Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Zelko Bistro Is Leaving The Building

This morning I posted and tweeted this picture of Zelko Bistro with a  "For Lease" sign in front. After many retweets and many Facebook comments speculating about what's going on, I decided to try to get to the bottom of it myself.

A call to the restaurant was answered by a pretty concerned employee, who assured me they were open. His voice told me he was confused and probably a lot nervous. He had no idea what the sign meant. His confusion regarding the issue was such that I literally pulled up the photo and triple checked that I had the right building.

Next I called the number on the sign. Mike Huff, a Realtor from Berkshire Hathaway right down the street, returned my call immediately. I had a pleasant and informative chat with him, and he assured me the building is for lease. Zelko will be moving out. He doesn't know when and can't disclose much about why, but whether they close or re-locate is uncertain (although there are additional, unsubstantiated claims that they will relocate. Yay!). Either way, they will no longer be housed in the gorgeous bungalow at 705 E 11th.

According to Huff, who represents the property owners, they have been in negotiations with Jamie Zelko for at least six months. Huff says that the owners have gone to great lengths to keep Zelko Bistro in the building but negotiations broke down and became "one sided." While I am sure there is a second side to the story, this is all we have right now.

Currently, the sign has been taken down because of a call to Huff from the restaurant. There have been many calls interested in the space, even in the short time it was posted, Huff said. So, while Zelko seems to be open for lunch service today, the building is available for lease immediately. The owners hope to "not have a single day of vacancy" between the exit of Jamie Zelko's concept and what ever new one takes over.

This is a sad day for the Heights. This restaurant was much loved. Jamie Zelko is a Heights resident and respected in our community for her food and her honeybee project. I wish good things for her and hope to eat her Captain's Chicken or better-than-my-grandma's meatloaf again some day. Until we have more information, though, you might try grabbing lunch. My heart really goes out to the employees, who seem to know nothing about the fact that they may be losing their jobs any day. Give them an extra tip at your au revoir meal today. They'll need it.

Addendum from Facebook:
  • Jeremy Goodwin Here is the skinny. The sign was up for a few hours, the landlord is upping the rent to what I consider an untenable amount, already has a list of potential clients and took the sign down. The restaurant will stay open until the end of the lease, I don't know when that is but probably 90 days.
    • The Heights Life Realtor told me the space is available immediately if someone is ready to move in. He got a call from the restaurant asking him to take the sign down. He also said that the owner went to great lengths to get Zelko to stay. I pushed back hard on that, knowing full well what property owners are doing in the Heights these days. I mentioned that 11th St is particularly contentious right now and that many much-loved Heights businesses, spots that define the neighborhood, are being pushed out. He said that is not the case with Zelko. Until Chef Zelko makes a statement, this is all the information I have.

UPDATE, maybe (12:49 pm): People keep calling the restaurant out of concern. They are being told by employees at Zelko that "the sign was a cruel joke." Below are details of my conversation with the leasing agent, Mike Huff, of Berkshire Hathaway. If this is a joke, it's pretty well thought out to have the Realtor duped as well. Only time will tell at this point...

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sneak Peek: The Big Blue Whale

The Pink Polka Dot/Olive Anne has vacated the spot on 237 W. 19th Street. Opening in it's place comes The Big Blue Whale, a more comprehensive toy shop with items for more ages (and more genders) than it's predecessor. 

Owner Vanessa Woodhouse is a Native Houstonian and Heights resident who hopes the shop will become a destination for "curious kids and the people who love them." The Big Blue Whale will carry brands familiar to many with kids in their lives, like Crocodile Creek, Playmobil, Skip Hop, Hape (sustainable bamboo and wood toys from Germany), and Schleich (realistic animal and nature figures). There will also be lots of books, arts and crafts, games, and vintage style toys.

The shop will open for business next Tuesday, July 15th. Until then, a quick peek:

The Big Blue Whale
237 W 19th

Monday, June 23, 2014

Seeing More Red: A quick look at the completed Red Dessert Dive on Studewood

As we all wait with bated breath for Red Dessert Dive on Studewood to actually open, here is a further look at the 961 sq ft bakery and coffee/wine bar. For background on Red read
my post from April- Sneak Peek: Red Dessert Dive

Here is the light fixture which inspired the interior design of the whole space. It hangs in front of the southern window and adds a lot of visual interest to a decidedly clean and organized space.

