Thursday, January 9, 2014

Torchy's Tacos and the Story Behind 1037 Texas Avenue

Once again, my phone's camera interprets red neon as having a harsh orange effect. (September 2014)

Reading this post brings back a lot of memories for me, namely fall 2014 when Torchy's opened and I was living in Eastgate at the time. When I first wrote this post back in January 2014, this post was not on Torchy's (at that point, it being a Torchy's was a rumor), but rather the recently-closed Sully's Sports Bar & Grill, which was the rebranded Fowl Digits. The post URL (Something Fowl at 1037 Texas Avenue) and comments refer to this. At the time it was considered a "cursed" location for all the restaurants that had struggled there over the years, and at the time, Eastgate wasn't doing so hot either: there was no nightlife and pretty much your choices were Layne's as far as eating went.

Later on, I updated the post around September. This is why the picture on the top of the post is still early evening and no crowds, at that point, Torchy's had put up all signage but not yet open. After it opened (and yes, I did attend the public pre-opening party, and enjoyed free tacos and alcohol), it was pretty much impossible to take a daytime picture without crowds and cars blocking it.

The building itself is interesting and dates back decades, long before Fowl Digits and the parade of restaurants that followed. Here's a bit from The Eagle from its 1962 groundbreaking as Coach Norton's Pancake House, the first restaurant in the spot.

Coach Homer Norton, coach of the 1939 Texas Aggie national football champions, and his wife expect to break ground Monday or Tuesday for a $200,000 restaurant on Highway 6 in College Station. Norton, 56, was in the city Wednesday and today, making final arrangements for the ground breaking of the establishment to be known as "Coach Norton’s Pancake House." The approximately 200 - capacity edifice will be constructed on the corner of Highway 6 and Kyle Street in College Station. The former Aggie coach has a similar business in Rosenberg—-gathering place for members of the ’39 champs when A&M is playing football in Houston. Norton officially announced the new B-CS restaurant, which is to be completed in about four months, today. R. B. Butler is general contractor for the restaurant. "I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time," Norton stated. "Actually I feel like I’m coming home. We have many close, dear friends in College Station, Bryan and throughout the state. So many of them travel in and out of College Station it’s going be a great chance to visit. Actually I dreamed of this long before I quit coaching,” the white-haired Aggie mentor said. “I always wanted to do two things; own a motel and a real high class eating place.” After a 14-year tenure as head coach at A&M, Norton resigned the post in 1947 and opened his motel business in Rosenberg, "This place will be my big prize," he added, "and I imagine it will be the largest and finest of its kind between Dallas and Houston." The 200-seat restaurant will feature 25 varieties of Norton’s nationally famous pancakes as well as steak, shrimp, chicken and other foods. Completely carpeted throughout, the pancake house will provide the finest of kitchen equipment and fixtures, according to Norton, with all-around parking and an eight-foot covered walkway on the sides and front. Norton indicated a manager would be in charge of the establishment, as in Rosenberg, and that he would commute from Rosenberg. Coach Norton stated he would probably spend most of his time in College Station, however. The building was to be lined off today and set on the lot for construction to get under way immediately.

Sadly, Norton would not see his new restaurant for very long, as Homer Norton would pass away in 1965, but his legacy still stood (the motel in Rosenberg still exists as the Homer Norton Motel, though its existence is in question today). The Pancake House in College Station continued for a years afterward but closed in 1970 (by references we have now), but the building stood and changed hands many times.

One of the first restaurants to reoccupy was Fontana's Italian-Mexican Restaurant. This actually had no relation to the Fontana's that would later occupy it. The first reference to Fontana's appeared in 1970, not long at all after the demise of the Pancake House. Like the later incarnation, Fontana's would specialize primarily in Italian and newspaper references to Fontana's would continue into the late 1970s.

As time went on, the space saw many eateries come and go in a relatively short timespan, earning it a reputation of a "cursed location", intensifying the intrigue of what would be a lowly building that long would've met the bulldozers years ago.

The next location to occupy was Mama's Pizza. Mama's relocated from 807 Texas Avenue South, by 1986, Pinon's Restaurant (possibly actually PiƱon's) was in the old spot and Mama's had taken over at the Pancake House location.

Their old location was the old Oakridge Steakhouse (leading to confusion like how Oakridge Steakhouse was at this location). At that location, Mama's even gave out little paper moustaches to promote their restaurant.
From the Project HOLD collection

Mama's was gone by the late 1980s (moved to 1601 Texas Avenue South, later home to Bullwinkle's)

A 1993 directory (but not a 1993 phone book) lists "Shanghai Chinese Restaurant" as well as a 1996 directory, however, TexAgs claims that it was open for a "week or two", which seems to be a gross exaggeration.

