I first discovered Houston Market my very first day of class at Penn. At the time, it seemed magical, a food mecca. The options appeared endless, and really, I was thrilled about any opportunity to eat what I considered to be “real food” (i.e. anything not found in a dining hall). I sampled the sushi, the salads, the burritos from the now-defunct tacqueria as my Dining Dollar balance plummeted faster than my Econ grade. Eventually the novelty wore off and I began to ask myself: Why does anyone go to Houston?
First of all, the options are not endless in the slightest. There are the various stations of course, but mostly I’ve noticed that people get the same few things over and over again. Houston is not the place for experimentation, mostly because the majority of the food just isn’t that good. I know some people swear by the salads, but I always find them overdressed and watery. Plus, their meat selection leaves much to be desired, featuring tough steak and dry, often gristly chicken. The sandwiches don’t fare much better. For instance, I always thought it was fairly difficult to mess up the glorious caprese sandwich. Houston proved me wrong. Its version encases rubbery mozzarella and mealy tomato between soggy ciabatta slathered with a greasy pesto aioli. Where Houston really falls short, though, is with ethnic foods. The sushi is decent, but for those prices, you might as well go to POD (or Frogro, where you can get a 12-piece spicy tuna roll for about six bucks). The pre-prepared options are more often than not weak attempts at recreating dishes from around the world, but you’d really be better off going to a food truck where the food will most likely be cheaper and more authentic. And if you were excited about the new Asian station, I hate to break it to you, but it sucks. The ramen doesn’t hold a candle to Ramen Bar and the General Tso’s chicken is only okay. But avoid the beef bibimbap at all costs. For eight dollars, you get a bowl full of overcooked rice, a few vegetables, sauce that is unpleasantly reminiscent of Commons’ generic stir-fry sauce and two anemic slices of beef. The microscopic portion of meat in no way justifies the price. Do not order this.
And yet, from noon to two o’clock in the afternoon, Commons is packed—and not just with freshman, but also with upperclassmen, many of whom don’t have a meal plan and therefore have no Dining Dollars to spend. Why buy mediocre food at inflated prices when food trucks exist? Convenience barely counts as an argument, since the trucks are not only ideally located, but they’re often quicker, too. Even getting food at Magic Carpet at peak hours is faster than waiting on line for a salad at and then to pay for it at Houston. The truth is that food trucks are better in basically every way. They’re cheaper and offer a much wider variety. That’s not to say that every single food truck is spectacular, but there are more than enough respectable trucks to fight off the boredom that inevitably comes with eating at Houston too much.
I will concede that there are a few instances in which eating at Houston is a fairly reasonable choice. For the poor freshmen forced to be on an absurdly expensive dining plan and therefore likely lacking the funds to eat off-campus, any place accepting Dining Dollars is golden. Also, I have to say that the teriyaki bowls at Houston are delightful, because sometimes you just need a quick and relatively cheap meal of meat, refined carbs, and sugar. The grill has its draw since there isn’t really a food truck equivalent, and Bobby’s is a bit of a walk for a quick lunch. Plus, they have sweet potato fries, which everyone knows is food of the gods. And when you have a $0.56 balance in your checking account and you can either Bursar or starve, by all means get the sushi.
But in general, do yourself a favor and stop wasting your money and insulting your palate at Houston. Instead, try the food trucks for a cheaper and tastier meal. After all, every dollar saved at lunch is another dollar you have to spend at Smokes. If that’s not reason enough, I don’t know what is.