How I Learned to Stop Worrying about Health
Inspections and Love the Illegal Fish Restaurant
You start to think you might be a sucker when you let a pedicab driver guilt you into taking a ride over the Congress Avenue Bridge on a sunny day in Austin when all you really wanted to do was walk, and maybe stop for an ice cream cone.
You know you’re a sucker when he further presses you and your friends into paying him twenty dollars for the displeasure. But what really broke me was when, knowing we came from Houston, he offered to take us to “Austin’s best bar,” a really cool, laid-back beer place that typifies the city, and I shrugged because at that point what did we have to lose—and we ended up at The Ginger Man.
I nearly had a fit. My friends had to stop me from rending the clothes from my body and screaming, “This bar is from Houston, you schmuck!”
In the battle of Texas cities, Austin can claim a lot of things—being the “coolest,” the place all visitors not seeking a trafficked prostitute want to go, the one place liberals don’t direct withering glances toward, the city with a vital live-music scene and an audience that is just so totally weird. But for the love of God and Stephen F. Austin, a Houston man opened The Ginger Man in 1985. Austin, Dallas, and New York got their version of the beer bar years later, you crook of a driver.
Of course, how would he know that? Only someone with an intensely defensive stance about her hometown would even bother to learn this information and then desperately cling to it. People don’t tend to give Houston any credit. Many times, they’ve never visited and don’t plan on it, but even worse, sometimes they have and leave without ever looking back. It isn’t because Houston has nothing to offer, though. It’s because visitors don’t know what they’re looking for. This is true especially of restaurants. (Check out John T. Edge’s piece on the culinary rise of Houston in our latest issue for confirmation.)
When people come to Texas, they are expecting the same iconic foods from every city—barbecue, Mexican food, steaks, and maybe some Southern classics like bourbon and biscuits.
Here’s a fact: Austin has way better barbecue than Houston. And at 170 miles away, Austin may as well be on the other side of the world. What my city does have is the third largest Vietnamese population in the United States with a commensurate number of restaurants. We have French-Indian fusion bakeries. We have late-night Korean soju bars. We have an underground Cameroonian fish restaurant run out of a house in the suburbs.
To get the Cameroonian fish, you sort of have to know somebody. My friend’s former co-worker’s friend is from Cameroon, and that is how we got the phone number to call to reserve our fish before noon the day-of. You can’t just show up to the house and expect to be illegally fed seafood; you have to make a reservation in the morning.
A forty-five minute drive from the center of town and some wrong turns later, we were in front of a house that looks like any other in a residential Houston neighborhood. It was one story with a clean yard and a single car in the driveway, and there weren’t any telltale signs of a secret restaurant—no food smells or suspicious characters lingering around propane tanks—indicating we were even in the right place. Not entirely sure-footed, we walked up to the front door and eased it open.
Inside, we found ten-fifteen people sitting around the living room. As with any restaurant, they were mostly strangers, but small clumps of new friends mingled over cups of imported grapefruit soda while laughably erotic foreign music videos played on the TV. If the air-conditioning was on, it was hard to tell due to the heat coming from the kitchen. There were more rooms in the back, but I wasn’t sure what I would be getting into by wandering there, so I stayed seated on the fireplace, drinking the rapidly warming tallboys we brought with us.
It’s fifteen dollars for a small fish, twenty dollars for a medium, and twenty-five dollars for a large. Each one comes on a big platter nestled with plantains that I wished came in a bigger portion—not only because they were so crisp and delicious but also because the fish was unexpectedly spicy and they helped slacken the fire more than the grapefruit soda. It took an hour for the food to come out, so by then we were famished and attacked the whole fish with our hands. I don’t even remember if we were given the option of utensils, but it was easier to sort through the flaky white flesh and bone this way anyway. When it was all over and done, an entire roll of used paper towels littered the table and our distant Cameroonian acquaintance came by to collect our well-spent money.
Back outside, the sun had gone down and before long we were cruising down a super-highway as the overhead lamps twinkled into the distance. Houston can be an ugly city, but like anything its looks improve with the lights dimmed.
You’d think that after years of neglect and discouragement, a city might accept its lowly place in this world and turn its back on outsiders. We might start to say, “If you don’t like it here, just leave. Go to Austin and drink your kombucha mixed with whiskey.” That means more Cameroonian fish for us. More juicy burgers topped with bacon and burgundy mushrooms served out of a converted school bus for us. More belly-warming, weekly chef specials served at a warehouse district Vietnamese sandwich shop for us. More plated okra forests at a groundbreaking, vegetable-worshipping tasting restaurant for us. These are Houston’s iconic foods, not brisket.
But no, we still want you to come and share our meals. We’re hospitable, dammit. We cannot recommend a pedicab, though. The roads are congested with terrible drivers and the potholes are the size of hubcaps.