact, MD Anderson as a whole is full of fraternal encouragement. The veteran patients must sense the fear and confusion across first-timers’ faces. At our very fist stop for directional assistance a woman interrupted us, “This is the best place on planet earth for you right now. They’ve kept me going strong for 10 years longer than anyone else said was possible.” Some one else told us something similar on the elevator an hour or two later. “Don’t worry, you’re in the right place for you right now. They’re going to help you.” You begin to feel a real kinship with other white wristband wearers the moment you arrive. When you see a few people in any hallway, you start to look at their wrist to identify who the patient is, hoping for an opportunity to give a nod that would say: I know, but we’re alive right now, and we’re here in the best place. There’s camaraderie all over the campus, for sure, in the blood work lobby, in the imaging waiting room, in the endocrinology wing, in the places you’d expect it. But it’s different over breakfast, because breakfast is what we did before we were sick. We came together around pancakes and biscuits and orange juice and oatmeal. But at Waterfall Cafe, it’s what you do after you’ve found out you’re sick, too.

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Daily Special breakfast.

You could complain about a lot when it comes to Waterfall Cafe’s breakfast burrito or styrofoam-plated daily special. Start with the fact that rosemary doesn’t belong near a tortilla, bacon should be greasy and only partly crunchy, scrambied eggs need a little moisture and texture variation throughout, only McDonald’s has earned the right to sell hash browns in elongated puck form, shredded cheddar should always be in the process of melting, and a biscuit feigning formation by human hands with engineered inconsistencies is nothing but a cold-hearted lie. But when you’re in MD Anderson, you trust science more than ever. You look around and see surgeons, research fellows, and the nation’s most highly skilled disease experts being served from the same gravy ladle as you. You start to believe maybe these spongy eggs of uniform dryness are all the sustenance needed for the fight according to the world’s most innovative research. You trust the biscuit, because all you can do is trust at this point.

They spoke jovially, unencumbered. They didn’t have to wonder if they were saying too much, going too deep, thinking morbidly, or speaking too candidly thereby reminding someone of our shared mortality. They just talked about life’s real and scary circumstances.

You don’t think about the food too much. You’re just happy to be meeting your basic human need among the others. I stopped noticing the rosemary as I overheard two women talking sitting behind us, colorful scarves wrapped neatly atop their heads. One lady, probably in her 30s, was explaining the ropes of the place to a new friend. She buttered toast while telling the new patient about the lady at Support Services. They agreed she was very good. Then she started explaining how her brother was recently diagnosed with the same aggressive disease. She was headed to Seattle soon to be with him after his first treatment. They spoke jovially, unencumbered. They didn’t have to wonder if they were saying too much, going too deep, thinking morbidly, or speaking too candidly thereby reminding someone of our shared mortality. They just talked about life’s real and scary circumstances. They laughed. They squeezed packets of creamer into coffee that tasted like cigarette ash and one of them put peanut butter on her awful pancakes.

And she loved it.

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