Published December 22, 2020
On a sunny winter day, the back garden at Xela Coffee Roasters feels like a subtropical oasis. Leaf-patterned market umbrellas shade wire-mesh furnishings in pink, ice blue and teal. Greenery sways in the breeze, and a wind chime glitters. Vivid graffiti art swirls on the wooden fencing.
It’s a magpie world in itself, cobbled together out of bright bits and pieces in true East End fashion by Xela owners Benji Aguilar and Kaitlin O’Brien. They preside over an up-to-the-minute, contact-free walk-up window on their shady stretch of Canal, sided by an ingenious locker through which pass drinks and change.
When they’re not roasting rare, carefully sourced coffee beans in their vest-pocket store, supplying local coffee shops and turning out expertly made espresso beverages to consume on-site, the couple lives in one of the modest wooden bungalows just down the block on North Eastwood Street.
Which makes them my neighbors, more or less. I moved to the East End back in the 1980s, drawn by its affordability, its quirks, its fascinating cityscape, residential and industrial interweaving with raffish nonchalance. I came from the orderly, white-bread precincts of West University Place, and I rejoiced at the chance to use my halting Spanish in this historic Latino part of Houston and to forge pathways along streets that always seemed to offer some new surprise.
They still do. Lately, in this strange pandemic year, the culinary surprises in particular abound. East End neighborhoods from EaDo to the East Loop are alive with new food and drink establishments. Houstonians accustomed to thinking about this part of the city in terms of classics like Ninfa’s on Navigation (circa 1976) or Villa Arcos taqueria (circa 1977) may want to readjust their mental maps. There’s a lot happening.
It’s not just well-capitalized colonists or gentrifiers aiming at EaDo condo dwellers who are opening these new doors, either. Residents are revitalizing longtime family businesses, like the charming Taqueria Guadalajara on 75th Street. They’re starting new ones, like Maga’s Cafe, with its mom-and-pop-style Mexican fare, in a peach-painted former gas station on Polk; or the serious little Alfred’s Burger House, with its malt-shop vibe, which opened on Telephone Road in Eastwood in 2018.
Well-established restaurants with a foothold farther east are moving closer in, like 888 Chinese food, a homey stalwart newly opened on Wayside near its intersection with the Gulf Freeway; and Doña Tere, the tamale specialists, who’ve moved in a few blocks up the street.
Industry veterans, who’ve made their names working for others in Midtown, downtown and points west, are striking out on their own in the East End, often on a shoestring.
Just-opened Tiny Champions, by the talented crew behind 3-year-old EaDo bistro Nancy’s Hustle, already serves some of the city’s best pizzas and pastas underneath a flock of mismatched chandeliers, with a huge back dining patio in the offing. The brain trust behind it includes such names as wine and beverage gurus Sean Jensen and Bridget Paliwoda; and chefs Jason Vaughan and Julia Doran.
Mike Sammons, who co-founded the highly regarded wine mecca 13 Celsius, moved to the East End and, late last year, opened a brave new wine bar and retail shop named How to Survive on Land and Sea. (All too appropriately, it’s the title of a vintage survival guide.)
In the best East End spirit, Sammons has made How to Survive a neighborhood magnet and incubator for all sorts of pop-ups and events. He hosts artisanal Central Mexican brunches and weekend dinners by Tlahuac (the Nahuatl word is pronounced “kla-wok”), the duo of Nicolas Vera and Stephanie Velasquez. Their heirloom corn tortillas, fresh pan dulce and even chocolate chip cookies can bring a cynic to tears.
On weekends, Patrick Abalos and Justin Ware of the upcoming Night Shift bar, set to open in 2021 just a block down Harrisburg Boulevard, provide How to Survive patrons with exceptionally well-balanced cocktails. That the drinks are available to take home in cans or bottles makes them even more appealing. Grab-n-go Mezcal Slings? How civilized.
Mornings at How to Survive, Giant Leap Coffee takes over the space with locally roasted brews while they build out their new East End quarters at Sampson and Preston, scheduled to open in the spring.
Sweetening the deal at Giant Leap will be a collaboration with Tlahuac, which will open a pastry kitchen on-site and offer such ideas as calamansi lemonade and their sumptuous bottled Horchata Cold Brew. (The latter can be found now, if you’re lucky, in the How to Survive cold case.) The point is, there’s a real sense of community here, with enterprises reinforcing each other and egging each other on. That is the most exciting development of all.
The Navigation corridor, home to such old-school icons as Ninfa’s, Villa Arcos, Merida and El Tiempo, now offers a polar opposite: Acadian Coast, a sleek venue at which to enjoy elegant East Coast or Gulf oyster service with a well-chosen bottle of Muscadet. As an oyster fiend, I am pinching myself over this good fortune, and the chance to enjoy the wine and cocktail skills of Greg Starks again, whom I learned to trust at downtown’s Bravery Chef Hall. (He’s moved to the East End, too.) Frozen milk punch, anyone? On this restaurant’s spacious patio and walk-up bar, it’s a holiday winner.
Of particular note: While Acadian Coast is the project of an out-of-town investor, its director of operations is East End native John Avila, who grew up just down the street and went on to create barbecue business El Burro and the Bull and the Henderson & Kane General Store.
Come spring, there’ll be a modern banh mi shop a few doors down, where the estimable Roostar will open a satellite.
Another major East End corridor, Harrisburg Boulevard, has been attracting new venues because it houses the Green Line, part of the city’s light rail system. A block west of the Cesar Chavez station, tucked beneath the rail overpass, sits Street to Kitchen Thai food, a promising newcomer opened in September by chef Benchawan Painter and her husband, Graham Painter.
Even the subscript on the restaurant’s sign — “Especialidades Tailandesas” — gladdens the East End heart. With made-from-scratch curries and such unusual specialties as thrillingly glutinous garlic-chive “pancakes,” it’s a boon to the neighborhood.
So is La Esquina, the year-old taco truck that anchors a delightfully scrappy open-air dining court that constitutes its own small universe. While you wait for your excellent tacos and tortas, take your perfectly calibrated limonada and grab a selfie on a bench festooned with plastic flower garlands, or on an aqua-blue beach bike propped against signs pointing to Guanajuato and Monterrey.
The service is warm, the salsa bites back, and around you unfolds a rich East End panorama of body shops, industrial towers and — just down the street — the nuevo wavo Harrisburg Art Museum, a wonderland of street art and graffiti. Patrons from body-shop workers to bike-riding hipsters come and go, waiting for their plastic-wrapped buzzers to vibrate.
Sitting here in a red plastic chair, wolfing a fabulously messy torta and swigging an agua fresca, is one of the keenest joys of the evolving East End.
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Alison Cook– a two-time James Beard Award winner for restaurant criticism and an M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing award recipient – has been reviewing restaurants and surveying the dining scene for the Houston Chronicle since 2002. She can be reached by Twitter: @alisoncook
Karen Warren has been a working photojournalist for over 30 years, after graduating with a degree in Photojournalism from The University of Texas, Austin. After starting her career in Austin at the American Statesman, she moved on to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and eventually found her way to Houston, where she has been for the past 20 years. During her career, Warren has covered 14 Super Bowls, 2 World Series, the Olympic games in Atlanta, natural disasters and everything in between. As the lead Houston Astros photographer, baseball is naturally her favorite subject to shoot. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by Twitter: @karenwarrenHC
Design by Julie Takahashi. She is the features digital manager at the Houston Chronicle. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by Twitter: @Julie_Takahashi