Breakfast Is the Key to Community in this Houston Neighborhood

The Breakfast Klub is as essential as it ever was

Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).

We’re pleased to introduce you to Kayla Stewart, a terrific writer and thinker who you may have met in our “secret ingredients” audio last week. We’ve had the pleasure of working with her on Heated, where, in her very first piece for us, she revealed her favorite dish is also one of mine. You’ll see her work here often and we’re delighted.

— Mark


On Travis Street, just off Highway US-59, Houstonians stood in a line under the golden awning of The Breakfast Klub. As the line extended outside the door, people greeted each other. The scent of butter, sugar, and frying fish perfumed the air.

The Breakfast Klub has served the Houston community for nearly 20 years. Nestled in the heart of Houston’s historic Third Ward, it’s been a mecca for Black food, music, and culture, serving Houston’s mayors, musicians, college students, and families from nearby churches and universities like Texas Southern University (TSU) and the University of Houston, my alma mater. It’s been praised throughout the south—largely for its most beloved menu items, catfish and grits, and wings and waffles. A second location recently opened in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. 

My first experience at The Breakfast Klub was like many Houstonians: after church. I was in high school, eagerly awaiting the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. President Obama’s face was painted with Shepard Fairey’s “HOPE” outside of The Breakfast Klub -- which was at one point vandalized by white supremacists. The smells of my people’s food lifted me into a space of hope and adoration for the possibilities of Black excellence. Filled with Black pride and my first adult understanding of the importance of Black spaces, I waited for a table with my family at a store across the street where Black vendors sold trinkets, household items, and treats. Though that store is now closed, it’s still owned by The Breakfast Klub. According to owner Marcus Davis, it represents an understanding that Black mobility means tapping into multiple avenues of interest for the community. 

“I realized that Black folks needed to reclaim their rightful place historically in hospitality, and benefit economically,” Davis told me over coffee in Houston. “It’s what I try to do with all of my spaces.”

Fast forward to the present, which has reinforced Davis’ understanding that The Breakfast Klub’s popularity wouldn’t solely protect it from the realities of 2020. So he prepared for the worst when Covid-19 affected restaurants around the country. Having survived Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters that had impacted Houston in recent years, Davis got himself ready.

“I told myself that all the success that you hoped for when you started this is going to get hit by this thing, and the danger is if you're not prepared for it, it will destroy what you worked for,” he said.

“I was looking at the best and worst-case scenarios, and I was preparing for the worst,” said Davis. “I was asking so many questions: Are we prepared for this moment? What training do we have in place? What adjustments do we need to make to roll out to-go only? There’s a different type of leader that takes something that's in the dumps and brings it to the mountaintop, and I wanted to be able to do that for my team in this situation.”

What Davis worked for began when he was a boy. Born and raised in Houston’s Fifth Ward, Davis worked alongside his father, who earned a living as an educator, but his heart was in catering and music. An organist and pianist, his father played at churches across Texas. For Davis, church coincided with food.

“My home was the place where gatherings took place,” said Davis. “So growing up old-school, Southern Baptist, we went to church from sunup to sundown. It was very typical to end up at someone's home in between services to eat, and it wasn’t uncommon for our home to be the place where people ended up.”

After attending TSU, an HBCU, and building his own family,  Davis began to host more often. Whether it was after church or to watch a sports game, Davis was cooking food for the neighborhood, a common activity for Southerners that led Davis to create The Breakfast Klub.

“Today, I'm in the business of creating spaces where people gather,” said Davis. “Before I even opened The Breakfast Klub, I was in the hospitality business already just by having that down-home, Southern upbringing that’s hospitable and filled with good food.”

Davis, who also owns The Reggae Hut and Kulture, was familiar with Black-owned restaurants in the city, many of which served soul food, but he noticed a void in the eating space: breakfast. 

In 2001, breakfast as the primary meal of a Black restaurant wasn’t yet a thing, and the idea of serving wings and waffles at 7:30 in the morning confounded a lot of locals.

“People were like, ‘You’re going to serve a chicken at 7:30 in the morning?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah man, that’s what we’re doing here.’”

Davis’ business idea took off despite opposition, setting the stage for the plethora of brunch and gourmet breakfast restaurants that line Houston's streets now. For Davis, however, it was more than just food. While he and I spoke over coffee, Erykah Badu, Ray Charles, Lauryn Hill, John Coltrane, and 1990s Common filled the background. Making a trip to The Breakfast Klub a full Black experience, rather than simply enjoying good food.

Before the pandemic, the lines wrapped around The Breakfast Klub led to tables inside, covered in massive, Texas-style plates of food. Fried catfish paired with buttery, just creamy grits were often next to a plate of chicken surrounding a syrup-smothered waffle with a perfectly centered strawberry. White raspberry mochas would be in abundance, and Houstonians of all backgrounds would be laughing heartily, and they took glorious bite after bite of Davis’ food. 