Coffee bar is ready to go. Staying true to her desire to be local, shop owner Jessica Lusk is using coffee products from Boomtown Coffee on 19th Street.

I love the view from a good window seat. Not everyone thinks Studewood is a view, but I adore living in the city and that means passing cars.

The night we crashed her party popped in, Lusk had invited a few friends and family to come by. The menu was limited but we were treated to samples of beer bread, cookies, and this dreamy thing: A kolache filled with bacon and cream cheese. I hate to admit that I went back for seconds and could have probably had a third. I hope these are regular menu items!

This blondie was also to die for. I don't even know what was in it other than a taste of heaven. My husband, who was born without much of a sweet tooth, enjoyed it immensely.

Giant jars of cookies that are a step above everyday seem to really exemplify what Red Dessert Dive will be- a comfortable, local spot that is just the other side of ordinary. 

I look forward to their opening in the next couple of weeks and will be sure to step across this threshold often!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Heights Bites: Lillo & Ella

Last week I shared the Facebook page for a new restaurant in Heights-adjacent Lazybrook/Shady Acres. Today I had lunch there. Lillo & Ella only opened a week ago and I was of the mind-set to give them some time, but the location was suggested by a friend with whom I really-extra-more-than-normal-enjoy eating out. I haven't written a "Heights Bites" in a long time and thought today would be the perfect opportunity to talk a nibble of food again, so I agreed to her suggestion and we headed to northwest Harris county (I kid. I kid).

The first thing I noticed as I pulled up to this familiar corner of Ella, across from Tony's, was how much cleaner the entire lot looked. The building looks bright and inviting and not so much like you'll get tetanus there. Disclaimer: I like to eat and drink at a lot of places where someone might get tetanus from, say, stepping on a rusty nail. That's not a criticism, necessarily, just a point of fact. It was very welcoming. I pulled right up in front of the orange doors, unsure if that was acceptable but there were no signs to the contrary. It wasn't until I left that I noticed they have added considerable parking to the west. Another nice change from its predecessor. 

Inside had the same feeling- crisp and welcoming. I'll admit to having never actually been inside El Gran Malo. I only ate/drank on the patio. I can't claim to know much about how different it is now, but Lillo & Ella is small and tidy, with a lot of natural light. About half the tables were filled with groups of two to four having conversations, but it wasn't loud, even for a small space with all hard surfaces. The music was upbeat but not distracting. It seemed every bit the casual, neighborhood joint.

The menu is pretty small, which can be good and bad. It was good for me today, as I was feeling very indecisive and having about eight choices worked to keep me from over analyzing something as simple as my lunch. Houstonia has the lunch and dinner menus on line here: Houstonia Gastronaut 

I was really tempted to get the Bao because I love steamed buns so very much, but decided to go with one of the handful of entrees. I ordered the flat iron steak, which is not something I would usually get at lunch but it just sounded right. My lunch date was swayed away from the Bao when I ordered an entree; she ended up going with the quail.

Simple succulents and two staple condiments which don't need labels

I know a lot of Texans can eat a steak for lunch. I am usually not one of them. What ever it was that drew me to a hunk of beef for lunch this day, I am grateful for it. My perfectly lunch sized steak was beautifully cooked. It didn't rely on a lot of salt or pepper for taste, just good quality meat. The steamed rice was excellent- lightly sweet and just enough on the plate to have some with every bite of steak and veggie. Mint and cilantro garnishes gave several bites slightly different tastes, all of them good.

The quail was chopped but of course still on the bone. This is one of the reasons I stay away from quail- for me the work always falls slightly short of the reward. My dining companion didn't mind, making quick work of pulling off tender, large pieces of meat to mix with the rice, and, yes, picking up the bones with her fingers to get the good stuff. She was very pleased with the flavor, noting that hers was flavorful but didn't overly rely on spices. Just enough. Like me, she loved the rice. We both cleaned our plates.

