Thursday, May 21, 2023

The Legend of the Red Door: Last Concert Cafe


The Legend of the Red Door: Last Concert Cafe


By Andrea Afra
Photographed by Jordan Chan

Houstonians know good and well that many dreams have been wiped out by urban construction projects. Look at the businesses along I-10 out west. The majority of restaurants and stores along each side of the freeway have been uprooted and put out of business. The few that remain are taking a risk in hopes that the concrete monster—which will be 18 lanes wide when completed—won’t swallow them whole when it passes their way. Property value along the roadway has fallen and people who have investments around the area are left with little or nothing at all.
Back in the late ‘60s, the development of I-10 was working its way through what is now the Warehouse District. A restaurant in the area, owned by a little old lady named Elena “Mama” Lopez, was facing demolition to make way for the freeway. She decided that her establishment, her last venture—The Last Concert Café—wouldn’t kneel before the wrecking ball when authorities notified her of the plans. And how exactly does one stop a $500 million project in its tracks? Blackmail is always a good start.
In its former life in the ‘40s Last Concert was a well-known local brothel. Located in a neighborhood of homes with no freeway in site, one woman who grew up there recalled that she got the biggest whipping of her life when her mama found out she had been peeking over the fence into the brothel’s backyard.
The house that the restaurant was built behind once provided the secrecy needed back in those days when liquor, homosexuality and women by the hour weren’t so widely accepted. A red door marked the spot and remained locked unless you knocked twice and were granted entry. Nearly every lascivious urge could be fulfilled all in one convenient location. Many respectable, powerful gentlemen (and women one would suppose) would pay a visit to the speakeasy and for a few bucks they could buy an hour or so of some female “company.” It was also Houston’s first gay bar, and one of the only places to buy liquor by the drink. In 1949 Mama Lopez turned it into a Mexican restaurant but its “good-time” reputation stayed.
In the late ‘60s, 20 years later, the café was threatened by the construction of I-10, so Mama did a little reminiscing. It turns out that a few choice people involved with the roadway project were also old patrons of the establishment well before they were serving up hot enchiladas. So, long story short, it was awfully nice of those lawyers and judges to work so hard to accommodate Mama Lopez and move the freeway over enough to allow the restaurant to remain standing. She passed away in 1985 at the age of 92. Her portrait hangs just inside the door, her eyes alive as ever and full of knowing.
Flash forward to 2023.
Current owner of LCC, Dawn Fudge, celebrated her 20th year at Last Concert Café this past summer. When she was 15 years old (the same age this writer discovered LCC) she was in awe of the place. It was the laidback atmosphere, the psychedelic décor of brightly painted walls and eccentric knick-knacks that set it apart from other hoity-toity downtown restaurants. That, and the fact that it was nearly impossible to find. Pushed up against the 1-10 East exit for Nance and McKee streets, the easiest way to find the place is via the Katy Freeway. Coming through Downtown takes time to master.
Dawn wanted badly to approach LCC for a job but she could never find the darned place. “I took a course at Leisure Learning Center called “So You Want to Run a Restaurant.” I had a friend who knew of a place that would let me work there and learn the ropes. It turns out that it was Last Concert, and I was like, “Man, that’s the place!,” and they showed me how to get there. Even after I owned the place I’d still get lost sometimes and a nice police officer would lead me in the right direction.” Laughing she said, “I never did tell him I owned the place.”
The red door is still the most telling sign that you have found the right spot. By day, Downtown workers who have caught on to the hole-in-the-wall locale fill the front and back patio tables and dining area. At night, a diverse clientele take over—ranging from nearby loft residents to die-hard hippies. Whether they are stopping by to eat or to grab a strong margarita, they all feel warm and welcome and relaxed as the staff and ambiance are very friendly. It’s easier to find the place at night after dinner as the nightly band can be heard from a few blocks away. There’s much, much more to Last Concert than the food, like a midnight drum circle, jewelry vendors, hula hoopers, fire spinners and all other kinds of fun.
Serving up delicious Tex-Mex with a healthy spin, Dawn has made sure that everyone will find something to their liking on the menu. Their produce is bought fresh daily from a local farmer’s market. Olive oil is used in sautéed dishes and even in the refried the pinto beans. Offering options like wheat tortillas, baked corn chips, vegan enchiladas and soy fajitas and burgers, it is a haven to granola heads in search of a good, cheap meal.
With that out of the way, you’ve got to try my favorite dish, the Beef Tacos Tampicanos. Cubes of the most flavorful fajita beef are served in tortillas filled with guacamole, pico de gallo and cheese. I usually order it with the pico on the side and some limes to squeeze over the whole thing. I’ve tried the regular fajitas by the pound, but there is something about the diced meat that has an extra kick of flavor.
Another favorite is the Deluxe Nachos dish. There is nothing that peeves me more than a restaurant that counts the number of nachos that you will receive. You either get six or 12 chips—who in their right mind would go for that? At Last Concert the small order of deluxe nachos is piled bigger than a football. The large order is a skyscraper of chips, covered in cheese, beef and chicken fajita meat, beans, sour cream, guacamole and jalapenos. Just order it with the baked chips and call it a low-cal dish.
If I tell you that they have the best, most consistently good salsa in town, I’m sure you’ll sniff, “Big whoop, everyone has salsa.” That is, until you hurt yourself on some of the freshest, reddest, hottest sauce in town. My grandfather, Joe, used to make it that way, back before I could handle the heat. He’d throw whole tomatoes from the garden, jalapenos, garlic, cilantro and lime into a blender and pulse it a few times so it was still chunky and recognizable.
With the weather cooling off, there is no better time to enjoy a bowl of LCC’s potato-poblano soup. Chicken broth with chunks of potatoes, spicy poblano peppers, and pico de gallo is topped with cheese and sour cream. The cheese gets all nice and melty and you get to spoon it out and slurp it down.
There are several varieties of enchiladas on the menu. The Apolinar is filled with shredded roast beef and topped with chili gravy. Carol’s Enchiladas are filled with cheese and topped with beef fajita meat. The latter are my favorite as they offer up another source of that awesome beef.
As far as dessert goes, I’ve never been a big flan fan so it took some time before I ever even bothered trying it at LCC. What I found was not your average flan. It was chocolate. And thick. And creamy. Richer and denser than mousse and less jiggly than a custard, it’s hard to describe exactly how terribly divine it is. There is also a pumpkin version that is very good but I just can’t compare the two. They also boast the world’s “richest and creamiest” cinnamon ice cream. Again, I’m not sure how they accomplish this but it is truly the best base texture I’ve ever had. I’m sure it’s not one of the healthy options but cinnamon is a great antioxidant, and helps lower blood pressure. So there.
Thank God for dirty politicians and a fiery old Mexican lady who fought the law and won.

