Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Barbecue Inn and Doyle's: Party like it's 1959

We're going to take a trip to 018 for this post to visit two north Houston institutions. Both Barbecue Inn (116 W. Crosstimbers) and Doyle's Restaurant (2136 W. 34th St) have been in business for well over 50 years; however, both restaurants have taken strikingly different approaches.

I’ve heard people describe Barbecue Inn as the type of place that never changes. This is certainly true, but I feel it deserves a disclaimer. The entire restaurant, from the interior to the grounds outside, is immaculate. The carpet is always spotless and the Formica tabletops show few signs of wear or tear. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover they have a giant storage space filled with the same 1940s interior products.

This traditionalist mentality extends to the menu, which is famously unchanged for decades. In fact, the vintage 1965 menu hangs just to the left of the second interior door. Finding the differences is like solving a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle. The fried shrimp, chicken fried steak, and fried chicken (which takes 20 minutes and is fried to order) are still some of Houston’s finest. On our last visit, the chicken was just as good as ever: well seasoned, crispy, and not at all oily. The CFS was a bit too well mannered for my tastes: the crust lacked the peaks and valleys of some of the grungiest CF steaks, and the gravy needed a bit more oomph of flavor. Ironically, I’ve never had the barbecue; in fact, I’ve never met anyone who has. Anyone out there ever try it?

Vintage menu and prices

It’s probably important to mention that the prices are a bit high compared to other fried food places, but you really get what you pay for. Obviously, a lot of Houstonians think its worth it as there is typically at least a 20 minute wait for a seat. I recently read on a Houston Chowhound posting that Barbecue Inn turned down an inquiry to be featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” a decision that makes perfect sense to me. They’ve been doing it the same way for decades and they obviously don’t need the publicity, especially from some freaky loudmouthed television personality. Dive? How dare you!

Winner winner chicken dinner!

Doyle’s Restaurant of Oak Forest started as a deli back in 1954 (source, gayot.com), but in the decades since has added pastas, pizzas, soups, and (most recently) burgers. The interior is just as dated as Barbecue Inn (if a bit less “proper,” if that’s possible), and just as well kept. Reading the menu today is like reading a summary of the casual culinary trends of the last fifty years. No doubt they added pizzas and pastas 30-40 years ago as they became ubiquitous. Now, Angus hamburgers are the latest addition to the menu. Although hardly new, this is the renaissance for burgers as there are now devoted groups and bloggers devoted to the subject.

The pizzas will do in a pinch, as will the pastas, but they’re nothing to write home about. I’m remembering a visit a year ago where a man sitting at the table next to us shook salt onto his spaghetti for at least 30 seconds. If he couldn’t taste it after that, I’m not sure anything could help. Soups are surprisingly good, but they’re all over the map (chicken noodle shares the stage with a seafood gumbo and a whole assortment of various soups).

Not surprisingly, the sandwiches are still king. Most are served in a slightly chewy sub/po’ boy roll and are simply prepared. The best of the best include the Old World (Italian meats and cheese) and the chicken salad. The Reuben falls short, with way too much Russian dressing. I would guess that the Reuben was added later (like the other menu categories) as it strays from the simple cold cut sandwiches.

Surviving 50+ years in the restaurant industry is no small feat, and Doyle’s and Barbecue Inn should be celebrated for the accomplishment. For obvious reasons, Barbecue Inn is the stronger of the two (how many restaurants can you think of that have three separate dishes that deserve mention as “The Best” in town?). Doyle’s has tried to evolve with the times, and it shows. Thankfully, the sandwiches are still impressive.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I just found out yesterday that Pizzitola's won second place in the Great Taste of the Heights audience vote. Barbecue is a controversial subject, especially in Houston. For some reason we have a very small number of quality barbecue joints. I was glad that Pizzitola's was at the event; the fact they were recognized is just a bonus.

Pizzitola’s is rightly proud of their pork spareribs. Seasoned with a liberal dousing of black pepper and smoked with east Texas hickory, the undersized ribs have an ideal balance of tenderness and chew. While other establishments buy and smoke the larger and more common racks, Pizzitola’s consistently serves the more tender and harder to procure smaller sized ribs. This attention to detail is barbecue jackpot.

I've been consistently underwhelmed by pork ribs in Texas, probably because I always smoke my pork ribs Memphis style with hickory, a dry rub, and a mustard mop sauce. I think Pizzitola's is about the closest I'm going to get to my ideal ribs in Texas as I think hickory compliments pork so well.

One last item to mention: the lunch crowd can be overwhelming, but the sliced to order meat is worth the wait. During dinner, I've been the only patron and the meat was obviously sitting around.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Great Taste of the Heights Twitter Frenzy

I have a lot of thoughts on the Great Taste of the Heights event tonight, most extremely positive. I twittered throughout the whole thing, and instead of me taking several days to summarize, here it all is in all its tweety glory. My problem with Twitter is its lack of narrative. The 140 character is its appeal, but it lends itself to being snarky, and unfortunately I'm sometimes guilty of this behavior.