When the waitress came over to ask if we wanted to see the dessert menu, I shrugged her off. I just ate a steak. At lunch. The glare that came across the table was one for the ages. I am glad I was ocularly threatened in to another course because, well, Nutella Pie. So.... I can't really say much more except that. And "banana ice cream." It was kind of sick. Our server came to clear our almost-clean-enough-to-be-back-on-the-shelf plate and said "It's so good, isn't it? Sometimes in the kitchen I want to shove my face in the whole pie. The whole pie." I hear ya, sister.

For a restaurant that's only been open for a week, I found the service efficient and friendly. It wasn't very busy, but after a decade in the service industry I know all too well that you often get the worst service when a restaurant is not crowded. Servers and kitchens depend more than most people realize on momentum. If they can get the service right in week 1, they should be in pretty good shape going forward. Go there now. Now it's a cool, neighborhood joint. Get to know the servers, the bartender. Do it now because I don't doubt this restaurant will get lots of good reviews and press and soon will be even harder to get in to than it's sister establishment, Roost. It could end up being much more than a neighborhood joint, despite how much it looks like one. Lillo & Ella could very well end up the second real destination restaurant in the Lazybrook district. More:Houston Press- Kevin Naderi Talks Lillo & Ella and Lunch & Brunch

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Community Helping Community: Near North Side's Wesley Community Center summer food drive

The Wesley Community Center has served the Near Northside neighborhood in Houston for over 100 years. Located in the shadow of downtown and just to the east of the Heights, Wesley has served working poor individuals, children and families of Houston’s Near Northside and surrounding neighborhoods for over 100 years. 

In 1904, women from the First United Methodist Church of Houston developed a goal of strengthening the quality of life and outcomes for their community. When they looked around they saw families in need, including many children who were left orphaned and women made widows by deaths caused during the expansion of area railroads. In the century since then, the organization has evolved to provide a comprehensive range of Early Childhood Education, Out-of-School Elementary and Youth programming, Senior and Social Services, Community Outreach, and Economic Development Services. The Wesley Community Center of today serves over 27,000 community members each year and works in partnership with a number of other organizations to promote the development of the neighborhood and its residents. 

The near north side community has a significant number of residents who fall under the poverty threshold. Many families in this area rely heavily on local schools to provide their children with daily meals. Often the only meals they get are the ones served at school.  Access to food during the summer months is critical for the children of low-income families because without school, many are not receiving nutritious meals, leaving children vulnerable to experience hunger and the myriad issues that go along with being food insecure.

To respond to this pressing need, Wesley Community Center is launching “Stock the Shelves: Summer Food Drive” as a community-wide food drive during the month of May. 

Their goal is to collect 10,000 pounds of food to help an additional 250 families during the summer months. This collection of food will culminate with a major food distribution on June 21, 2014 at Wesley Community Center’s food fair. With only eight days left in May, they are just under 1/2 way there. Near North Side is very near to the Heights and kids from that community play at our park, go to our schools, work at our businesses. We are a community ready and willing to help, so let's see if we can do something for our neighbors!

“Summertime is particularly hard for families living below the poverty line,” explains Wesley Executive Director, Diana Garbis, “We often forget that our school lunch programs can be a lifeline to these low-income families and going without them over the summer leaves many with food insecurity. Families run out of food, reduce the quality of their food, cut back on meat, feed their children unbalanced meals, or adults often forgo meals altogether so their children can eat. Many families are left hungry if they unable to find alternative food resources.” 

Wesley Community Outreach Coordinator, Leah Wade, added, “It is also hard for people to visualize how even the smallest donations can add up to make a huge impact. We are hoping to collect 10,000 pounds of food this month. If one person collected two bags of rice, two bags of beans, and 10 can goods, they would have donated 10 pounds of food. If three other people do the same, we will have 40 pounds of food, which is enough to feed a family of four. 100 pounds of food feeds 2.5 families of four and once you get up to 1,000 pounds of food, we can help 25 more families.” 

Summer is quickly approaching and our neighboring community is still in need. Want to help? 

What food items are needed?
  • Bagged Rice
  • Dried Beans
  • Canned Vegetables
  • Canned Fruit
  • Canned Tuna/ Canned Meats
  • Canned Ravioli
  • Box Cereal (Corn Flakes, Cheerios, etc.)
  • Oatmeal 
  • Macaroni
  • Maurachan Soups (Dried Soups) 
  • Spaghetti Noodles
  • Spaghetti Sauce
  • Box Mashed Potatoes
  • Granola Bars
  • Crackers
  • Other non-perishable items are welcomed

Donations of food can be brought Reba Veal Henderson Food Cooperative located at 1235 Lorraine Street, Houston, TX 77009, Monday through Friday 9am-5pm. 