Monday, April 20, 2023

Free Cone Day

What's better than cheap? FREE. Especially if it involves Ben & Jerry's, America's favorite tree-hugging, social activist ice cream company.

Tomorrow, April 21st Ben & Jerry's celebrates its 31st birthday by giving away a free ice cream cone to all of its customers who walk into a Scoop Shop from noon to 8 pm.

Try one of their new flavors such as Mission to Marzipan (sweet cream with almond cookies & a marzipan swirl), Orange & Cream (orange sorbet swirled with vanilla ice cream), or Triple Caramel Chunk (caramel ice cream with a swirl of caramel & fudge covered caramel chunks). Or pick an oldie-but-goodie such as Cherry Garcia or my personal fave, Chunky Monkey.

Stop by one of these Houston-area Scoop Shops for your sweet treat.

Kirby - 5515 Kirby Drive
Champions - 5602 FM 1960 West
Sugar Land Town Square - 16155 City Walk

- Jenny Wang of imneverfull.com

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Thursday, February 19, 2023

You Might Be a Chowhound If...

As part of one of the largest organized eating groups in Houston, aptly named the Houston Chowhounds (we lovingly call ourselves HouCHies), I have pondered many a wondrous thing that separates the proverbial boys from the men. In my eating circles, (yes, I have eating circles) my non-foodie friends just don’t get it. But in my little HouCH World, they do GET it. And I love that I know a multitude of people that come from all different spokes of the food universe.

We are full-on gastrogeeks, chefs, writers, critics, photogs & stylists, bloggers, and good ole adventurous people that take serious eating to a whole new level. We simply DIG (into) food - all fashions, all forms, all the time.

You might wonder, what defines who we are as a group, besides the fact that we are an endless search to chase the food dragon, whenever, wherever, with whomever?

Well, I’m so glad you asked. You might be a HouCHie if:

- You moan, groan, or close your eyes after the first bite of something delectable, usually embarrassing your non-Chowhound eating partner.

- You meet up with people you’ve NEVER met and first time off the bat, just dig into their plate without even asking… we do realize most *normal* people FREAK about this.

- You double dip and ain’t scared to do so…

- You know or know of every chef in town.

