"Remember when The Hobbit Cafe served vegetarian food?" chuckled my co-worker John Lomax today as he emailed me a photo of a sidewalk sandwich board, its chalkboard inset decorated with a colorfully rendered beast with furious green eyes and an announcement: "NEW NEW NEW NEW NEW!!! THE BALROG BURGER"
The Hobbit Cafe
2243 Richmond Ave.
The sign had come from The Hobbit Cafe, the burger named—as with most of its other menu items—after characters or places from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth mythology.
In Tolkien's legendarium, Balrogs were ancient shape-shifting beings that used fire and swords to vanquish their enemies. In movie form, "the" Balrog encountered in Moria by Gandalf, the Hobbits, et al in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was rendered as more of a dragon with a flaming whip-like weapon. The change really was necessary when you think about it; how else was Peter Jackson going to portray a shape-shifting fire beast?
Change has been necessary over the years at The Hobbit Cafe, too. When it first opened as The Hobbit Hole Cafe on South Shepherd Dr. in 1971, it served an all-vegetarian menu—something quite novel at the time—and continued to do so until 1977. By that time, The Hobbit Hole had figured out that Houstonians cannot live on vegetables alone, and smartly added a few fish- and meat-based dishes to its repertoire. Still, its reputation continued to thrive on the fact that Hobbit was a reliable destination for vegetarian fare (and Tolkien paraphernalia, because Houston in the 1970s was nothing if not determinedly weird).
Twenty years later, The Hobbit Hole was in decline. A 1998 copy of the Zagat Survey noted rather unappreciatively of The Hobbit Hole that while the restaurant served "great veggie burgers," all the restaurant had going for it was "the cool name, and that's about it." The next year's copy of the Zagat Survey declined to even list The Hobbit Hole in its hallowed, maroon-bound pages—possibly because the restaurant had been forced to vacate the location on Shepherd it had occupied for 26 years, though it soon found a new home on Richmond Ave. off Kirby Dr.
The Hobbit Cafe—now renamed—took advantage of this move to new location to renovate its menu and transform the sprawling space outside the faux-Tudor building into a patio where patrons were encouraged to linger. Burgers—with meat in them!—were added. A new wine list, at first, then a few years later a surprisingly well-curated and well-priced craft beer list gave diners more options. Yet the old favorites—sandwiches such as The Shire, its homemade tabbouleh topped with avocado slices and sprouts—remained. The Hobbit Cafe had found a way to remain relevant while embracing its history.
Today, we see a once all-vegetarian outfit eagerly embracing the carnivores among us with that so-called Balrog Burger: a double-meat monstrosity with appropriately fiery toppings befitting its name. In between the buns you'll find stuffed jalapeños, regular jalapeños, and chipotle mayo (along with some mushrooms and avocado for good measure). The Hobbit Cafe asks: "Can you slay the beast?"
I haven't found out yet, but I certainly intend to.