On a rainy Sunday in May, after Governor Abbott allowed restaurants to reopen at limited capacity (and before the subsequent surge in coronavirus cases), my husband, John, and I knew just where we needed to go. We had a craving for something predictable and close to our hearts: Luby’s cafeteria. We grabbed our masks and headed to our neighborhood Luby’s first, but it was still closed, the parking lot forlornly damp and vacant. Some quick googling got us driving about twenty minutes in the opposite direction, northwest up U.S. 290, to one of the few Luby’s locations in Houston that promised an open door. We were almost beside ourselves. It had been about three months since I had enjoyed a roast chicken LuAnn platter. In pre-coronavirus days, I had one every couple of weeks. At a minimum.
If you are not a fan of this ubiquitous Texas-based chain, the previous paragraph probably strikes you as ludicrous, some quarantine-induced fever dream. And you probably don’t care, either, that Luby’s has been on the ropes since Houston-based Pappas Restaurants bought a majority stake in the company in 2001, tried to upgrade in multiple ways—al dente green beans!—and then got stuck in a nasty proxy fight over, among other things, a debt load that now hovers around $35 million. It fell to the Houston Chronicle to deliver the bad news on June 3, not long after we ventured out for that first meal: the economic disaster caused by the virus has the Pappas family looking for a buyer for Luby’s. Assets, including real estate, are on the block, and Pappas has closed several of its other properties in Houston, including a Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and a Pappas Shrimp Shack. It’s possible a new owner will come along and keep some of the cafeterias going, but it’s not looking good.
One thing I have learned about beloved restaurants over the years is that when they are gone they are gone, leaving behind a deeply personal emptiness that can never be assuaged by another menu from another place. Threadgill’s and Shady Grove, in Austin, both casualties of the pandemic. Baby Routh, in Dallas. (Those jalapeño polenta croutons!) The current location of Liberty Bar, in San Antonio, is nice but makes me pine for the tilting wood-frame structure on Josephine Street I made a beeline for whenever I went back to my hometown. And I still crave the sweet, glistening eggplant caponata at Joe Matranga’s long-closed eponymous spaghetti joint in north Houston. (The owner, a former wrestler who was middle-aged and bulky by the time I met him, gave out after-dinner postcards of himself as a buff, loincloth-wearing hunk with a spear through his chest.) Marcel Proust would have understood that it’s not exactly about the food but the larger memory the food triggers. I was young there, I had all the time in the world, and, yeah, whatever happened to—?
Okay, but Luby’s? Comfort food in its blandest possible form? I know. For decades our friends have found our loyalty to the chain a constant opportunity for derision. Almost thirty years ago, I tried to convince a dear friend, the estimable food writer Alison Cook, that she should come with us, that Luby’s food was actually really good. The look on her face, some warring combination of tolerance, pity, and massive self-control, persuaded me never to invite her again.
But I wasn’t deterred. John and I started going to Luby’s around 1991, as soon as our son, Sam, was old enough to sit in a high chair. That was another period of being semi-housebound, albeit a much happier one. There was a Luby’s within a couple miles of us then, and often when John walked in from a long day at work, I would not very nicely demand to get out of the house. Everyone who is now stuck at home and caring for a toddler knows what I’m talking about: that moment when you know that if you look in the mirror you will see wild-eyed Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein looking back.
End of the Line
Luby’s, founded in San Antonio in 1947, has 76 cafeterias across Texas. If the chain disappears, fans can console themselves with its 2006 cookbook Luby’s Recipes & Memories, which is very heavy on the mayo.
But I also knew that if we could just get to Luby’s, all would be well. Some cheerful uniformed waiter would meet us and tie a balloon to Sam’s rolling wooden high chair and help him choose between red and blue Jell-O. (No, I did not care what was in it.) Then, that same server might wheel Sam to the table while I got lost in all the
comfort-food choices I never made at home. Mashed potatoes and brown gravy! Broccoli and cheese! Chicken-fried steak!! Maybe we would run into some neighbors in the same boat and have a communal dinner that left the floor around us littered with crumbs and spilled milk. I didn’t have to clean up, and dinner for three cost less than the cheapest entrée at a better restaurant. Who could resist?
Somehow, even as Sam grew up and away, John and I never quit Luby’s. We made friends with some of the employees—Crescencia, who loved to fuss over Samuelito, was our favorite—and couldn’t resist the chorus of line servers, who, even as we aged, asked, “Whatcha gonna have, baby?” Our Luby’s was located right between the nexus of Montrose and River Oaks and the old Fourth Ward, so it always had an eclectic crowd of straight and gay, rich and poor, old and young, Black, white, and just about everybody else you could imagine, including Houston cops and down-on-their-luck types who had scraped together enough money for dinner and dessert.
John and I even found ourselves there on election night 2018, when the early returns hinted that Beto O’Rourke might actually beat Ted Cruz. Everyone watched the results on one of the wall-mounted TVs—one for each of the four walls of the restaurant—joking around until we were driven out by the 8 p.m. closing time. We had spent an evening with a lot of people with whom we had little in common but our humanity, and we had all managed to survive. Over the years, I’ve sometimes left Luby’s feeling sad, but I’ve never felt hopeless.
And so it was when we got in line at Luby’s in May. The location wasn’t as cheerful as our usual spot. The interior was darker, owing to fewer windows and the rain, and the beet and cucumber salads were packaged for takeout instead of dished up fresh. There were fewer entrée offerings—no hulking roast beef ready for slicing under the neon-red heat lamps—and across from the serving line was a COVID-19–prevention array of paper towels and hand sanitizers for sale. Still, there were enough similarities to get me through. I got my roast chicken LuAnn platter with corn and spinach, along with a cucumber salad. My husband got his chopped steak topped with bacon and greasy cheddar cheese (cooked to order, as they didn’t have any waiting on the steam table), with corn and pinto beans for his two sides. We split a piece of jalapeño cornbread in celebration. The smallish crowd provided a masked sampling of Houston’s diversity, socially distanced at far-apart tables but still amiable. Our server looked after us like we were guests at her daughter’s wedding.
Did we need anything else? she asked us. Well, yes, but for now, if not forever, lunch at Luby’s was enough.