DEFCON Dining: Everything's Mellow at the Mushroom

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Nicholas L. Hall
The Holy Shiitake at Mellow Mushroom: sure to entice parents and amuse savvy children.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

There have been four babies born to my extended family in 2014 (one of them mine). I'm pretty sure that's the last of them, but you never know with this group. At the start of the year, right before the first round popped (twins, no less), I began suggesting to my in-laws that we might be nearing the end of our family dinners out. With our combined numbers now swollen to an entirely unreasonable 18, we're reaching a sort of critical mass that threatens to run roughshod over the Hague Convention. At the very least, I have suggested that we call ahead before descending en masse, at least allowing for management to fortify its lines of defense in advance of the horde.

A few weekends ago, we threw out the rules of engagement and ambushed Mellow Mushroom.

It wasn't a coordinated attack. My wife's sisters had decided the night before that there was no better way to spend a Sunday than hauling kids around a field, taking pictures in front of various gourds, and so we had all trekked out to Spring for some forced festivity. It is, after all, the reason for the season.

(A little side-note: GPS is a fickle, lying jerk, and is not to be trusted. Taking surface streets from Montrose to Stuebner-Airline sucks. Yes, I realize I bear the bulk of the blame here, at least until the machines rise.)

After a couple of hours of train rides and hay rides that were indistinguishable from one-another in all but the specifics of conveyance, all eyes turned to me to find a place to feed the grumbling masses. I hadn't anticipated this. "I don't really know any places out here," I offered meekly, not wanting to be the guy figuring out where to take this motley crew for the greatest chance of pleasing everyone and the smallest chance of having one or more of our party escorted out by management.

It was mostly true, but the gears in my brain started turning unbidden, and Mellow Mushroom filtered to the surface. I suppose I figured that it was going to happen one way or another, and I was better off taking my fate into my own hands. Besides, everyone likes pizza, and I like beer.

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DEFCON Dining: Whole-Wheat Pancakes are for the Birds at Buffalo Grille

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a whole-wheat pancake to be a good decision.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

Somehow, we became The Pancake Aunt and Uncle. I blame my wife, mostly.

It started innocently enough. We'd been pressed into emergency service to watch our soon-to-be four-year-old nephew one morning after dropping ours off at school. We hadn't eaten. He had. He's a picky eater at the best of times, and my wife really just wanted to get some breakfast. She baited him with pancakes. He took the bait. Since then, it seems that pancakes somehow find their way onto the itinerary every time we watch him. He doesn't seem to mind.

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DEFCON Dining: Oyster Freedom at Liberty Kitchen

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Wellfleets in foreground, Gulf in back.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I used my good friend James for oysters. I'd say I'm not proud of it, but that's not entirely true. You see, every September, I begin an eight-month dilemma. It typically reaches a fever pitch just after Christmas, as waters are at their coldest and oysters at their briny best. The dilemma? My family doesn't like 'em.

I know what you're thinking -- "they don't have to eat them, then." True enough. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. They're not big on seafood generally, and it can be a bit tough to find a restaurant that caters to the oyster-lover in me and the landlubbers in the rest of my family. Every once in a while, I can catch them on a good day for fish and sneak in a dozen or so, most often at Good Co. Seafood, which somehow falls into their general good graces despite its dearth of food options with legs. With James in town, I had an ace up my sleeve.

A food lover from Houston with Louisiana roots, James visits from NYC a handful of times a year, always making time to grab a bite or a beer with me and mine. Usually, he bends around the bizarre schedules that seem to dominate my life. This time, I told my wife, we were going to bend around him. To me, that included choice of venue. Having not been to town for a while, he asked me for some recommendations, preferably someplace laid-back where we could carry on a conversation. I sneaked Liberty Kitchen onto the list, and suggested to James that, since he likes oysters and I like oysters, our time would be well spent eating them together. James agreed, electing that we meet at Liberty Kitchen for dinner that night. His choice. The fact that Liberty Kitchen offers a full menu, including all-day breakfast for my famously egg-loving kids, made it an easy one for all of us.


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DEFCON Dinner and a Movie: Hash Browns Require Etiquette, and a Glass of Water

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
The best bad decision.
My first summer in Houston was pretty much spent at the Dollar Cinema. We moved in July, and hadn't had the chance to make any friends yet, and our mom was scandalized by the price of, well, pretty much everything. Moving from a small city to a large one can have that effect. Everything we would normally have done was too hot, too far away or too expensive. The Dollar Cinema was a godsend. Yes, it had sticky floors (soda, I'm hoping and praying) and was still showing Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in the summer of 1993, but it beat a bunch of whiny northern-transplant kids complaining about the heat and boredom.

It was in a half-abandoned shopping center tucked into the corner of South Gessner and 59, right next to a store that seemed to specialize in Paula Abdul tapes and parachute pants, and an off-brand 99¢ store that started my brief obsession with veladoras. Mom would smuggle in Starbursts and Reese's Pieces in her giant purse, and for less than ten bucks win a couple of hours of (relative) peace.


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DEFCON Dining: I Before E, Except After Toting an Extra (Excited) Kid Around All Afternoon

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
It ain't easy bein' cheesy.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I'm a big believer in the notion that dessert follows dinner. Call me a wet blanket (my kids do), but it just seems like an invitation for trouble. It was, then, a significant concession when I took not only my girls but also a tagalong friend to Cloud 10 Creamery on a recent weeknight.