- You take photos of your food before eating it.

- You plan ALL events of your day around meals – read: plural, MEALS.

- You have handles on various social boards that include words like foodie, never full, hungry, bites, eats, bits, etc.

- You have friends and family who actually say you might need professional help after describing your last meal to them, blow by blow.

- You would take a day off of work to go on a food crawl. My boss thinks I'm nuts, most people take 3 day weekends to go away; I take a day off to go on an eating spree.

- You recite lines from Top Chef – “I can name what is in that soup in 5 flavors”

- You travel with specialty food items in your purse or car such as Truffle Salt or your favorite hot sauce

- You spend your free time reading food blogs and restaurant reviews

- You've secretly thought about starting your own food blog

- You plan vacations around restaurant reservations, most of which were booked way in advance of your plane ticket

Most recently we did a taco truck crawl, a 40+ person event, 3 stops, 6 hours, over 15 different types of foods consumed, and that isn’t including the beverages. If food is what you are about, you have to check us out. Seriously, we don’t bite. Okay, we don’t bite people

For additional information on joining and upcoming events, check out http://www.houstonchowhounds.com/

-- Jody Flood Stevens

guest blogger and fellow Houston Chowhound, Jodycakes, a recent Houston transplant is one of six female bloggers at Where's My Damn Answer?, a hilarious blog collective with musings on life, friendship, food, and wine.

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Saturday, February 7, 2023

Letters to a Young Food Blogger

I feel terrible that it's been over a week and I haven't posted a tasty tidbit. I promise something delicious will come soon, but in the meantime a low-cal treat for purely chuckle-sakes: Take a look at the lovely comments I get from my readers from time to time on my personal food blog. It's pretty hilarious, I promise.

-- Jenny Wang of imneverfull.com

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Friday, January 30, 2023

I'm Never Full

That’s my moniker. I’ve been known to eat fried chicken at five restaurants and then go to a churrascaria for an AYCE-red-meat-on-a-stick dinner on the same day. I have plenty of witnesses if you don’t believe me.

My perfect date would start by having apps at one restaurant, entrees at another, and dessert/coffee at a third. To some, this kind of night might sound excruciating, but not to me. I have several reasons why: to prolong the dining experience - I love dining out and the initial excitement of walking into a restaurant is a kind of foreplay; to eat in different settings - every dining room has a different personality, vibe, and mood; and to eat with the right person can be an intimate, bonding experience leading into great conversation. If I don’t enjoy eating with someone, the relationship is doomed to fail before it ever really gets started.

Fact: I’m either a really cheap date or a really expensive one.

My food philosophy is the best meals in a city are found in the priciest/upscale digs and cheapest/modest hole-in-the-walls. High-end restos are usually sourcing local, artisanal, and seasonal ingredients from the best suppliers available and the tiny mom-and-pop’s are often hand-picking their groceries from the neighborhood Fiesta grocery or farmers market. I find the people behind these stoves are the most passionate. On one end, you find the classically-trained or professionally schooled chefs; and on the other, you find moms or pops fulfilling a lifelong dream of cooking the food they grew up eating and owning their own business. Mid-range restaurants – especially the highly detestable chains – use processed food from big food distribution companies, seem to be more concerned with volume and the bottom line than the art of cooking or the product itself, and are always the least interesting to visit and write about.

No worries. I’ll save the chi chi restaurant reviews for my blog or for write-ups I’m actually getting paid for. Here on Free Press Cuizine, I intend to share all my underground, off-the-beaten path discoveries and keep you clued into exciting foodie news and events. I’ve been promised that I can “blow off steam” and be brutally honest here. I can even cuss if I really want to for a glimpse into the really Jenny Wang. Let’s just see what happens.

I look forward to beginning this dialogue. Feel free to email me at imneverfull@gmail.com if you have questions, suggestions, restaurant news, or food-related events you’d like to share. And if you think I suck and want to diss my writing or my palate, send me hate mail! i’m a stress-eater!

In the meantime, between posts, follow me on Twitter and keep up with what I’m eating in real time. It’s fun. I promise.

Peas out…

-- Jenny Wang of imneverfull.com

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Thursday, January 29, 2023

The Girl Who Will Lead Us to the Promised Meal

We'd like to introduce you to a real foodie, a no-dish-barred, all-you-can-eat-and-then some devotee of the cuisine realm, Ms. Jenny "I'm Never Full" Wang. She has agreed to enlighten us with her savory wisdom and help let our readers know more about her main domain: Food.

