Fresh off the release date of his new album, Release Me, and right at the start of a tour with John Hiatt, Houstonian musician and celebrity Lyle Lovett took time out of his busy travel schedule to chat with Eater Houston about food.
Lovett gave us the scoop on all his favorite local restaurants, places he makes it a point to dine at when on the road and offers his thoughts on food, farming and his grandmother's homemade jelly.
In a recent interview, you mentioned that your grandmother would fix you after school snacks. What are some you remember?
My grandmother always made her own jelly, and so one of my favorite snacks after school was just white toast with butter and jelly.
What kind of jelly?
She made really great peach preserves and always had blackberry jelly. Because blackberries out there were plentiful and come blackberry season we'd always pick blackberries and so, that was really one of my favorite snacks.
Tell us about growing up on a farm in Klein, Texas.
On the farm, in those days, my mom was from a family of seven children, and my grandfather (his name was Adam Klein), he had one of the largest farms in Harris County. Back in those days, as you know, the local farmers supplied the local markets. My uncle Calvin still has a cattle business. He has a cow-calf operation on our place, there in Klein. He cites the advent of refrigerated trucking as sort of the demise of the local farmer, because before refrigerated trucking became so prevalent and efficient, local markets were, you know, supplied by local farmers. Where I grew up in north Harris County really was a big part of what people ate around Houston. Things have changed in a big way since then, but that's how things were.
Well, it looks like things are headed back toward local again.
It's nice to see people interested in quality, really giving thought to what they like to eat. It's nice to be able to eat a tomato that's ripened on the vine as opposed to being picked early so that it ripens in a truck or in the store.
Is cattle the only thing still coming out of your family's farm now?
Yes. We're not really growing any vegetables. But there are some local growers still in the area. I don't know if you're familiar with Atkinson Farms down on Spring Cypress, but their growing season starts in the spring and you can go right into their place and buy fresh produce.
When you come into the city, where do you like to eat?
When I'm home, I make the rounds and try to go to all my favorite places. Gosh, one of my favorite places to go for Mexican food is The Original Ninfa's on Navigation. A great, small Mexican café is Andy's in the Heights. Andy's is open 24-hours, so that was one of our regular stops after playing gigs back in the old days. For a really great dining experience, I love going to RDG and the old Café Annie. Houston wouldn't be the same with them. Around home, I like going to Strack Farms restaurant on Louetta, that's a really great place. There's a place called Santa Fe Flats on 249. It's a New Mexican-style place. They fly in green chiles, Hatch chiles, every week from New Mexico and they do a roasted Hatch chile there that's just like being in New Mexico. It's really good and really different. Not Tex-Mex at all. Another one of my favorite Mexican food places is the Rancho Grande in Tomball. There's several Rancho Grandes in our area now, but the one in Tomball's the one I usually go to. Real Tex-Mex.
I know you're an Aggie, what are your favorite places in College Station?
Café Eccell does a great job in College Station. That's one of my favorite places. One of my favorite hamburger places is called Koppe Bridge. And I think it's closed down, but my go-to Mexican place in Bryan was Los Nortenos. It was a real institution.
Any other restaurants you'd like to send a shout-out to?
Can I mention my favorite restaurant in New York? This is a chef I got to know in 1990 or so, and we ended up being motorcycle riding buddies. He's just amazing. His name's David Bouley. And he has an amazing restaurant in Tribeca. He hosted the band and I last week. We were up in New York doing a press trip and he invited us in for dinner one night. We had an amazing tasting menu there at Bouley. I highly regard him. Dean Fearing's restaurant up in Dallas is another great one. My favorite barbecue places are the City Meat Market in Giddings, and of course Cooper's Bar-B-Que. Another great Mexican place in Fort Worth is Joe T Garcia's. And of course, Nobu. Our favorite Nobu is in Los Angeles, and Nobu is often there and he comes out and says "hello" to everybody, which is great.
What's one meal that stands out for you over the past year?
Oh gosh. If I pick one I'd make my friends mad.
That's one thing that I really do enjoy about being on the road, though. I'm in Milwaukee today, and there's one really great (and we're staying downtown in Milwaukee), and there's an area close to downtown called the Third Ward, you know, kinda like our areas in Houston, and it's kind of an artsy neighborhood and it's got great restaurants and it's been revitalized in the last 20 years here in Milwaukee. There's a really nice little French-style restaurant called Coquette Café. And that's kinda how our travels go. I start looking forward to the cities we're going to and thinking about getting to go to some of my favorite restaurants, places that I've learned about over the years.
Is it a big deal when you go out to dinner, or do people leave you alone (because you're a celebrity)?
People are nice. And around home, I see people every day when I'm in the Houston area, people that I've known my whole life. I see people that I went to grade school with, and being home is just normal, like anybody. I guess one of the chances I've gained is getting to meet people like Robert Del Grande and go in the kitchen and watch him work, see a little bit behind the scenes, and I really enjoy that. It's just amazing what they do with food. Just amazing.
Do you like to cook?
No! But I really love to eat. My girlfriend, April Kimble is a wonderful cook. My favorite meals in the last, well 14 years really, have been because of her, the meals that we have at home. Because she's really wonderful and reads about cooking and knows about cooking more than I ever will. I'm a good tester for her.
Does she have a signature dish?
Everything she does is really great. A lot of times we'll do something very straightforward, but just the was she does it is incredible. Especially in the spring and summer, we'll grill and she gets the prime beef from HEB. HEB has really wonderful beef. She'll grill up some filets or ribeyes from HEB, and complement them with fresh vegetables with Atkinson Farms. It's really wonderful, just how fresh it all is. Another one of our favorite grocery stores in the Houston area is Hubbell & Hudson up in The Woodlands. They do a really amazing job. And if we're in town, we'll make it a point to stop by either Central Market or Whole Foods, just depending on where we are in town. We don't have those kind of stores out in north Harris County. But I tell you, that prime beef at HEB, in terms of beef you get at the supermarket, it's our favorite in the area. We do occasionally eat our own beef [off their farm] too, and that's really good. When you butcher your own calf, you end up with a lot of meat, so we don't always do that.
Are there any songs that you've written that have been inspired by food or a meal?
A lot of my songs have food references. I think it's because food is such a fundamental part of life. It's as basic and necessary as the air we breath, and certainly, what we need from each other in terms of human relationships. Food is such an important connector in terms of the emotional relationships that we have in life, and I think it can be a great way to underscore what we feel for one another.