You can order food to go at Exposition Park Café, but just about the only reason to do it would be to get a change of scenery if you already ate all your meals there.
A sign over the bar at this decidedly un-haute haunt says, "Welcome, You Are Home," and they're not kidding. Some locals eat here two or three times a day, ambling in when the screen door on the side gets unlocked around 11 a.m. and hovering at this corner of South Exposition Avenue and Parry Street more or less till closing at 2 a.m. (4 a.m. on weekends).
To spend a day with the happy family of regulars who make Expo Park Café their second home, you could start with strong, cobweb-clearing coffee in one of those thick white crockery mugs. Gobble down some chicken and waffles served on a plain white plate, then cadge coffee refills as you noodle on your unfinished screenplay (free wi-fi) till the mid-afternoon nosh.
If the weather's nice, it's patio time with a beer, some nachos and a natter with neighbors who stroll by. Perhaps you can get a word or two with the intense-looking guy from the leather store next door. Or swap some existential syllables with the young poets who straggle in to read aloud from notebooks into a crackly microphone on Wednesday evenings.
Supper coincides with a lull in the noisy bus traffic pulling up to the entrance of Fair Park across the street. Late nights mean lighting the candles on the 10 tables inside and on the fairy-lighted patio and making room for heavy-lidded pub crawlers seeking cheap martinis and a place to finish the arguments where the music's not too loud. After midnight, comforting breakfast food is $5 a plate.
Exposition Park Café, just a year and a half old, is a nice throwback to the village-y Expo Park of the 1980s, when this area was just beginning to draw artists, musicians and other urban über-hipsters into nearby renovated warehouses and loft spaces. They liked the pre-boom Notting Hill feeling of the nayb back then and the sense that being here meant you were really on your way to doing something with your life. Some did do something—enough of it to move on as lives changed and rents soared. Some stayed, doing the same old things or something else just because they like it here.
Longtimers have watched other restaurateurs try and fail on the same corner where Exposition Park Café now thrives. A barbecue stand once stood there. A deli. A pizzeria.
The unglamorous café now holding strong, owned by longtime neighborhood resident Troy Gardner, is a little bit of all of those. Sharing the menu are a few Tex-Mex standards, some Polish sausage, a bit of British bar food, a dash of Mediterranean flavors and a few Southern and Asian staples. The hodgepodge-iness makes for uneven quality on the plate sometimes, but that's about the only shortcoming we found in several visits.
Sometimes it's enough that food just tastes good at a good price, you know? Lots of things at Exposition Park Café taste good. Chef Henry Hermetet's style is pretty plain by chef-ly standards—no big surprises, no showy presentations (he goes a bit nuts dusting plates with parsley flakes, but that's a small quibble). He makes good, quiet, civilized meals and sends out enormous portions at working-class prices. (Even cheaper on Tuesday, when all food items go for half-price.)
Roasted pepper hummus is the most pleasing appetizer, served in a deep bowl surrounded by layers of fresh, soft pita quarters. Another starter, Mediterranean queso, blends tangy olives with a little garlic in a nice mild melted cheese. It comes with thick, hot corn chip triangles made from scratch in the kitchen. (And covered in parsley flakes, so shake 'em off if you don't care for the green menace.)
Among top entrees, the pecan-crusted, pounded-thin chicken breast arrives moist, fork-tender and unencumbered by unnecessary gravy. Side dishes of mesclun, sweet potatoes and grilled squash and peppers are assembled with grandmotherly care.
A white chicken pizza is just right for one. Light, floury crust supports not-too-thick layers of mild mozzarella, wilted fresh spinach and basil, fresh tomatoes and thick strips of white-meat chicken.
Choosing among the breakfast items, we were warned that the petite quiche Lorraine would take 30 minutes to bake, but we ordered it anyway. Worth the wait. Fluffy, creamy eggs, delicate crust. Comes with fruit and a wee pile of potato chunks that have been dredged lightly in flour before being fried to a golden crisp.
The tepid slab of shepherd's pie is the only disappointment. Made with beef, it properly should be called cottage pie (the other's made with lamb), but in any case, it's a weary facsimile of British pub grub. In ours, the meat was gristly, the potatoes overcooked and the gravy gummy. Three bites of the mess and we shoved it away. (Our waitress expressed concern for the uneaten portion but didn't offer to take it off the bill.)
"Our chef, Henry, is pretty grumpy," another server told us. "I've worked here nine months and only seen him smile four times."
Cheer up, Henry, because now we hail your genius as a pastry maker. Whatever Exposition Park Café is or wants to be—hangout, diner, watering hole, temporary post office for transient artistes—it is a fine place to eat something sweet.
The dessert offerings change daily, so try to get there when they haven't sold out of bourbon pecan pie. It's made with dark molasses, sugared pecan halves and just enough bourbon to give the nutty crunch a little burn as it goes down with a nibble of vanilla ice cream. Each serving is enough for two, but if you share, you'll be fork-jousting for the final bites.
Warm pumpkin bread pudding is a 6-inch-high wedge drizzled with caramel sauce and finished with a shake of cinnamon. "I could be buried with this," said our dining companion as he spooned it up with loud What About Bob? grunts of pleasure.
Bailey's cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake, banana cake teased with melted chocolate, triple fudge bourbon brownies...skip dinner entirely and gorge on these goodies. Then march back to the kitchen and hug grumpy ol' Henry.
Before it closed in 1980, there was a place like this in San Antonio called Hipp's Bubble Room. It had that naturally grown funky atmosphere that so many try to fake and fail at. You could hang around there watching the weird beards come in and out, gobbling cheap eats and feeling fine for hours at a time. They didn't ask if you were "enjoying" the food and didn't try to up-sell the entrees or the liquor. Two people could eat a decent meal and have enough dough left in the wallet for a midnight movie.
Exposition Park Café has that Hipp's hipness—by not trying to be, it simply is.
On one of our visits, a slow night for early diners, folk musician Guthrie Kennard strummed and sang under the oil painting of Bobby Darin (or is that Dean Martin? Hard to tell). He was joined by a friend with a bluesy harmonica. Neither seemed to mind the small crowd. It would pick up as the night wore on. Everybody around here eats in here. And even if you saw them earlier, they'll probably be back sooner than later.
841 S. Exposition Ave., 214-826-9500. 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to
4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. $