When I was a child I would sometimes accompany my mother to a part of Houston known as the “village” near Rice University and the Texas Medical Center. Back then a Weingarten’s grocery store was the center of the area but it was surrounded by a number of family owned shops that fascinated me. One in particular was a toy store with a thriving doll hospital. I thought the whole area was quite lovely and I dreamed of one day living nearby and walking to the bustling shopping area to get whatever I needed.
Over time the grocery store faded away and Rice Village became more of a mecca for dining and shopping in unique little stores. We often drove there to visit a train shop for supplies when my husband was creating a model railroad landscape in our garage. Mostly though we met his parents at what would become one of our all time favorite restaurants, El Meson. The Cuban food there was extraordinary and we each had our favorite dishes almost always accompanied by black beans, rice and fried green plantains.
As our family grew we continued to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and special occasion at El Meson. For years there was a particular waiter who provided us with world class service. He was elegantly dignified and a master of his craft. The food of course was always incredible as well and we revelled in the many memories that we had created there.
When my mother-in-law died it did not feel the same for a very long time. We realized that the joy of a particular place more often lies in the people who accompany us there. Eventually, however, we missed the Palomilla, Solomillo and other favorites. We finally returned to a less familiar place with a slightly different vibe than we had remembered. Our usual waiter was gone and without him and my mother-in-law there would always be something wonderful missing but the food was still quite good and before long we had resurrected our family gatherings there.
The last time we ate at El Meson, or attempted to eat there, was on my father-in-law’s birthday. We had planned a big family bash for him but just as everyone arrived a storm blew in. As we were being seated we heard a big boom and all of the power went out in the entire area. We waited for a bit in the hopes that it would be a momentary interruption but it soon became apparent that it would be hours before the needed repairs were completed. We had to leave because the cooks were unable to operate in the kitchen.
We planned to return at another time but life took members of the family in many different directions and then came COVID 19. We have not been inside any restaurant since the beginning of last March and somehow just getting take out from El Meson loses far too much in the translation. It is in the shared delight and the memories of good times there that the restaurant is at its best. The joy and the laughter are the spices that make the food exceptional. Without them it feels as though something is missing and that something is people.
I long for the time when family gatherings in favorite places will once again become a normal way of life. I hope that most of us will be able to join one another in a wonderful celebration at El Meson. I like to imagine my father-in-law at the head of the table regaling us with his stories and jokes while we sip on our wine or Dos Equis or iced tea. The whole room will be animated by the love at our table as we remember all of the times when we felt so blessed and happy. We’ll no doubt end our soiree with flan and coffee, a sweet tradition that I can almost taste just thinking about it.
I sometimes worry that El Meson will drastically change or even go away. It is a small business run by a family for decades now. I’m not even sure that it is still in the hands of the same people or that the cooks know how to prepare the standard recipes anymore. So much has changed so quickly while we attempt to eliminate COVID 19. Places that we assumed would always be the same are struggling to survive. I hope that El Meson does not become a sad statistic in the virus saga.
I’m a student of history. I understand the evolution of the world around us. There are upheavals and things change. It is quite rare for time to stand still even in the guise of a restaurant. Even without a pandemic it is unlikely that anything will stay exactly the same. I just want at least one more gathering of my little clan at El Meson that is as close to the old times as possible. Perhaps with a few more vaccinations and a bit of good luck we might have a triumphant return in the summer or fall.
I can see the quirky artwork on the walls. I can hear the classic Spanish music. I feel the starched white napkin covering my lap. I wait expectantly for all of the members of our party to arrive. I get a little catch in my heart as I see them through the big glass window. I know that for the next few hours time will stop and worries will vanish. We will celebrate family and all the while we will know that my mother-in-law is smiling down at us. All will be well at El Meson.