We'd been asked to pick her up from school as a favor to her mom, and proceeded to drive her around to various after-school activities with us. By the time swim class was over, the girls all annoyed at the fact that they'd been so tantalizingly close, yet so frustratingly unable to actually play together, we all decided that ice cream before dinner was the best of all possible ideas.

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DEFCON Dining: A Bowl of Gumbo and a Protégé

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Photo by Cecilia Hall
I don't care what the sign says. Order the shrimp.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I thought we'd try a little something different this time. My ten-year-old daughter, a frequent subject of these articles, got an iPod for her birthday. She'd been begging for months and months, and I'd been resisting. Ever since she's had it, though, she's been proving all of my reasoning wrong. I helped that along a little, disabling Internet access and restricting pretty much everything else to the point that it's really a glorified digital camera. Still, the uses she's been finding for it have surprised and delighted me, from filming herself practicing her violin as an aide to her younger sister, to jotting down all sorts of interesting musings in the notes feature. One of those notes gave me an idea.

We'd sat down to dinner a few months back, when she announced that she wanted to write something about it, like I did. She pulled out her iPod and began tapping out a story. I started to interrupt, offering her advice on how to go about it. She became annoyed, I came to my senses and this is what came of it. Her words appear below in italics, with my commentary in plain text. I think she did okay.

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An Open Letter from DEFCON Dining

Categories: DEFCON Dining


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Nicholas L. Hall
The most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much we cry, no matter how much we beg: Never take us to a restaurant after 7p.m.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

So it's been a while since all the hubbub surrounding La Fisheria's policy change, banning children under the age of 8 past 7 p.m. The story touched many nerves, with responses ranging from the predictable to the (perhaps) surprising. In my time penning DEFCON Dining, I've seen many of those same responses in the comments section: childless diners telling me to keep my brood caged until they're old enough to vote; sympathetic parents shouting down those who say children should be neither seen nor heard; the few rare voices reaching across the aisle to suggest that perhaps some accommodations could be made by both parties.


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DEFCON Dining: Fountain View Café

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Photos by Nicholas L. Hall
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

I forgot where Fountain View Café was. I have no idea how. All I know is, I pulled up in front of Harvest Organic Grille, after having waxed more than slightly rhapsodic about pancakes for the previous 25 minutes, only to find Fountain View, that bastion of lace-edged breakfast pastries, inexplicably "gone." Of course, I was just off by one strip-mall section, and apparently blinded by my desire for breakfast foods.

I raised the question on Twitter, no doubt confusing many a hash-brown-hound, and was met with confusion. Nobody knew what I was talking about. A few weeks later, I asked again. Assured that it was still a going concern, though no less baffled by my inability to spot if from 20 yards away, I headed toward Fountain View Café with the wife and kids on a recent Saturday.

Generally, I can count on breakfast as the Switzerland of meals. Everyone loves breakfast, including my sometimes frighteningly picky six year old. If she can order eggs, I can count on order. Or so I thought. I'm not sure what went wrong that weekend. Maybe it was the early wakeup call of a new Saturday activity. Maybe it was the fact that she's a six year old. You can never tell with six year olds. Shifty bunch.

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DEFCON Dining: El Gran Malo

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Nicholas L. Hall
Not pictured: Fiji Mermaid Infused Tequila
On a recent Tuesday night -- our late night, the one on which after-school activities all but force us to dine out instead of cooking -- my youngest daughter said she'd rather go home and eat sandwiches than put on pants. She'd just gotten out of her gymnastics class, clad only in the bathing suit she wears in lieu of a leotard, and was not receptive to the suggestion that additional clothing would be required in a restaurant setting. I can't quite recall how we convinced her to clothe herself, but I'm reasonably sure it involved queso.

I've taken to a bit of strategy surrounding these late Tuesday dinners. With everyone so ready to just get somewhere and shove food in their faces after an extremely long day, I find that it's easier to get my way when it comes to where. Manipulative? Yes. Successful? Usually. It does backfire, typically when the willingness-to-crankiness ratio tilts in the wrong direction. There's a fine line, reasonably gauged by how strongly the wife and kids, respectively, react to the statements "They've got margaritas" and "You can have chips." El Gran Malo fills both of those requirements, and that's where we wound up.

I'd had El Gran Malo on the list for a while, but never got much traction with the suggestion. I think leading with "they've got all these crazy tequila infusions" was a poor strategy, making the kids think it had nothing to offer them, and making my wife fear the resulting insurrection. Reasonable fears, both. Fortunately, they were unfounded.


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Sociology and Sichuan Peppercorns at Mala Sichuan Bistro

Categories: DEFCON Dining

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Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Water Boiled Beef needs a punchier name. Or not. Nobody likes a showoff.
Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you. It ain't always pretty.

Mala Sichuan Bistro was packed at 7 p.m. the day after Christmas. I had been concerned about taking the kids, as they've been in a bit of a "no new foods" funk of late, and I wasn't sure how they'd respond. As the delicious scents of the dining room hit our noses, each of them perking up and involuntarily sniffing into the tantalizing wind, my concerns were laid to rest. "It smells amazing in here," enthused my oldest. Even my notoriously picky six-year-old nodded in agreement, an encouraging gleam in her eye.

As we waited for a table, back in the slightly chilly foyer, the kids' curiosity further piqued by the boisterous scene inside the dining room, my daughter made an interesting if unsurprising comment. "We're the only people here who aren't Chinese," she observed. "Sometimes, I don't feel as comfortable when nobody else is American."

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