Hoover Alexander and the Soular Food Garden
A whole new take on soul food
By MM Pack, Fri., Feb. 24, 2012
Chef/restaurateur Hoover Alexander doesn't make much distinction between food and folk, community and service, honoring traditions and promoting positive change. These are all part of his worldview, and when he's talking about any one of these topics, the discussion tends to morph into the others. For him, they're facets of the same big subject: Austin is a place he loves, and good food not only provides nourishment and pleasure, it's also a means to build community, to educate, and to demonstrate generosity.
If a person can be an institution, then Hoover is an Austin institution. A fifth-generation Texan, he comes from a line of accomplished cooks, and he started his 30-year culinary career at the legendary Night Hawk restaurant. He's long been involved in East Side neighborhood activities as well as in the larger Austin food community; he's best known for Hoover's Cooking on Manor Road. Since 1998, it's been a bastion of classic Central Texas cooking, celebrating everything from barbecue to fruit cobbler, enchiladas to meat loaf, collards to catfish to chicken-fried steak.
With Hoover's Cooking as the flagship, Hoover developed locations in Northwest Austin and San Antonio, but now he's circled back to his East Austin roots with some new ideas, new energies, and a new venue: the Soular Food Garden at 12th & Waller. "The divine stirring of the pudding," as he calls it, has created the circumstances to realize a long-standing dream: a food-centered, outdoor community space in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Four months ago, the space was a vacant lot with a few spreading oaks and a lot of weeds. Today, it's a pleasant venue with three food trailers, a small stage, gravel paths, picnic tables, a volleyball court, and gently smoking chimeneas. Most importantly, there's a garden with raised beds of vegetables and herbs, a bubbling fountain, and mosaic benches built by students at the Alternative Learning Center on the former Anderson High School campus nearby. "The garden will expand," Hoover says, "and we'll be collecting rainwater to help water it."
Hoover's got plans for demonstrations of cooking and vegetable gardening, and he's sponsoring regular free musical events under the trees. One balmy Saturday in January, a lineup of performers included legend Jesse Sublett playing for diners enjoying Hoover's barbecue and vegetables, as well as Cajun and Italian specialties prepared by chefs Kent and Robin O'Keefe of the Osmo's Kitchen truck. Hoover's Sweet House trailer offers Texas Coffee Traders drinks and desserts by Thai Fresh, Mr. CinnaMan, Sweet N Dirty Treats, and Lil' Mama's Delicious Desserts 'N More. He says there's lots more room: "We're looking for additional food trailers to join us."
While conquering some health issues a few years back, Hoover committed to some big lifestyle changes that include regular exercise and mindful eating. He sees the Soular Food Garden as a place for neighbors to share the pleasures and benefits of exercising and eating well. He calls the menu at his food truck "veggie-centric homestyle cooking." Not exclusively vegetarian, the soups, wraps, and plates focus on produce – some raw, some cooked, some prepared with chicken, cheese, and eggs (supplied by HausBar Farms hens, just two miles away).
Hoover combines exercise and local history with his "walking for wellness" jaunts around the neighborhood on Saturday mornings. "Whoever wants to join me is welcome," he says. "We walk from the garden to the old Johnson High School athletic field." The route passes historic homes and local gardens, including the one at Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church that Hoover helped install and maintain. "This part of the city contains a lot of history," he says, "I'd like people to know about it."
For 30-plus years, the evolution of near East Austin neighborhoods has been complicated and often contentious; longtime residents, newcomers, developers, and city planners have had very different ideas about what the area should be and how it should look. Hoover envisions the Soular Food Garden as a space for convergence and common interests – health and wellness, good food, gardening, walking, cycling, music, theater, local history.
Various local groups are demonstrating support, including Austin Fit Magazine, the Sustainable Food Center, Take Back the Trail, and the Major Taylor Austin cycling club. The venture also caught the attention of Atlanta TV chef G. Garvin; he was on-site a couple of weeks ago, filming for a new Cooking Channel show.
"A garden can be healing place," Hoover says. "I want the Soular Food Garden to be that for East Austin."