That all paused in March when Covid hit hard.

Davis allowed staff with pre-existing conditions to stay home and was able to keep most of his staff on payroll. While the spread became serious in Houston over the summer, restaurants were still able to operate in various capacities. For Davis, this became an opportunity to serve the community. The restaurant held a blood drive and prepared food for frontline workers, feeding hospitals, nurses, and doctors throughout the past seven months. In May, he and his team felt like they were finding their footing, and then Houstonian George Floyd’s brutal, public death caused a seismic shift in the nation -- and in food.

“The pandemic of racial injustice was heard before the pandemic of Covid-19,” Davis told me. “Globally, people of color have been discriminated against, and yes, the “greatest nation on Earth” is one of the poorest examples of that reality. America was sick before the pandemic — it was sick with racism. Black restaurants are a part of that sickness. How we’re treated, how we’re covered, it’s all the same.”

Davis went on to describe the significance of Black people in the United States.

“Absent Black slaves hitting those shores, there is no great flavor in America. And I’m not talking about just on the table. America doesn’t have flavor without Black people.”

Where that Obama mural had been, there’s now a painting of George Floyd. Knowing the likely backlash to this painting and his restaurant’s public support of the movement, Floyd went even further, encouraging activists to use his restaurant as a meeting space and supporting local voting and community development efforts.

“We committed after that vandalization happened the first time all those years ago that we can go harder than them. As hard as they hate, we can go just as hard, and instead of creating hate, we create beauty in our community.”

Third Ward, home to Beyoncé, the city’s historic rap culture, and dozens of Black Southern Baptist churches and community centers, almost seems like it’s built around The Breakfast Klub now. Though Third Ward’s Black history dates back nearly 200 years, The Breakfast Klub represents the modern community: a bastion of activism, of culture, and, importantly, food.

“This community is ours, so best believe we aren’t going anywhere.”


Super-Cheap Dinner #2

We’re going to make subscribing to The Bittman Project worth it, in part by offering super-cheap, super-delicious recipes you’ll want to cook. The idea is that we’ll post one ultra-budget-friendly recipe each week, for subscribers only. While this can’t ever be more than back-of-the-napkin math (“affordable” is subjective), we figure that cooking your way through these recipes over the course of the year will more than offset the cost of an annual subscription (which amounts to about $1.35 per week).

Speaking of budgets, tomorrow’s discussion thread is all about sharing strategies for how we save money as home cooks. If you have any solutions, tips, or questions, please join us (all you have to do is open tomorrow’s email and type a comment). Hope to see you there. (Just a reminder, starting in March, these super-cheap dinner recipes as well as the Friday discussion threads will be for members only; to get them every week, you can subscribe here. If you join is this month, you’ll save $20.)

Chile-Chicken Chilaquiles

Makes: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Everywhere bread is traditional, people developed the means to use it stale— think of Italy’s crostini, or fattoush, the pita salads of the Middle East. Chilaquiles—scrambled tortilla strips—are Mexico’s contribution. Traditional versions often include eggs and/or salsa to soften and flavor the tortillas, with meat stirred in as almost an afterthought. If you’re going to use chicken, consider thighs (which are less expensive and more flavorful). To make this vegetarian, skip the chicken and add a couple of eggs scrambled during the last few minutes of cooking; to make it vegan (and cheaper), add a handful of cooked or canned pinto beans instead.

One technical note: Charring and peeling poblanos is the classic method, but if you cut them up small or thin enough, you can skip this step.

Ingredients

  • 8 small corn tortillas (stale are fine)

  • 1/2 cup olive or vegetable oil

  • Salt and pepper

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs

  • 2 poblano or other fresh mild chiles, seeded and thinly sliced

  • 1 red bell pepper, cut into strips

  • 1 onion, halved and sliced

  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic

  • 8 Roma (plum) tomatoes, seeded if you like, chopped (canned are fine; drain their juice)

  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

  • Lime wedges

Instructions

1. Cut the tortillas in half and then crosswise into strips about 1 inch wide. Put the oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot but not smoking, fry the tortilla strips, turning frequently, until golden brown and crisp on both sides, about 3 minutes. Work in 2 or 3 batches to avoid crowding. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to towels to drain. Sprinkle with a little salt while they’re still hot.

2. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the oil. Add the chicken, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and brown well, turning as necessary, until no longer pink inside but not dry, 10 to 15 minutes depending on the cut. Remove the chicken from the skillet and add the poblanos, bell pepper, onion, and garlic; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the vegetables soften and begin to turn golden, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring, until their liquid has boiled off.

3. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, slice or chop it and return the pieces to the pan along with the tortillas. Cook, stirring, just long enough to warm the chicken and tortilla strips, about 2 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve with the lime wedges.

— Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook

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