Please call 713-223-8131 ahead of time to ensure a staff member is onsite to receive your donations.  

Photo credit: wesleyhousehouston.org

Beyond their goals for this summer, Wesley has a strong commitment to battling hunger in Houston. Their clients range from the elderly, to new immigrants, to the working poor, to professionals who have lost their jobs, and more. They provide food assistance to a growing number of families through emergency food assistance, monthly distributions of fresh fruit and vegetables, and their food cooperative programs for families and seniors that maximizes their food dollars by doubling their cash investment.  They also recently created an organic community garden in the hopes of adding more fresh produce to their client’s diets. Wesley’s mission is to minister to the needs of individuals and families by helping people help themselves and each other. 

Monetary donations can be mailed to 1410 Lee Street, Houston TX 77009, or made via secure payment online at www.wesleyhousehouston.org. Wesley is also able to assist with employer matching gifts, planned gifts, and gifts of stock. 

If you are interested in making a significant impact in the lives of families that lack the resources to combat hunger, please contact Leah Wade, Community Outreach Coordinator, at lwade@wesleyhousehouston.org or 713-821-8907 to volunteer or for additional information. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sneak Peek: Red Dessert Dive

Jessica Lusk grew up in Tomball, but with strong ties to the Heights. Her grandfather grew up here, her mother lived here until high school, and her family still owns her grandfather's Heights home. These ties make it no surprise that this community has drawn her in, this time to start a small business in Houston's most local-business-loving neighborhood.

While attending Texas A&M, where she would eventually graduate with an Environmental Design degree, Lusk left Texas to head to New York City for an architecture internship, where she fell in love with the small spaces occupied by unique businesses. So much in New York seemed "tiny and weird" compared to what she had always known in Texas, but she relished it. She returned to Texas and then stayed close to home, earning a Masters in Architecture at University of Houston.

When Lusk began her career in Houston, she soon realized that, despite her excellent education, the working environment of architecture was not where her heart was. She decided she wanted to be an entrepreneur and Stella Bakes was born. Stella Bakes, a homebaking cupcake business, was an experiment; a way for Lusk to see if she had the mettle to own her own business- to do all the work and assume all the risk. She decided she did and put together a business plan for... more work and even greater risk.

1045 Studewood, next to the new SOHO boutique
When Jessica Lusk was living in New York, one of her favorite places was the original Magnolia Bakery. Tucked in to a tiny space in the West Village, Magnolia Bakery was practically an institution the day the doors opened. Inspired by the Magnolia and encouraged by her experience with Stella Bakes, Lusk decided she wanted to own a dessert shop. Unlike both Magnolia and Stella Bakes, Lusk did not want this dessert shop to be "cute." She doesn't think that desserts, whether it's cupcakes or cheesecakes, need to always be so "girlie." She wanted something decidedly different and came up with the concept of Red, a business named for her grandmother, a "feisty redhead and amazing baker."

While the general aesthetic of Red will be very different from it's inspiration in New York, one similarity remains in Lusk's new venture: small. She knew she wanted the Heights area and she knew she wanted less than 1200 sq feet. What she has ended up with is a little sliver of Studewood, coming in at a very New York-ish 961 sq ft.

The state of 1045 Studewood 2 weeks ago, when Jessica invited me in to chat

Jessica Lusk's background in architectural design has definitely helped her dream of tiny become a big reality. Lusk did all the plans for Red herself and has plans to put every inch of the space to use. As plans developed, the concept became clear for Lusk. Red will have "classic American desserts with a twist" plus a nice selection of beer and wine. There will also be a strong coffee program from Boomtown Coffee on 19th Street. Coffee "was not am afterthought" for Lusk, and in it's final incarnation, Red be more "of a coffee shop with an emphasis on desserts" than a bakery itself.

