I read somewhere once that nine out of ten new restaurants fail, that the crowded market and the high first-year costs conspire to ruin nearly all new ventures.
This statistic, most assuredly, does not apply to Texas.
On a warm late January night, wearing shirtsleeves, I cruised through the northwest Houston suburbs in a powder blue Kia Rio, modern country music on the two-speaker radio, manual windows rolled all the way down. Reflected in the windshield as I leaned forward, endless neon lights that would rival even the Las Vegas Strip. But these signs were advertising strip steaks, chicken strips, batter-fried fish sticks.
Texas Roadhouse, Lone Star Steakhouse, Steak and Ale, and those are just a few of the meathouses. There's Chipotle, Berryhill Baja Grill, Taco Cabana, and a thousand roadside taquerias if you have Tex-Mex cravings. Over there next to the bail bonds superstore is Chicken Buffet. Imagine that, an entire buffet full of chicken! And with 70 Houston-area locations, they're not having trouble finding takers.
Texas is the only edible state in the union. I know this, because I saw a restaurant that will cut a sirloin steak in the shape of the state and serve it to you.The state flower is parsley garnish, the state motto is "Seconds!" and there is no state bird, because someone done shot and deep-fried it.
National chains have had to modify their menus in order to fit in. The Lone Star State will have nothing of your super-sizing and extra-value, that's not Texas enough. Check out the sign on this McDonald's I found along U.S. 290.
Is this "meal" intended for just one person? How many french fries comes with that? My goodness.
I pulled over at a Taco Cabana, which advertises fresh tex-mex 24 hours a day. The young man behind the pink and orange laminate counter spoke no English, I no condescending Spanglish, so I just pointed at what I wanted on the menu. Veggie burrito, personal nachos with beans and cheese, diet Coke. Si, si, seÃ±or.
When my order came up in the tiny side window, delivered by a middle-aged female short-order cook in a hairnet, my nachos were covered in a reddish-brown, crusty sludge I immediately recognized.
Ma'am... seÃ±ori... um, ma'am? Not what I ordered. No, no carne.***
It must be impossible to live in Texas and be a vegetarian, to live meat-free in a state that's practically made out of cows. I've been off beef and chicken and turkey and lamb, all that stuff, for almost five years now... it's not some religious or ethical thing, it's just a healthier way to live, more conducive to distance running and less so to heart disease. My family already has enough of that. But whenever I come to Texas, it's always a challenge finding the right stuff to eat.
Like last season, for instance. In January of 2007, I stepped off a plane at Dallas Love Field, hired a rental car, and drove until I found the nearest Subway. When I ordered my usual, a Veggie Delite with the meal-deal chips and drink, I quickly found out I'd done the wrong thing.
The cashier and Sandwich Artist behind the counter, deep into their teenage years from the looks of it, looked at each other, giggled, and the meal took shape. Once it had travelled across the trays of vegetables, each one added in heaping amounts, they looked at each other, then the sandwich, and giggled again.
"You sure you don't want any meat?" the preparer drawled. I nodded in return.
He persisted. "You're going to eat a sandwich... with no meat on it?"
There was no sense taking the high road. "I would have asked for it if I wanted it," I said. "It's right there on your menu, the very first item. 'Veggie Delite.'"
"Yeah, but nobody ever orders that," the Sandwich Artist said, shrugging his shoulders. "It's kinda... you know..."
"What? I said, slapping a fiver on the counter for the cashier to process. ""Gay?"
Then I took my vegetable sandwich out to my white rented Chevy Cavalier, feeling more like a heterosexual American male than I ever have in my life.***
I'll have to check this, but there might be more rolled asphalt in Texas than any other state. There are interstates and U.S. highways and state roads and farm roads. Some of the freeways in the cities have sub-freeways, two-lane highways on each side of the highway so that folks can get to the restaurants. With the exception of far western areas, like Alpine and Pecos, you can get to within shouting distance of any one of the state's 262,000 square miles.
Some of those miles are pretty lonely indeed, deserted stretches just moaning out for attention like a lonesome pedal steel. I massaged quite a few of those miles with the tires of that rental car last week, there on Interstate 45 between Huntsville and Dallas. I gave 'em a good 90 m.p.h. rubdown -- nobody seemed to mind, especially old Johnny Law.
There are areas out there that don't even have any restaurants, and every Texas knows that driving those highways can make a man all sorts of hungry. Being late for my next basketball appointment, I passed by the areas that did have plenty of eating places.
So when I arrived at the University of North Texas in Denton, just a shade north of the Dallas Metroplex, I headed straight for the media room looking for some kibble. There in the corner was a pile of oversized "Jimmy Lunch" boxes from Jimmy John's, each containing a blimp sandwich, a giant pickle and a big back of crispy chips.
I didn't have to ask, I knew there wasn't anything specially prepared for people like me. There were some No. 4's (turkey) and No. 6 (ham). So I split the sandwich open, idly picking away the pile of turkey bits as I scanned the game notes. Soon, there was a tall grey pile on a napkin next to me.
A photographer, or maybe a member of a TV crew, looked over in horror. "What the hell
you doing, son?" he asked.
I looked back wearily.
"Don't ask," I replied.