By Terrance Turner
Sept. 1, 2020 (Updated Oct. 30; revised Nov. 15)
News broke yesterday that Houston Restaurant Weeks has been extended through the end of the month. It typically runs from Aug. 1 through Sept. 7, but this year it has been extended through Sept. 30. The annual fundraiser allows people to order from local restaurants and donate to a worthy cause.
Houston Restaurant Weeks (HRW) was founded by Cleverley Stone, who hosted a food radio talk show on Houston’s CBS 650 AM (KIKK-AM). According to the HRW website, “The Cleverley Food Talk Radio Show” became the longest-running on CBS 650, running for over 13 years. Stone also worked as a food service contributor to Fox 26 Morning News, beginning in 2008. Stone founded HRW in 2003 as a fundraiser for the Houston Food Bank, which is the largest food bank in the United States (per its website).
Stone died at 68 in May from uterine cancer. Her final wish was that HRW continue in perpetuity in her name, per the Houston Chronicle. Her daughter Katie Stone now chairs the event, and she remembers that her mother felt compassion for those suffering from hunger. “Her life’s mission was to end hunger and to feed families in Houston,” Stone told the Houston Business Journal. “She was really driven by stories she would hear in Houston about people not having enough to eat.” That drive helped make Houston Restaurant Weeks the largest annual fundraiser of its kind.
This year, the event will look different, due to COVID-19. But it is arguably more vital than ever. “This year’s Houston Restaurant Weeks is probably the most important year that we’ve ever seen,” Stone told ABC 13. The HRW fundraiser has raised over $16 million for the Houston Food Bank, which distributes food to those in need. This takes on new significance in the wake of Hurricane Laura, which hit Louisiana hard last week. According to KPRC, the Houston Food Bank has sent trucks of water, cleaning supplies, and ready-to-eat food to a Second Harvest Food Bank in Vinton, Louisiana.
The Houston Food Bank serves 18 counties in southeast Texas, including Harris, Liberty, Chambers, Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Austin. (It also provides food for localized food banks in Montgomery and Galveston counties; those banks, in turn, provide food for their residents.) Founded in 1982, the Houston Food Bank distributes fresh produce, meat and nonperishables and prepares nutritious hot meals for kids. According to houstonfoodbank.org, the charity distributed 104 million meals in 2019. It does so via a network of 1,500 community partners, including schools, shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries.
One of those pantries is in the mostly black Trinity Gardens neighborhood. Chef Jonny Rhodes, who grew up in Trinity Gardens, called the area a “food desert” in a Houston Chronicle article in Oct. 2019. The article also defined nearby neighborhood Kashmere Gardens as a “food desert” — a low-income area where residents struggle to find healthy, affordable food. In 2010, the USDA reported that 18 million Americans live in food deserts — places more than a mile from a supermarket in urban/suburban areas and more than 10 miles in rural areas.
One food pantry helping to bridge that gap is in Trinity Gardens First Baptist Church, which shares its name with the surrounding neighborhood. On one Saturday morning per month, food is delivered and distributed. The pantry is headed by Sis. Barbara Brown, who has worked with the Houston Food Bank (HFD) since 2010. She says the Houston Food Bank is essential for the pantry’s operation.
“The Food Bank is 100% of where we get our food,” Brown says via phone. She adds that the pantry is not easy to maintain. “I have to take classes; I have to do online meetings,” she says. “We come in; we have to get inspections.” With the start of the pandemic, trainings and meetings have moved offline. And now, workers and volunteers must deliver food to people’s cars in order to minimize contact.
Mrs. Brown also mentions that she has to have paperwork in multiple languages — and serve people from multiple locales. “We get people from Pasadena and La Porte,” she says, “and we cannot turn people away.” She estimates that the pantry serves around 125 people each month (not counting the pantry’s volunteers, who are often allowed to take home leftover food items.)
Those that come will be given mostly non-perishable food — canned corn and green beans, walnuts, cereal, boxed spaghetti. But the Houston Food Bank truck also delivers some perishables: gallons of milk, bags of ham, even some eggs. And last month, Brown says, fresh vegetables were added to the mix: “We gave out eggs and meat, onions and bell peppers.”
Pantries like these benefit directly from the HFD — and indirectly from the HRW fundraiser. Typically, restaurants would donate $3–$7 from each meal sold to the Food Bank. But with so many restaurants struggling due to COVID-19, this year they will donate $1 per meal. Each dollar can provide three meals for those in need.
For the first time, diners can order using pickup, takeout, or delivery options. Some restaurants allow walk-in orders. According to the website, brunches and lunches each cost $20. Dinners cost either $35 or $45 (for a four-course meal). The featured restaurants are located in Harris, Galveston, and Montgomery counties. (Please call or visit the website of each chosen restaurant to verify dates and times for meal service. Be sure to mention that you would like the HRW special menu.) For more information about HRW’s participating restaurants, please visit https://houstonrestaurantweeks.com. To donate or volunteer with the Houston Food Bank, visit https://www.houstonfoodbank.org.