The Fredricksburg light fixture that is dictating the interior design of Red
Red will share parking with SOHO Boutique, eeking out just enough to allow permitting for eating and drinking in house. Right now, there isn't much to see inside, but that isn't stopping Lusk from holding to a May opening. What you will be able to expect come May is a "a funky, fun, eclectic bakery," where the Rolling Stones provide the soundtrack and funky versions of desserts you love will satisfy your sweet tooth. Lusk has drawn interior design inspiration from an amazing light fixture she found outside of Fredricksburg, TX. A subway tile wall will give focus to the service area, where you'll find eight bar stools and a window bench for enjoying your sweet with your beverage of choice. Materials like reclaimed wood and cast iron piping will create an environment, Lusk hopes, that bucks the trend of cutesy when it comes to desserts.

Service area will be on the south wall,
eye catching white subway tile and rustic elements for an almost masculine aesthetic

Plans for the finished space, including a micro-office for Lusk

True to the neighborhood, Lusk is focusing on using local vendors for everything from beer selection to coasters to employee uniforms. While she is getting help on the wine list, Lusk will be putting the beer list together herself. And she is no longer doing the baking. Focusing on operations is where she thinks she's best used, so she has a pastry chef, as well as a barrista to handle the front of the house. When the doors open for business, Red is going to be open from roughly 7 am until 8 pm. Lusk is open to changing this as she is able to see what her customer base prefers. With hours and some other aspects of the business, Lusk is willing to remain flexible and experience some trial and error "until we find our sweet spot." Pun intended?

As of today, April 16, some good progress toward Red's anticipated May opening
Red Dessert Dive + Coffee Shop
1045 Studewood
Houston Heights
Twitter/ @Red_HoustonTX

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

All Signs Point "True North"

My interaction with True North started with this email from Heights Kids Group early Saturday morning:
Bungalow Rooftop in the median on Heights Blvd 
Does anyone know anything about this? Someone put a rooftop (and part of a house/garage?) in the median on Heights between 4th and 5th. Looked like workmen were arriving with tools to remove just now. (hope not) Looked like a statement to the death of the bungalow. Spot on IMO. Go see quickly if you are interested.
A quick update shortly after noted that they were not removing it, but had actually added a steeple to it. Someone wondered if it had to do with the fire at Heights Presbyterian... Then someone announced: it is an art installation. The rooftop at 4th St has had everyone talking, with multiple pictures posted to The Heights Life Facebook page and in my Twitter and Instagram feeds.

So, what's the real deal on the project? It's called “True North” and has been a long time dream of Gus Kopriva, owner of Redbud Gallery on 11th and an icon in the local art scene; a name recognized both nationally and internationally.  Kopriva has long dreamed of producing large scale public art exhibitions in Houston. He hatched a plan "to expand the placement of public art pieces to numerous locations throughout the city and particularly along the esplanade of Heights Boulevard." The esplanade, which is a Scenic Right of Way from White Oak Bayou to 20th Street, has long enjoyed the tender, loving care of the Heights Association with native trees, flower gardens, irrigation systems, drinking fountains, the much-loved jogging trail, plus memorials, benches, gazebos, and public "Thank Yous" to the likes of long time residents, business owners, and volunteers like Carl and Melvalene Cohen. With much effort and cooperation, this project got approval from the City’s Parks Department and Public Works as a major location for a public art exhibit. And now we all get to benefit.

What is True North about? The idea is for a sculpture project that "is a representation of local works of contemporary art along the esplanade for the enjoyment of our community and visitors.  Exhibits—produced by highly recognized Texas artists—will foster the understanding and advancement of art." Sounds good.

The first True North sculpture installation will be in place for roughly nine months.  There will be ten total sculptures from eight artists, including a 2-piece project from Lee Littlefield, who passed away last year and to whom the show is dedicated. 

Here is the line up, in no particular order:

Carter Ernst- The only piece by a woman artist, "Pointing North" is actually not installed yet.  Weather caused some delays, but sometime on the weekend of April 4 you can expect to see a large fiberglass dog on 600 block of Heights. Her piece is inspired by Ernst's own dog and, as Gus Kopriva noted in our chat, is perfect for the Heights, a very dog-centric neighborhood.

Dan Havel- Pictured above, the church that launched so much speculation is "Wildlife Sanctuary." Back in the 1990s, an old church was torn down/converted in to a funeral home on 18th at Columbia. Havel is re-introducing a piece of Heights history back to the neighborhood, but he is also making this architectural remnant functional with a purpose. If you get close, you'll see small doors that hold bird seed for the many feathered friends that live in and travel through the Heights. Another elemtnet of note: the steeple was once hit by lighting, which twisted it.