I first found her through the web when searching for food events in town and quickly learned that she is EVERYWHERE! She writes about food because that is what she loves. She blogs about it at ImNeverFull.com, posts on twitter daily, and writes about the subject. I assume she dreams and talks about it too so it's easy to say that food is her life. She first wrote as a hobby and is now published by 002 Magazine and Citysearch. She is also the founder of the local foodie group Houston Chowhounds, HoustonChowhounds.com, and she has organized such events as the recent Miracle Berry Flavor Tripping parties, the 'BBQ smackdown' to judge local BBQ joints, a 'fried-chicken crawl,' and the upcoming Taco Truck Crawl. A very busy lady indeed, but I thought surely she could squeeze in a little amuse bouche for us. It is our luck and the benefit of the whole food scene in Houston that she agreed.

When I asked her what her earliest memory of food was she said it had been experiencing chocolate for the first time, a carnal delight that had been withheld by dietarily doting parents. It was Almond Roca:

"My parents hosted a dinner party one night and a guest brought a large can of Almond Roca to the house. I must have been 3 or 4 years old and that pink canister dazzled me. I kept asking what was in it. Our guest asked my mother if he could give me a piece. I think she obliged because she didn't have much choice. (i've always been a pretty stubborn and insistent little f*ck.) After my first bite, i kept making "mmm, mmm" noises over and over again and the dinner guest thought I was a bit "off" until he was informed that I had never had candy before, or chocolate for that matter."

Later in life she would find success as a data management consultant where her best perk was not the satisfaction of success but the expense account and salary that allowed her to eat at the most renowned restaurants in the country, refining her palate on the choicest ingredients by star chefs to the point that when asked what cuisine she would choose if she had to eat it for the rest of her life she says:

"French. Indeniably. I'm sure I would weigh 200 pounds too. I love classic French cooking techniques and my four favorite food groups are butter, foie gras, truffles, and duck. The french have figured out how to get all 4 on one plate. I even carry truffle salt in my purse (makes great poor man's truffle fries). If I could carry the other 3 around, believe me, I would."

If Jenny's rich tastes throw off some of our 'poor man' readers, fret not. Just remember: Taco Truck Crawl

Her appetite precedes her and you can trust that your bellies and tastebuds are in good hands. And now I pass the plate to Jenny...

--Andrea Afra
Andrea@FreePressHouston.com

photo credit: Aaron Werth

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Saturday, January 24, 2023

Word of Mouth

    Back in the earlier days of Free Press, we had a column called Word of Mouth. While there were several contributors, it was up to me to eat something and write about it- several reviews a month. Coupled with a two year stint writing reviews for Cuizine and having a baby, I packed on a few too many pounds, and at 5'3" and 3/4" tall, I wasn't meant to be indulging in a nightly smorgasbord of decadent three to eleven course meals. Thankfully, I have whittled my waist back down by a regime of not eating 3,000 calorie meals and hoola hooping frequently.
   
    The point here is that I need some help in getting the word out about all of the great places to eat in Houston. The diversity and vast selection of our cuisine is, in my opinion, our greatest asset. You can literally taste your way around the world if you play your cards right.
    We are a city built on food and the service industry workers are the people who keep it going. From line cooks, waiters and baristas, to local and immigrant mom and pop restaurateurs, without them, we'd have nothing but our own measly cooking skills available and Applebee's.  Instead we've got authentic food from Ethiopia at the Blue Nile Cafe, to fresh and affordable Banh Mi at Les Givral and Cali Sandwich.
    We'd like to open this page up to anyone who'd like to write a review about a local dining experience- good or bad- but preferably delicious. Also, any servers out there who need a place to vent, be it about the idiot customer who never tips more than a buck, or the fools who ask for a bunch of lemons because they're too cheap to buy a lemonade. Or how about the fact that people seem to be clueless that most waiters only make $2.13 an hour.

I'll get it started:

Dinner and a Show

I was enjoying a big bowl of pho at Van Loc the other day, where they are adamantly against people getting to-go cups. This is posted everywhere but somehow a woman overlooked the signage and asked for a to-go cup for her water. The server said sorry, no can do, and the woman proceeded to throw a fit, telling me how she wanted to take her water with her because she doesn't drink liquids with her meals. (I wanted to ask her if soup was in her diet, but decided to nod knowingly) I thought it was over when the woman started to walk out the door until I and the server realized she was taking the restaurant's cup with her. The server threatened to call the cops for theft, so the woman threw the cup of ice water at her and cussing her way out the door, she was gone.