Food Issue Extra Helpings: I'm Waiting for My Ham
A few lines about the lines around Austin
By Chase Hoffberger, 12:30PM, Mon. Feb. 10
Titaya’s reopened on North Lamar last Monday, and an entire subculture of this great city celebrated. Eleven months of renovations had kept the much beloved Thai food shop shuttered, with rumors concerning its reopening stunning the city upon every mention.
The conversation concerning its eventual restoration opened in earnest last June, when an unofficial Facebook page launched articulating Titaya’s imminent recommencement. Fans signed on only to watch that date push back toward December after only three weeks' time. Not ready by its due date, the shop again delayed until Jan. 1, a date that in turned beckoned the news that the restaurant would open Jan. 25. Wouldn’t you believe Jan. 25 turned into Feb. 1?
By February more than 900 people had signed up for the “Event.” When Titaya’s finally did reopen – on Monday, Feb. 4, four days and one fortuitous weekend after its most staidly anticipated target date – the champions of chicken gang panang were met with hour-plus delays throughout both lunch and dinner.
Outside at Titaya’s that evening, couples sat along the thin platform entryway in 50-degree weather examining stray menus over borrowed wine glasses. Tables inside turned over slowly, with many staying unoccupied so as to – one would suspect – weather the storm of their heavily skewed supply-and-demand status on their first night under operations.
“I guess they’re just figuring their shit out,” one guy pouring over new specials confided to his girlfriend. “Let’s just go to Half Price Books,” said another. A third walked up, saw the mass formed around the newly renovated double-door entrance, and stopped right there in his tracks. They all decided to wait the wait out.
This city and its eaters have a line problem. We’ve grown too comfortable with lines.
Forget the fact that this was a night in which conventional wisdom would suggest a restaurant working its first night with a completely revamped layout and menu would be a little less on its A-game than other restaurants that would warrant an hour-long line. This was a Tuesday, not exactly Date Night in America. Yet still, a Thai restaurant in Austin was able to maintain an hour-long queue for much of the day’s designated eating times.
Anybody who argues in defense of the minuscule nature of an hour wait is part of the problem on this issue. Austin is smack dab into one of the greatest gastronomical renaissances any American city has ever experienced, with chefs moving to town to open restaurants and food trucks at every turn – not to mention the bevy of perfectly good restaurants that’ve existed for decades already. Yet, every afternoon and every evening, the same stock of shops will have lines that wrap around the block.
“Are we running out of food?” asks local author and three-time Jeopardy! champion Neal Pollack, whose Dial-a-Crank Twitter account minces no meat concerning the simple thinking that goes into waiting multiple hours for food. “I don’t think so! I understand waiting in line for 4.5 hours if that was the only way you could get food. If that were the only food available, yes, I would wait in line. But it’s not. I can walk to a half dozen decent restaurants in five minutes. I can drive to forty more.”
The phenomenon’s most egregious at three different restaurants: Hopdoddy Burger Bar on South Congress, Ramen Tatsu-ya off 183, and Franklin Barbecue on East 11th, where the situation’s gotten so serious that there’s now a second market renting folding chairs for weekend waiters existing in Franklin’s singular ecosystem. Occupancy at those three restaurants during any standard meal time will require waits of up to an hour every time, with very few hits on the under.
“It’s because we’re trendy idiots,” suggests Pollack. “In particular, people in their 20s think nothing of it. It’s like waiting to get into a club. It’s like you’re waiting in line trying to get into Studio 54.”
Like Studio 54, lines around the aforementioned accumulate because what they offer warrants recognition. But an hour-and-a-half-long line stretching into the Franklin parking lot on January 28, a day so cold and disgusting that even the Chronicle ran an article about it, borders on the extreme. So too does the notion of hiring a New Orleans-style brass band to preoccupy weekend waiters in a three-hour line.
It’s time that we stop sacrificing our days to dine on the sanctity of certain sacrificial lambs (cows, curries, or noodles). Go down the street and try something else. There are, you know, plenty of options: plenty of burgers (there’s a second, entirely less frequented Hopdoddy just a few miles north!); plenty of barbecue joints in East Austin; and plenty of places for transfused Asian noodles. Michi Ramen is but a four-minute drive away, and nobody there will try to rush you out of your seat.
“At the end of the day, all you’re doing is sitting down and eating a bowl of noodles,” Pollack concludes. “You’re out in 20 minutes. You’re not really getting anything. Once you get inside, all you get as a reward is a decent meal.”
Read more Extra Helpings stories at austinchronicle.com/daily as we lead up to the release of our special annual food issue. The Austin Chronicle’s First Plates Awards & Food Issue is on stands Thursday, February 13.