Paul Kittelson- Lawn Chairs (my apology to the artist. I failed to get the official name of this really awesome piece). Kittleson is known for large scale, whimsical art like giant popcorn pieces and lighting strike. He also does a lot of public works. A sculpture prof at UofH, his piece is simply "about furniture that is utilized a lot in the Heights." A piece of wall art with the fabric used for the chairs will be available at the Heights Association auction next weekend.

Lee Littlefield- His "Cypress Flowers" should look familiar to anyone in Houston. He took cypress and pine wood and used those materials to create brightly colored trees which are installed all over town.

Patrick Medrano- "From the Hood to The Heights" --- Medrano has taken the common architectural element of the shotgun house, suited it for dogs, and gave the dogs' house oars for a canine escape from some kind of imminent flood or hurricane. Once again, we love our dogs in the Heights.

Steve Murphy- "Things You CAn't Get From Books" Kopriva isn't sure what that means! LOL! In any case, this abstract sculpture is found in a small stand of trees, giving it more of a presence.

Dean Ruck-  "Hourglass"- This sculpture on 18th, is 14' tall with 150 5" mirrors. Dean is well known for his previous works with Dan Havel, most notably the Inversion house in Montrose. 

Ed Wilson- "Folded Plane" Wilson created a giant stainless steel paper airplane.

A year of planning and a Mayor’s Initiative Grant through Houston Arts Alliance, along with private donations, has made this project possible. There has been effort from many notable locals working with Kopriva. A Heights icon herself, artist Chris Silkwood is a long time community activist and was also leadership for this bunch of loveliness. 

It's only been three days and I already love everything about this art installation. I asked Kopriva if there would more sculptures or other projects after these are gone in November? He can't say right now but I think he hopes so. He sees Houston really bursting in to the national art spotlight right now and believes that there ample room for projects like this around our lovely city. We "have a lot of Boulevards," he noted. He wants to see the neighborhood's reaction and take community in to consideration. I think this is a thoughtful way of operating. I feel pretty sure, based on the excitement I've seen so far, that our community will welcome projects like this many times over. 

Like all art, our interpretations will be subjective. I imagine the piece open to most interpretations will probably be "Wildlife Sanctuary." Kopriva shared a story with me about being stopped by a pastor during the installation of the piece. "Is this a church?" he asked. He was concerned about a sinking church and what that might be symbolic of. "Oh no," Kopriva told him. "It is arising. It's being re-born." The pastor was lucky to have someone to work on his perspective with him that day, allowing him to leave in a more positive place than he arrived. Not everyone will be able to interact with the curator of this project or the artists who created it, but certainly many discussions will be had about all of it and what it might mean.

Some might muse about the meaning of True North and how it applies to each sculpture. The name  is the most literal part of the project: it is a reference to Heights Boulevard, which does, indeed, run true north.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why do I support local businesses?

There are a lot of reasons. One is because for every $1 you spend at a local store, there is a greater return in to our local economy. The 3/50 Project urges people to support local businesses because for every $100 spent locally, $68 comes back to our local economy:

from www.350project.net

And then there is the way local businesses care about the community they live and work in. That care is demonstrated in posts like the one Justin Engle, owner of the just-starting-to-get-built microbrewery Town In City Brewing Company, made to our community's Nextdoor message board.

Hi fellow neighbors!
I wanted to give you a heads up about West Cavalcade at the five point intersection. Starting tomorrow (February 27), Town in City Brewing will start excavating their lot. There will be numerous trucks off-loading dirt from the property and bringing select-fill for the property. The trucks should be spread out throughout the day. With the current construction on N. Main and Airline, you may have a slight traffic delay for the next two days.  
I will try and give a heads up when the concrete pour comes as there will be a lot of truck traffic for those two days.  
If you have any questions, please feel free to comment or private message me. I do apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause.

It's thoughtful things like this that make this network of streets and electrical lines and sewer pipes a community. 

Thanks, Justin, for being a great neighbor and a great local business owner. Your thoughtfulness is noted and much appreciated. And your beer is super good.