SIMONTON, Texas — For five months, pipeline operator Tommy Lindsey didn’t know where to eat lunch. He tried having a salad at Whataburger. It was fine but it wasn’t the same as the meal he missed so much: a grilled chicken Caesar at Roper’s Country Store and Cafe in Simonton.
The Houston Chronicle reports twice Roper’s had been swamped by a flood, and most of the city of Simonton along with it. But twice the owners of the beloved restaurant, akin to the town gathering place, had rebuilt.
At 6 a.m. Tuesday, the cafe owners once again opened their doors to dish up breakfast tacos, chicken fried steak and cobb salads for a slew of regulars eager to return to their weekly, daily or even twice-a-day place in the country to eat. As one diner said, “This is home.”
The grand reopening, full of smiles, hugs and hard work, was a sign of normalcys for the small, rural city of Simonton, population 814, which was devastated by major floods first in 2016 and again when Hurricane Harvey struck last August.
Some residents there continue to await buyout application decisions, while others are rebuilding their homes the only way they can: raised up on pier and beam. (Some are living temporarily in campers or in trailers without their normal kitchens.)
Tucked among the woods along the Brazos River, an hour’s drive west of downtown Houston, Simonton began as a place of country homes with room for horses. Today, its identity is ever-changing, as city leaders wrestle with how to keep a town where 90 percent of homes flooded both safe and financially sound — all while growth from Houston barrels its way.
“The people in Simonton — they’re very, very resilient,” Simonton Mayor Louis Boudreaux said.
The restaurant, which claims Oct. 4 as a city-sanctioned “Roper’s Day,” is one of the only places to eat in Simonton and an important part of the community fabric. Diners on Tuesday likened it to eating at a friend’s house. Food aside — everyone seems to have a different favorite — it’s a place to relax, catch up on local gossip and, inevitably, trade stories about the flood.
Walking in the door for lunch Tuesday, Lindsey, who works in the area, found that everything looked like it had before. The deer heads were back mounted on the wall. Fresh painted barn-red wood siding ran along the lower half of the walls. Red-and-white checkered tablecloths covered the 13 tables.
Lindsey didn’t have to say his order.
Manager Maria Silva, 31, brought over his salad, piled high with olives, tomatoes avocado and cheddar cheese, with a side of chips and salsa (among the house favorites) and a sweet iced tea.
Over his eight years of coming there, often several days a week, he didn’t think he had ever ordered anything else. Today, it was as good as he remembered.
“We can get our routine back again,” the 56-year-old Lindsey said, digging in.
Harvey flooded an estimated 241 of 267 homes in Simonton, compared with 224 flooded and repaired the year before, according to the city secretary, one of two municipal employees. As the Brazos River spilled over its banks and across town, there was nothing anyone could do to stop the murky brown floodwater flowing again into Roper’s, which hadn’t even been open a year since the owners rebuilt from the Memorial Day 2016 flood.
Fort Bend County flood maps, last updated in 2014, show most of the city in the flood plain. Boudreaux, who was sworn in for a second time right before the 2016 flood hit, has tried to make changes accordingly, and the city now prohibits houses from being rebuilt by raising land with soil. (They didn’t want the mounds of dirt making the situation worse for anyone else.) They also require that homes be built to 2 feet above the expected 100-year flood level.
Still, not everyone has wanted, or been able, to stay. When the first wave of applications became available after the 2016 flood, 28 people applied for buyouts and 20 applied for help with home elevations. Those decisions have yet to be returned.
The mayor worries about the effect of that on the tax roll; the law prevents buyout properties from ever being developed again, and it requires the city to maintain it. But he knew some people needed that option.
Many in town, meanwhile, find themselves again living in trailers in front of their homes on bumpy streets with names like Pony Lane, Cowhide Drive and Wagon Road. They’ve been cooking on tiny stoves in campers, or grilling when they can. It all added to the excitement of Roper’s being back in business.
Lauren Gillespie, who lives nearby in Fulshear, first opened Roper’s with her husband Marty in 2007, when, she jokes, there was no competition around. She took pride in serving homemade food in heaping portions. They peeled their own potatoes. They pounded their chicken. She liked how, when things got busy, people knew to refill their own coffee cups themselves.
With such a loyal clientele, Gillespie knew she had to rebuild after the 2016 flood. She swore she would never do it again. But then, after Harvey, she did. Everywhere she went, people asked when the reopening would be.
And so, on Tuesday, after all the trauma and heartache, Gillespie got up at 4:45 a.m., arrived at the restaurant by 5:50 a.m. and took the first order of half-a-dozen breakfast tacos at 6 a.m. She found herself singing the words of the old Gene Autry song “Back in the Saddle Again.” The restaurant hummed.
“We’re the heart and soul of this community,” Gillespie said. “Everybody’s at home here.”
The usual breakfast club group came in, then as breakfast switched to lunch, neighbors Ramona Neal, 48, Laura Krueger, 50, and Anne Little, 71, who typically gathered here weekly, took a seat to order what they had been craving: a burger, chicken fingers (with half saved for Krueger’s husband) and a brownie with ice cream. Each wore a shade of purple. For Neal, seeing Roper’s open again brought a sense of hope. Little said she’d lost 37 pounds since its most recent closing.
They’d brought a gift for the restaurant — a small, antique “Welcome” sign — that they’d planned to bring by at Christmas. Running the show in the dining area, Silva first gave them all hugs.
The relationships, in some cases, run deep. One diner told about how the Gillespies had offered to help put up his family after the first flood.
Another, 44-year-old Kelli Matula, said she and the Gillespies became such good friends that they vacationed together.
Matula, who lost her job in the oil business, ate at Roper’s three or four times a week. Her family has lived in Simonton for three generations, and she was in the process of rebuilding the family home, ruined after the 2016 flood, 8 feet higher. She even has her own special: a warm brownie with bananas, vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and pecans.
Tuesday, she had a grilled chicken Caesar wrap. “I’m ready for it to be back to normal, I really am,” she said. With the local hangout back open, it felt like progress.
Seated at the bar, friends Steve Clark, 55, and Mark Horton, 60, chowed down on a BLT sandwich with coffee and a glass of milk and chicken fingers with a soda. Living in a camper with limited kitchen appliances, they’d eaten here every day after the Memorial Day 2016 flood damaged Clark’s home and much in it. The wood of the bar was stained with how high the water had risen then. Then Harvey had come, adding another high water mark. Their camper stay continued.
It was nice to be back. Clark had learned of the opening only the night before, after seeing a sign taped on the door on his way back from eating dinner in Sealy, and pulling over to read it.
“Right back in the same old spot, huh?” another diner said, coming to shake his hand.
Clark replied, “Yeah, right back in the same old spot.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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