It's plausible that Porky's Hamburgers, another spot, was actually open for "six weeks" (after all, Front Porch Grill didn't last a long time either). Additionally, Rockyano's Pizza was there as well, according to the thread.

Either way, a 1996 phone book lists "Shen Zhen Chinese Restaurant" (sushi restaurant mentioned in TexAgs, maybe?), and in February 1997, Snuffer's opened as per ribbon cutting information from the Chamber of Commerce. This is also a point of contention of when it existed: the College Station location was apparently closed in October 1997 due to the widening of Texas Avenue (you could say that the restaurant was "snuffed out" by the construction), but the date was wrong (widening was in 1998, and multiple other sources back Snuffers being in '98, not '97). It's possible that 1997 was correct but I wasn't around for the spectacle. After Snuffer's was El Arroyo (late 1990s/early 2000s), and then later Cazadores Mexican Restaurant (may have skipped another restaurant in there), and finally Fontana's Authentic Italian Food from 2009 to 2011.

From Fontana's Facebook page, which itself was from, which has since taken down this image

Note that this is a time when the sign wasn't triangular: this can be seen here.

It's unknown why they changed the sign, but Fowl Digits restored it to its original 1960s appearance.

In late 2011, some new owners bought the building and gave it a substantial remodeling, adding a semi-covered patio and making it appear like a modern building (with stucco) and less like a 1960s building with new paint. Fowl Digits opened in early 2012 (50 years since Coach Norton started out), but despite some flashy advertising, it had a number of problems from the beginning. The name wasn't especially attractive, as it's easy to aim for "quirky" and hit "turn-off".

The second problem was that it tried to go for the wrong market. At the very beginning, they were promoting the line of their restaurant, Raising Cane's, and Layne's as "Chicken Strip Row", but Fowl Digits wasn't aiming for the $6 meal of chicken fingers, Texas Toast, and fries: they were a sports bar (indeed, a drink coozie I have states that it's a "sports bar disguised as a chicken finger place") and had prices to match. It also had a bunch of TVs (literally dozens). The portion sizes weren't working out, either. I felt rather unhappy and still pretty hungry after spending $6 (that's without a drink, at the time $6.50 for a full meal was standard) for the "Chicken and Wawfuls", which was just that. No sides or anything save for some syrup. After a few months (by October), the owners of Fowl Digits decided that the "disguised restaurant" wasn't working and rebranded themselves as Sully's Sports Grill & Bar. That seemed to do better for them (even if the name switch seemed pretty desperate) as the menu expanded to add things like hamburgers. It still wasn't enough to gain a following (and reviews were mixed), and the slightly awkward location has caused the restaurant to not reopen after December 2013, living up to the "restaurant curse" label, which is a bit of a shame since the owners of Fowl Digits/Sully's seemed like nice people, not like the owner of Dragon One in Bryan.

As for why Sully's closed, I don't think it was the location at all, just a manner of confused marketing. The initial attempt was trying to pretend they were competition to Layne's and Raising Cane's when they really weren't, then when that failed, they switched to a fairly generic "sports bar" type joint with overpriced bar food and a bunch of TVs. There weren't any pool tables and they couldn't even have glass glasses for beer. Any nonsense you heard on MyBCS like "People don't like $8-9 meals" is only partially true--$8-9 for a small plate of mediocre food won't cut it anywhere.

After the rumor of Torchy's was confirmed in early 2014, in summer, the demolition of Sully's commenced. It wasn't a total demolition (nor was it the "everything but a few walls" demolition that happened to the Deluxe Diner or Egg Roll House) but did strip off nearly every element that the Fowl Digits/Sully's owners added on, including exposing the Fontana metal siding before replacing that too. It also dismantled the 1960s era triangular sign for the purposes of more outdoor seating, instead opting to have a large sign facing Texas Avenue with a huge colorful neon sign with the "baby devil" logo.

Here are a few more pictures I got of the building, in both its post-Sully's days and pre-Torchy's Tacos days.

The Fowl Digits/Sully's patio shortly after it closed in late 2013.
Side view.
Torchy's September 2014. Almost the exact same view of the Sully's side view above. Compare and contrast!
Looking in
A closer look at the red and white. These are road reflectors!

It opened October 16th but I got into the building early and took a few pictures of the soda fountain and menu, though oddly the menu boards were replaced before opening.

1037 Texas Avenue South

Feel free to leave comments. Updated September 2014 with new title, photos, and substantial information. Updated July 2015 with further integration, and finally some updates in August 2016 to officially add to new list.