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Witty Eatsie Boys boast smart, relaxed fare

Alison Coo, Houston Chronicle
Published 6:41 pm, Tuesday, July 30, 2013
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  • Ryan Soroka, top, Alex Vassilakidis, left, and Matt Marcusat of Eatsie Boys,...
  • Latte at neighborhood coffee shop Eatsie Boys.
  • Marcus makes ice cream in house at Eatsie Boys. Classic flavors, caramelized...

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Eatsie Boys Cafe one star

4100 Montrose; 713-524-3737

Hours: BL&D 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday brunch

Credit cards: all major

Prices: breakfasts $6.50-$12; salads & soup $6-$10; sandwiches $7-$10; ice cream & desserts $4.50-$6.50

Reservations: first come, first served

Noise level: moderate

Website: eatsieboys.com/

I needed a coffee shop in my life. I just didn't realize it until I began my relationship with the Eatsie Boys Cafe, the brick-and-mortar incarnation of a much-loved food truck.

By "coffee shop," I don't mean the boutique coffee operations that have sprung up around town in recent years, where brewing connoisseur-level coffee is the mission and food consists mostly of pastries and snacks purchased from local suppliers. I love those places - they have made coffee-drinking a much less depressing activity in Houston - but I'm talking here about the old-fashioned coffee shop out of mid-century America, the kind of easy, reliable place you could pop into for liquids and short-order sustenance throughout the day.

Eatsie Boys has brought that brand of usefulness to the shady corner of Montrose Boulevard that once housed Scott Tycer's Kraftsmen Cafe. Despite the frantic buzz that surrounded its opening late last year, it's not a big-deal destination spot, just a relaxed venue for picking up something quick and interesting to eat.

The trio that runs the business - CIA-trained chef Matt Marcus, Ryan Soroka and Alex Vassilakidis - have lots of irons in the fire, from the ambitious new 8th Wonder Brewery to a flourishing catering business for special events. They've set their cafe up so that it can more or less run itself, and Marcus' short, smart menu makes the most of a microscopic kitchen space that has a handful of burners and a fry station.

There are cheffy touches to the list of sandwiches, some notably fresh, pretty salads and a rotating selection of Marcus' ice creams, which they previously sold out of their truck when it got too hot to cook. Along with a special or two on the blackboard menu are some old faves from the food-truck days when the Eatsie Boys fed the night owls outside the Agora.

The food is fun (that's the Eatsie Boys' signature style, from their cartoon logo to their rap-rhyming Twitter account), but it doesn't make any big claims for itself. That's a good thing. It allows a newcomer to appreciate the hits for their wit and swagger, and to shrug off the blips in execution as minor annoyances. Even when I've hit a dud here, I've stayed optimistic about my next visit.

In the "hit" category are what may well be the best chicken-salad sandwich I've ever tasted, the bird cooked softly sous vide, dressed with a satiny and slightly hot mayo, and given a crunchy counterpoint of chick-skin cracklins that's pure genius.

That sandwich, dubbed the Slow Ride, has departed from the summer menu, replaced by a curiously dull "chali 2na" version that needed more than a flourish of sprouts and quick cucumber pickles to enliven it. The day I sampled it, the great-sounding garnish of pickled shallots and crispy shallots wasn't plentiful enough to make a dent in all that tuna and all that bread, in the form of a high-rise challah wheat bun.

There you have the two poles of the Eatsie Boys Cafe. I'm never quite sure whether I'll encounter some magnificent brute of a sandwich like the rare-roast-beef Maestro, piled high with caramelized onions, cheddar and jumpy horseradish aioli, with a manic crackle of crushed potato chips on top. Or whether instead I will pick mournfully at a fried-shrimp banh mi that sounded so promising with its pickled vegetable garnishes, only to crater under the influence of shellfish breaded and fried to a hard, overcooked fare-thee-well.

Or I'll find myself fascinated by the sticky-smooth texture of herbed house-made falafel patties, hot from the fryer, set upon a brisk cool bed of chopped vegetables and daubed with a roasted garlic tzatziki sauce that is hauntingly sweet. In a city where falafel tends to be mass-produced, dreary stuff, this version is special. If only its effect were not tamped down by a huge fat challah wheat bun that's too much for the filling by about half. And if only there were enough of that excellent tzatziki variant to balance things out.

Still, it's the kind of dish I'll find myself smiling over later, even as I rework it in my head. I might wish the Meyer lemon vinaigrette on the gorgeous-looking bowlful of asparagus-and-arugula salad weren't sweet and that it gave the vegetables and the central trove of burrata cheese more lift. But later I'll remember how clever I found the snowdrifts of shaved hard-boiled egg and the way the little cubes of sautéed potato gave the salad some unexpected gravitas, and I'll start planning my next visit.

I've held a business breakfast at the cafe at midmorning, when the dining room is quiet, the all-important Wifi is functional and the aroma of coffee from David Buehrer's Greenway Coffee & Tea fills the air. I love the room then, its green views out of old-fashioned windows contrasting with the cheerful graffiti décor inside.

And I love the fact that I can either go virtuous with a cupful of high-quality house granola on top of cool Greek yogurt, dressed with some Texas honey and big fat blackberries; or blow it out with the rich, silky salmon Matt Marcus cures and serves on a bagel plate that would pass muster in a serious Jewish deli.

Add a respectable cappuccino or one of the new Caphin bottled iced Vietnamese coffees that are popping up around town, and you're set for the day.

One of the most inviting patios in town is part of the draw here. The old trees and vine-covered walls of the adjoining Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library makes it a unique setting in a city where parking-lot or drugstore views are more the norm. Umbrella-shaded picnic tables are good for lounging, even in the heat. The surroundings just look cool, even when they're not.

And there is always Matt Marcus' ice creams to cool things down. I like his purer, more classic flavors, like the caramelized banana or Vietnamese iced coffee. They sing. So does his Whiskey Cereal flavor, with its fine boozy burst, but the addition of leathery flaps of breakfast cereal do the recipe no favors.

It's cheeky and all, but sometimes cheeky doesn't taste great. That's what crossed my mind when I sampled the touted Dazed and Confused ice cream imbued with Shipley Do-nuts. Marcus got the flavor down even unto the strong edge of doughnut grease. And I discovered I really don't like doughnut grease all that much. I know people who dote on this flavor, but for me, the wit got in the way.

That can happen when you're young and frisky. But the jokes can pay off. Eatsie Boys' matzah ball pho is a cultural jest that is quite comforting in its way, with the matzah ball taking the place of, say, a fishball of the sort that might bob in an Asian soup. People get awfully proprietary about pho in this town, and I have had at least one friend complain about the five-spice-scented chicken broth used as a base here.

I liked it, especially once I got all my lime, green chile, cilantro and mint squished in to perfume and flavor the soup.

I ate it under the shade of ancient trees, wondering what the Eatsie Boys would do next. I don't expect that will stop anytime soon.

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