Staci Davis isn't afraid of making moves that others may deem questionable. When Davis opened her vegan taqueria in the summer of 2011, critics derided her choice of menu—Mexican food made without lard? Tex-Mex without beef fajitas or pork tamales?—as well as her choice of location, far outside the mainstream areas of Houston in which vegan and vegetarian cuisines...well, they don't thrive, but are more well-received.
But over the next two years, Davis built Radical Eats into a local favorite in its improbable Northside neighborhood. Lunch services were packed daily with a socioanthropologists's dream cross-section of hardcore hippies, suited-up businessmen, unapologetic hipsters, blue-collar workers, and local residents in this heavily Hispanic area just north of downtown. Sunday brunch sold out every week without fail. Houston Chronicle food critic Alison Cook named Radical Eats one of her 100 favorite restaurants in the city, noting that the "scruffy little upstart" offered "flavors [that] are positively joyful."
Scruffy, however, was long a word used to describe Radical Eats for better and for worse. For as many diners who found the taqueria charming, others were turned off by the tumbledown building, the overgrown yard out back, and its mismatched ceiling tiles with an Asian dragon motif. Parking was a constant issue, as was construction on the light rail line that Davis had originally thought would be an asset.
So in a bold move, Davis has decided to pick up her entire operation and relocate to a more modern location at 507 Westheimer, the former home of another vegan-heavy operation, Roots Bistro. When it initially opened under chef German Mosquera (now at Restaurant Cinq) in January 2012, Roots offered a nearly all-vegetarian menu, but changed directions when a new chef was hired and seemed to lose its way entirely before closing last month.
After closing, the Lower Westheimer location was a hot topic among local restaurateurs. Chef David Guerrero was eyeing it for his own concept, but Davis got to it first and now plans to move in "as fast as humanly possible." Not just so she can start serving once again, but also so she can open up the cashflow necessary to make the kind of improvements she's been dreaming about since 2011.
"The last time you came by the oven broke just as we were putting your entree in the oven," Davis told me with a laugh. "That's the kind of thing we needed more money to avoid." Even though she did a brisk business at her location on Fulton, the kitchen and dining room were both limited in size, capping her profits and thwarting her attempts to update the old space.
In an even bolder move, Davis has also decided to do away with the vegan concept that defined Radical Eats. Although vegan and vegetarian cuisine will still be emphasized, she's adding a range of new options and ingredients to her menu to go along with the increased kitchen and dining space. Yes, that includes meat.
When I saw Davis a few weeks ago, she told me about her plans to add free-range, locally-raised meats as well as locally-procured dairy products and yard eggs to the menu. She admitted that some of her diehard vegan customers were furious with her decision, even calling in to a radio show she was appearing on as a guest and lambasting her on-air. "What are you going to do?" she asked, with a rhetorical shoulder shrug.
"The majority of my customers are not vegan or vegetarian," says Davis. And while she made a career out of vegan catering before opening Radical Eats, Davis herself isn't vegan or vegetarian. "My customers simply enjoy good, fresh, healthy, and interesting foods, and they believe in and enjoy community and sustainability."
Davis continued: "I can be true to what I stand for as well as offer what my customers want by providing them with a restaurant that caters to the values of locally, sustainably raised foods that include vegetables and fruit, dairy and meat."
The Roots Bistro location presented the perfect location in which to redefine Radical Eats, Davis said, as it was already built out and ready to go—including the adjoining juice bar space in which she plans to offer a full coffee, juice, and tea bar of her own.
In typical Montrose spirit, Davis and Radical Eats are already being welcomed to the neighborhood by customers and competitors alike. "We had just finished taking our business plan to [Hugo's owner] Tracy Vaught and she advised us that we didn't have enough of a budget and that we should look at a closed restaurant," reports Davis. "I had just read about Roots so we popped on over 'just to see' and we had a tacit agreement by the end of the night."
The Roots Bistro space (which was previously the site of Cafe Moustache, which was previously So Vino) has long begged for a tenant that can pack its bi-level dining room, inviting wine bar, and canopied patio. Although there's been some notable hand-wringing lately about whether or not the Lower Westheimer restaurant scene is in decline following the closure of Feast and Jeannine's Bistro, Radical Eats seems poised to put those worries to rest. Besides, Radical Eats isn't the only established restaurant to make its move on Montrose: Jus' Mac is opening its third location inside the old Jeannine's Bistro spot as we speak.