It’s 10:30 on Sunday morning at Hanz Diner, a breakfast spot off I-45 near the North Loop, and Salvador Barrera is reviewing the tickets lined up at his grill.
“Cuatro ... siete ... nueve ... once! Once!” He cracks two eggs into a saucepan over a scalding-hot stove, then flips them repeatedly. Within 10 seconds the eggs are perfectly scrambled. He tosses them onto a plate.
Wearing a black apron and striped pants, he looks like a ninja as he turns back to the tickets. His fellow line cook tosses him a pork chop, which he places in one corner of the grill, topping it with paprika. He transfers a pile of golden-brown hash browns to a plate, then grabs a bowl of raw shredded potatoes. They hit the grill. He turns his attention back to scrambling eggs. Meanwhile, the tickets keep coming in. It’ll be like this for another three hours.
Barrera has been Hanz’s lead cook since the place opened in 2015, but he’s been working in kitchens in Houston and California since the early ’90s. And his specialty is breakfast.
“It’s my life, man,” he says. “That’s the first thing I learned.”
There’s little time to waste once the weekend rush begins, so preparation during the week is crucial. Employees peel and shred up to 250 pounds of potatoes Wednesday through Friday ahead of each weekend. Chops, chicken cutlets, and steaks are vacuum-sealed and defrosted over two days in a cooler, so they’re ready to go when Saturday morning hits.
Barrera always clocks in at five on weekends to prep eggs, grits, and hash browns. He does everything from chopping vegetables to removing tails from shrimp, while doling out advice to a second line cook. At ten, as the tickets begin piling up, he takes over at the grill, flipping bacon and hash browns, squirting pancake mix into perfect circles, and heating up the occasional chop.
“Salvador! Five minutes!” shouts a third cook working a few feet away. Hanz Diner—part of the Frank’s Grill family—is famous for its fried chicken breakfasts, meaning someone spends an entire shift dropping poultry into the fryer and reporting back to Barrera. Once that’s about three minutes away, he starts the eggs.
“I make the tickets without fried food first,” he says. “But I check my tickets and he checks his tickets. We’re working together.”
Disasters are rare. The worst: He once badly burned his wrist with a splash of bacon grease, but, he explains, he put “Mexican stuff” on it.
“We use egg whites,” he says, as well as other remedies. “Tomatoes or mustard. I just throw the mustard and egg whites in a potato peel.” In a pinch, the potato peel can act as a bandage.
In the warm, loud, narrow kitchen, Barrera keeps everything in his head—the prep schedules, the recipes, and all the many steps that lead to a family of six getting their order at the same time, still hot. Watching Barrera slide and pivot nimbly on his fourth pair of black, non-slip shoes this year, we realize his job is half science, half art. But to the no-nonsense line cook wielding dual spatulas like appendages, it’s simply second nature.
“I love what I do,” he says, as another ticket hits the line.