Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Legend of the Red Door: Last Concert Cafe

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 9:00 AM


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 tha t 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 2006.
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.

A Pocketful of Goodies: Marine's Empanadas Delicias (For Cuizine; from the Vault)

Published by Commandrea (Andrea Afra) at 7:49 AM

When most people think of empanadas, the apple and pineapple Mexican pastry versions are usually what comes to mind. Yet there is a world of different fillings and doughs out there and a great place to begin trying them is at Marine’s Empanadas Delicias. Several customers, Colombian natives, told me that these are the best empanadas in the city. The menu lists nearly fifty varieties of empanadas categorized under beef, chicken, cheese, vegetable, fruit, special, and double-sized and most just over two dollars a pop.
The word ‘empanada’ is derived from the Spanish past tense ‘empanar’, which means to cover with bread. Marine’s makes two types of empanadas, Colombian and Argentinian. In Colombia the dough of the empanadas is made from corn meal while the Argentinian version is made from white flour. Each is formed into circles and filled with different ingredients then folded up like a half moon. The edges are crimped on the Argentinian style and simple pinched close on the smaller Colombian type. Served with the savory dishes is a requisite bowl of chimichurri sauce made from chopped parsley, garlic, dried oregano, onion, paprika and a dash of vinegar.
While Marine’s serves traditional Colombian fare, you’ll find that they have reached out to a wide audience with empanadas such as the Hippie, with salami, fried onions, and raisins. There also is the fugazzaetta, with gooey fresh mozzarella and fried onions. On my first trip I tried the Hot Tia Maria with stewed meat, jalapeno, tomatoes and onions. The combination of ingredients was simple yet warming and popped with flavor. I also sampled the Chuck Wagon, filled with chopped sirloin and mushrooms in a red wine sauce. It’s counterpart, the chicken reina, substitutes chicken and white wine and both were exceptionally good. The Viva Mexico is simply mozzarella and poblanos stuffed into the pocket yet the oil from the peppers melds beautiful to each cheesey bite.
A section of the menu called ‘antojitos Colombianas’, or Colombian favorites, provides the dishes native to Colombian tongues. Chicharons are what we Southerners know as pork cracklins. It is a snack food of sorts. They also have tamales prepared in banana leaves, morcilla, which is blood sausage, and chorizo, of course. Under ‘Platos Tipicos Colombianas’ you’ll find the plate meals like the bandeja paisa with grilled beef, rice, pork skin, a corn patty, plantains, and a fried egg. Now that’s a hearty meal. Other dishes such as the arroz con pollo and the daily lunch specials provide an affordable, freshly made repast.
Marine’s also sells baked goods made fresh daily. One of the best sellers, pandebono, is a bread roll made with both yucca and wheat flour blended with cheese. Bunelos, pan alinado, and pastel tres leches
are just a few of many options to satiate your bready urges.
The owner of Marine’s, Yiredt Delgado, opened the bakery seventeen years ago under a partner. She then bought them out six months later and has ran the place every since. The kitchen is her pride and she boasts that they use fresh ingredients everyday and that nothing is frozen or from cans. Her staff is loyal, most have worked there from the beginning and that means consistency.
She talks about her childhood when her mother would have fresh fruit smoothies ready for the children when they walked through the door after school. “We didn’t have soft drinks and such, just fresh fruit smoothies.” And they too are a very popular item at the restaurant. Exotic juices like guanabana and curaba are blended with ice and water or milk. For three dollars, it is a great deal for something so natural and delicious. The Monkey Juice, a blend of banana, coconut, and pineapple juice outranks chain smoothie stores any day.
Marine’s has been around for nearly two decades and surely they’ll be around for two more. The next time you’re in the mood for a casual meal, or even a great idea for party snacks, Marine’s is waiting for you with her pockets full of hidden surprises.

3227 Hillcroft Ave
Houston, TX 77057-5805
(713) 789-2950