UPDATE (Sept. 16-19): With just two weeks left until the end of HRW, I decided to do a quick overview of notable brunch and lunch spots in the area. Given the comparatively low cost of these menus (just $20), I’m presenting those options first. (Dinner is another story — literally; I’ll cover the $35-$45 dinner spots in another post.) Only some of the over 100 HRW participants offer brunch, but I did manage to find some participating restaurants in various areas.
If you’re in the downtown area, you could start with Hearsay Market Square (218 Travis St.). Hearsay serves brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am until 3 pm. Menu options for the first course include deviled eggs with candied jalapeno and bacon. The second course offers choices like fried chicken & waffles and bacon-wrapped jumbo shrimp with grits.
In Midtown, Nuksy’s Table (1926 W. Dallas St.) only serves brunch on Sundays from 10 am to 2 pm, per its website. On the bright side, Nuksy’s also serves up plantain beignets with each meal. (They’re deep-fried, with caramel rum sauce — or chocolate bourbon sauce — and berries.) The entrees include crab cake eggs benedict (lumped crabmeat, poached egg, and hollandaise sauce, with sautéed spinach and kettle chips). The breakfast platter has bacon, pork sausage, eggs, and hash browns. Nuksy’s “Shrimp and Orange Corn Grits” include seasoned Gulf shrimp “with Cajun gumbo gravy, served over orange corn grits”. Nuksy’s beverages include mimosas in classic, strawberry, mango,
and raspberry flavors.
When I first visited Nuksy’s on Sept. 20, demand had picked up so much that the place was fully booked! Nevertheless, the owner took me on a tour. One room can seat 10 people (at two socially distanced tables). Another room seats four (but usually just two). It’s typically booked for dates. “I don’t know if you know this,” the owner told me, “but in Houston, Tuesday is date night.” (Really?)
Each room has a “dot” for music control. You can ask Alexa to play whatever song you like — whether it’s Kirk Franklin or Fantasia — and hear it (if available). I tried out the device when I revisited Nuksy’s Table a week later, on Sept. 27. My room was furnished elegantly, with a plush white couch against one wall and fluffy rugs on the hardwood floors. In the center of the room, a dinner table was topped by eye-catching golden centerpieces.
After finishing my mimosa (which was a great start to brunch), I ordered Nuksy’s breakfast platter, which came with eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, and a surprise: a pair of strawberries on the side. The food was uniformly good (and better than it looks in the photo). I visited Nuksy’s on Sept. 27; I had visited Napoli’s a week earlier.
In Montrose, Napoli’s Wine Cafe (4601 Washington Ave) offers a varied three-course brunch menu. For the first course, there’s an array of options, including fried calamari, a “meat board” with imported and domestic meats, and a “formaggi board” consisting of both domestic and imported cheeses. Also available was a “brochette board”, in which the diner chooses three options from the following:
- Fresh Mozzarella, Tomato & Basil
- Cheese, Bacon, Arugula & Tomato
- Smoked Salmon, Cheese & Capers
- Almond Hummus & Fresh Tomato
- Fire-Roasted Eggplant & Walnuts
- Ricotta, Almond & Dates
But that’s just the first course. Napoli’s offers lobster bisque, soup and salad for the second. But the third course is where things get really interesting. Options include “Sassy Italian Ricotta Pancakes”, topped with maple syrup, banana slices, strawberries, walnuts, a dollop of whole milk ricotta cheese, and whipped cream. The “Brioche French Toast” comprises freshly baked brioche topped with vanilla custard, banana slices, strawberries and walnuts. Alternatively, there’s “Napoli’s Breakfast”: “two poached eggs served over sautéed spinach, potatoes, onions and mushrooms, topped with hollandaise sauce served on a toasted biologiques loaf bread.”
I visited Napoli’s amidst pouring rain, which failed to deter patrons from dining outdoors. While I watched the Giants vs. Bears game inside, I sampled the brochette platter. From a bevy of options, I chose: a) fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil, b) cheese and bacon with arugula and tomato, and c) smoked salmon, cheese, and capers. Each delicacy was served on a slice of toasted bread. The array of salty, savory textures provided a perfect foil for my second course: a house salad.
After I wolfed down the tomatoes and leafy greens, I feasted on the third course. Those Italian ricotta pancakes were just as decadent as you would imagine: at least four broad, fluffy pancakes under sliced strawberries and bananas, topped by rich ricotta and whipped cream. I was also served a small container of syrup, which I only used sparingly. Too much would ruin what is already a glorious dish.
In the Galleria area, 51Fifteen Cuisine and Cocktails (5175 Westheimer Road) delivers an array of brunch selections. The first course serves up items like garbanzo soup and chopped wedge salad; the second course delivers braised short ribs benedict (two poached eggs on English muffin, hollandaise sauce, braised short ribs, asparagus, sliced tomatoes). Also included in the 2nd course is a 6-oz. New York strip steak and eggs combo.