In Houston, Where Bush Still Drops In

Posted: August 18, 1992

HOUSTON — There are folks around here who remember him as a lanky young congressman who strolled in with jacket slung over his shoulder and sleeves rolled up.

He's not around much these days, but his picture stares down from the walls in some places - youthful, eager, with that lopsided grin that has aged with him.

Now, most of what they see of him is on television.

"He looks tired," says Rosanna Molina, 34, the manager of Molina's.

Molina's is a restaurant that began serving Mexican food long before Corona beer and body shots became the yuppie rage. And it helped make a convert of a transplanted New Englander who had come South to make his fortune in oil and his name is politics.

George Bush still stops by now and then.

The President is a man of habit, and when he comes home to Houston he heads back to the joints that he found comfortable as a young nobody. He still goes to the same restaurants, jogs at the same track, and drops in at the same church.

He even orders the same food at some places (no broccoli, thanks).

Of course, these days he's as likely to send the Secret Service over to fetch his ribs as go himself, but there's still something revealing about his old haunts. They aren't always what one would expect of a man who was born into the monied East Coast establishment. Some don't even put napkins on the table.

Here are his favorite hang-outs.

OTTO'S BARBECUE. This is the real thing, a roadside restaurant where hamburgers are served out front, but an arrow beckons aficionados to the barbeque in the back.

The place fills up with police officers, lawyers and others who make the 10-minute drive from downtown. They slide brown plastic trays along the counter to collect their orders. Extra iced tea is free, dispensed from a plastic jug in the back room.

Bush has been coming to Otto's "since he was an oilman," says manager June Sofka.

When was that?

"Oh, God, babe. . . . The '50s, probably," she says.

He always orders the ribs and links, she says. He's had them delivered to the White House on occasion.

Bush has been in three times since becoming president, but Sofka has never chatted with him face to face.

That didn't keep Bush, ever the politician, from acting as though they were best buddies last time he called the restaurant.

"He came on the line, saying 'June, how are you?' " she recalls. "It made me feel good, even if he didn't really know me, and faked his way through."

Sofka admits she's soft on Mario Cuomo, and would have voted for him had he run. A lot of her customers worked for Ross Perot, she adds. But now Bush has their vote - if he'd just run a little harder.

"Seems like I'm more worried about his being down in the polls than he is," she says. "Every time I see pictures of him, he's out golfing or boating."

HUNAN. Every time Bush visits this grand old Chinese restaurant, the place loses a dozen white cotton napkins - Bush autographs them, and patrons take them home.

The President usually gets a standing ovation. Hunan, an opulant restaurant with red carpets and gilded walls and sculptures, sits smack in the middle of three of Houston's richest, most Republican neighborhoods, River Oaks and Memorial, and Tanglewood. The Bushes used to live in Tanglewood, so he frequently runs into his old neighbors here.

Bush has been coming here since the restaurant opened 16 years ago, around when he was ambassador to China, and is partial to the Peking Duck.

"He handles chopsticks well," says Gigi Huang, 28, the manager.

Secret Service agents stand over the cooks while they prepare Bush's meal.

R.J.'S BOOT CO. Bush has never visited Rocky Carroll's dusty shop on a strip north of downtown, but Carroll's boots have visited Bush's feet many times.

Carroll has made 20 pairs of cowboy boots for Bush - not that Bush has asked him to, mind you. Carroll is a tireless promoter - or patriot, if you ask him - and he loves giving away his fancy, customized boots to Bush, people at the State Department, and foreign dignitaries.

The publicity has also brought him thousands of orders, and he sells many boots in the $4,800 range.

"Seems like the whole Secret Service has been in this week," he says.

He works out of a small shop with a fake western front, adorned with pictures of the President wearing his boots, and thank-you notes from the Bushes for, among other things, the booties he made for their two dogs to wear on Christmas (in red and green leather, naturally).

This week, Carroll created a special Republican convention pair of boots for Bush, inscribed with the initials GB, the words "Home Town Boy," and a red, white and blue inlay of the state of Texas.

Carroll, who has a red beard and swept-back red hair, has also made boots for Reagan. Recently the ex-president jealously demanded a copy of one of Bush's pairs after seeing them.

Of the two men, Bush has bigger feet - an 11-D, compared to Reagan's

10 1/2-B.

RICE EPICUREAN MARKET. If there's a public expression of Bush's comfort zone, this would be it: Fresh salmon, cappuccino while you shop, and the lovely, shaded three-mile Memorial Park jogging loop near some of Houston's toniest neighborhoods.

They lie within a mile of each other - key landmarks in Bush's old neighborhood. They are also near some of Bush's other favorite stomping grounds, from his Episcopalian church to his official residence, the Houstonian hotel.

The Rice Epicurean Market is the supermarket for the wealthy around the Galleria. Families from the posh River Oaks section come here to pick over seven varieties of fresh mushrooms, New Zealand apples, and live Dungeness crabs swimming in their own tank. The parking lot is filled with Jaguars and BMWs.

Barbara Bush used to shop here, and occasionally the First Couple still stops by to push a cart, accompanied by Secret Service men of course. The last time Bush was there, he cashed a check for $200 - some "pocket change," according to assistant manager Jon Fitzgerald. For some reason, the President decided he had to get the check approved by the manager first, says Fitzgerald, and went over to ask permission.

"I kind of think he might come by" this week, says Fitzgerald.

More likely, Bush will go over to the three-mile jogging loop in Memorial Park. It is one of the few public green spaces in Houston, which has never been big on city planning, and is crammed by yuppies every evening after work.

Work crews have been grooming the grass all week.

MOLINA'S. The elderly waiter at Molina's has a penciled-in moustache and eyebrows, and a courtly manner straight from the old country - or in any case,

from Bush's younger days, some of which were spent here.

You can trace Bush's political career on the walls in photographs that segue from a young, eager Bush, with a goofy, pointy-toothed smile, to the man he is today.

This isn't the trendy kind of place where yuppie couples do body shots (wherein one partner licks salt from the other's neck after drinking a shot of tequila and then snatches a slice of lime from between his or her teeth).

Bush hasn't come by the restaurant in a while, Rosanna Molina says, but two months ago he asked Molina's to cater a party in Houston.

Some say this may be a sign that he's getting too out of touch with his old haunts in Houston. The new George Bush seems more inclined to order take-out.

"I hope he comes by," says Sofka of Otto's Barbecue. "He's so far behind in the polls he needs to talk to us little people, right?"

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