By Layne Victoria Lynch
Photography by Marc Brown
At the beginning of 2011, Hoover Alexander, founder, chef and owner of Hoover’s Cooking restaurants, arduously reflected on all the commitments and obligations heavily weighing on him. After decades of 13-hour days, working in various facets of the food business, he felt disconnected from the essence and passion he had cultivated in his young chefhood. So, in an effort to enliven his culinary roots, Alexander planted a small but bountiful East Side garden.
As the collard greens, yellow squash and other vegetables thrived and grew, a surprising and unexpected idea took root and grew in Alexander as well. In November, he opened Hoover’s Soular Food Trailer & Garden—a veggie-centric food trailer using locally sourced foods and health-conscious preparation. “This feels full circle to me,” he says. “I’m coming back to the old ’hood and forming a spiritual connection with the neighborhood—almost like I’m supposed to be a part of this new, changing East Side.”
It seems odd that a chef who was already successful in the brick-and-mortar restaurant world would move backward in the chain and opt for a set of wheels, yet the decision was an integral part of Alexander’s next chapter. He began downsizing, and closed the north location of Hoover’s Cooking. He applied the changes to himself as well—eating healthier and exercising. “2011 was a deconstruction year for me,” he says. “I’m trying to take care of myself personally, and build that reflection of me through business. It was time to start thinking smaller.”
In the midst of brainstorming ideas for the trailer, Alexander started to recall initial food memories. He reflected on days of studying his mother as she prepared savory pan-fried pork chops with collard greens and gravy, carefully listening to his father as he instructed him on how to use a hog from snout to tail, and fishing at the creek while fighting off water moccasins with a stick as they slithered his way. “It was that culture of living off the land,” he says. “There were struggles, but poor wasn’t apparent to me back then.”
When it came time for Alexander to choose a professional path, he initially started as a communications major at The University of Texas. He ventured off his degree plan, however, after accepting a kitchen job at the Night Hawk rolling out pie dough, preparing gumbo and filling in for the head chef, Mr. Leon, on his days off. “I had plans to do anything but cook for a living, but I was intrigued to learn everything I could about it,” he says. “Restaurants helped quench that thirst for knowledge I always had.”
He took a waiter’s position at a Steak and Ale restaurant and a bartending shift at an old Sheraton hotel before admitting the real issue at hand: all he really wanted to do was cook. In 1982, he gathered his family and broke the news that he was leaving the university and opening Toulouse, a Cajun-themed restaurant on Sixth Street. “I was in school for eight or nine years and was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” says Alexander. “My mom had me figured out before I had myself figured out. She wanted me to be Oprah Winfrey or a lawyer. She wanted me to have what she didn’t.”
Alexander left Toulouse in 1985 after bars and late-night culture saturated the area. He ventured on to Chez Fred and Good Eats Cafe over the next 11 years—learning the curses of the restaurant business through failed partnerships and an unavoidable bankruptcy filing. The experiences left him jaded, but not defeated. In 1998, two years after filing for bankruptcy, he opened Hoover’s Cooking, a Cajun, Tex-Mex and Southern-inspired restaurant that encompassed the whole of his restaurant expertise. The Manor Road restaurant also happened to be a stone’s throw away from his childhood home.
Through the years of living and working on the East Side, Alexander has seen the neighborhood vastly transform. Old neighborhood grocery stores and Mexican bakeries have been replaced by expensive bike shops and fine-dining restaurants. Yet that revolution has been the perfect host for his new venture. “We’re learning an appreciation for things we once discarded and dismissed. I want to be a part of that and I want the trailer to be a part of that evolution,” he says. “I celebrate the past, but if you get stuck looking in the rearview mirror, you’re going to fixate on what was, not what can be.”
Though the trailer’s garden-friendly dishes—such as collard green and black-eyed pea wraps and raw vegetable medleys—significantly differ from the restaurant’s famous meatloaf and chicken-fried steak plates, they are symbolic of the clarity Alexander hopes to gain moving forward. “I separated from embracing what the farm and garden had to offer me, and I really regret that,” he confesses. “For the first time in a while, I feel like I’m coming home.”
Hoover’s Soular Food Trailer & Garden
1110 E. 12th St.
Tues. and Weds. 7 a.m.–4 p.m.
Thurs. and Fri. 7 a.m.–6 p.m.
Sat. 8 a.m.–6 p.m.
Sun. 8 a.m.–2 p.m.