The notion of suburban life as the embodiment of failed utopianism is nothing new. From such movies as The Ice Storm, American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, it's evident that life on city outskirts is not only environmentally unsustainable, but also emotionally deadening.
However, I was ready to give the burbs a roll of the dice when I learned of an opening of a new-age organic restaurant in The Woodlands — PURE. I'd previously been to The Woodlands twice in my life.
When my family moved to Houston in the late 1980s, my parents favored the scenery of The Woodlands because it reminded them of Colorado ski resort towns (I know), but were ultimately turned off by the public schools boasting a "warm Christian atmosphere." I didn't make a return trip for 17 years, for a performance by The Cure and Interpol (it was 2004) at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
The idea of forcing music fans to drive an hour to sit under the blistering sun and barely catch the poor acoustics of a performing act never again caught my fancy.
But the prospect of eating fancy food, combined with the fact that my mom is all about gluten-free everything, encouraged us to make the schlep up I-45. The press release boasted menu items that are "masterpieces of local, organic and hormone-free offerings that were carefully crafted." Sold.
PURE is located in what I gather is a typical strip mall in the Woodlands: ensconced in trees, as to simulate a bucolic setting and minimize driver visibility. The restaurant is situated in a cluster of retail vacancies atop a freshly-paved parking lot. When we walked inside, we found a mélange of vaguely hip suburbanites clinking cups.
Yet there was little food to be had. After the monumental schlep to the restaurant, the live music act had already left the building, and whatever masterpieces are on PURE's menu were not on tap. No tables or chairs were in sight, although a surly catering staff manned a table of depleted cheeses and crackers.
When mom asked if the crackers were in fact gluten-free, she received a quizzical look and a "What does that even mean?" from the staff.
It seemed as though PURE had mastered a level of greenwashing that even the inner city can't compete with. Like the attendees' hair color and handbags, nothing about the restaurant is real. Adding to the culinary catastrophe was a table littered with individual bags of Lay's BBQ Ranch potato chips. "Classy," I smirked.
If not a full meal, I'd at least anticipated tasting the restaurant's menu items. Instead, I was directed to a freezer case, where certain selections are available for purchase. "You can even use our own microwave," offered a generous staff member. I just stared at her.
It seemed more polite than saying, "Who are you?"
The press release's promise of "an area of urban sophistication" was nowhere to be seen. Even Miss Houston Taylor Lanning, the event's guest of honor, was MIA. Instead, we found ourselves eating a few cubes of cheddar while flipping through an issue of plastic surgery magazine Health & Fitness with Erica Rose on the cover.
After reading the starlet's interview about her tooth-brushing regimen, we lifted our heads and instinctively knew that we both wanted to leave. Next door was a Thai restaurant — which was already closing.
The people of the Woods are not particularly interested in ethnic food, nor staying out late. We struck gold with our next attempt at La Trattoria Tuscano, an Italian eatery with, surprisingly, no relation to the Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill.
Stepping out into the still of the suburban night, we put on a Neil Young-heavy playlist and started the long trek back into the big city. With that first glimpse of the north view of the skyline, I heaved a sigh of relief.
I understand the appeal of The Woodlands — the forested scenery can be breathtaking, it's quiet and I've been told that there are bits of culture speckling the neighborhoods. If I had to choose a suburb, I'd find myself in a McMansion up there.
Until then, I'll avoid the two-hour trip to use a microwave.