17:04 Off to the Heights feedy thingy.

17:37 Just arrived at All Saints, $25 to get in gets you a sample of ten restaurants (out of 20+) and one drink. Not bad.

17:39 The scantily clad waitresses at Brick House are on the beverages. Beer: miller lite and bud light. Wine: "red" or "white." Ummmm... great...

17:41 I think the skies are about to open and these outdoor tables with no tents are not gonna work.

17:48 Waltrip Jazz Band in pre concert warmup sounds like Sun Ra. I'm digging, but I'm thinking the cacophony free jazz is unintentional.

18:14 Max's wine dive first: fried gator with cream gravy. Interestin take on CFS I imagine. Great gravy.

18:20 Rainbow Lodge serving duck gumbo. Not bad, not great. Overly salty imho. Like the wild rice.

18:26 Bedford is serving a thai risotto with pomegranates. Best dish so far, and bonus points for the chef actually being here.

18:27 Pom a nice flavor/texture balance to the risotto.

18:35 Soma serving a seafood salad. Liked the pinwheel beet condiment.

18:40 OH: are you still Catholic???

18:43 Waltrip Jazz Band playing stormy weather. That's pretty funny.

18:44 Kojak's has a decent gyro in a cup. What's a food festival without gyros? That would be downright un-Houstonian.

18:46 Me: "I'm always confused about your hours." Kojak: "yeah I know it's confusing." Ummm fix that maybe?

18:51 Passing on Pink's, shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who follows me.

19:02 Hickory Hollow sausage was decent, brisket just awful and the chef boyardee sauce didn't help.

19:14 Pizzitola's bbq waaaaaay better than hickory hollow. Ribs don't have the same pepper punch from last week, but still great.

19:16 Shade has an asian chicken wonton. Love how they have no fear of fresh cabbage, something I failed to mention in my review.

19:23 Forgot to mention carter & cooley muffaletta. Eh. That probably explains why I forgot it.

19:24 Dry Creek bacon blue slider too dry to eat. Tossed it, but not before snagging the bacon. Priorities, I'm sure you understand.

19:29 Cakes from Dacapo's very good. Wanted to save room because of Jodie E's good review. Italian cream cake the better one. Wish I had espresso.

19:31 We have four more dishes left but no room. Thinking tamales to go.

20:05 In the drink line, I think someone said something incredibly inappropriate about the waittresses. Dude, church parking lot!

20:06 Well, that's it. We ran out of steam and have four tamales for tomorrow. Surprisingly large turnout.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Great Taste of the Heights: Does Anyone Care?

I say this rather sarcastically, because OF COURSE I care.

I found a blog posting on the Chronicle's site which is riddled with errors. Did someone throw this together in 30 seconds? Items in bold are my emphasis to show obvious errors.

"Participating restaurants include Bedford, Berryhill, Carter Cooley's, Chatters, Collina's, Dacapo's, Dry Creek/Cedar Creek, Hickory Hollow, Houston, Tamales Factory, Kojak's Cafe, Max's Wine Dive, Molina's, Onion Creek, Pink's Pizza, Pizzitola's, Shade, Soma, Sushi, Spanish Flowers, Thai Spice and The Rainbow Lodge."

Perhaps the most egregious FAIL was the actual site for Great Taste of the Heights. On May 12, 2:13PM:Bandwidth Limit Exceeded.

Despite these blips, I'll be there this Saturday. It looks like an excellent opportunity to sample some of Houston's best restaurants, even if the press and twitter exposure has been lacking.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Antidote Coffee

My Waldo's Coffee post got a lot of comments, mostly from those recommending Antidote. Hey, I'll take requests! Especially when we're talking about coffee.

My first visit to Antidote was last summer during the White Linen Nights festivities. We enjoyed listening to a truly outrageous band, complete with banjo, trash cans and coffee can string instruments. I clearly remember that it was a typical steamy night, so I ended up with a cold beer inside with the air conditioning. Coffee was probably the last thing on my mind.

This past weekend, we made a return visit and got to experience a more relaxed Antidote. We ordered an espresso and a Cajeta latte. The espresso had good acidity, but not enough body. The latte was extremely good. Served with skim milk, the latte still had great richness and flavor. Antidote serves a wide assortment of breakfast pastries, almost to a fault. There are at least 10 different croissants, muffins, and other varities of baked goods, none of which are labled. It was obvious to us that we were holding up the line of regulars who just wanted to get their caffeine on. We quickly ordered a chocolate croissant and turkey croissant.

Cajeta latte, right

Seating was adequate, although the free wi-fi attracts single campers who occupied every two seater table inside. We found a picnic table by the parking lot with a good view of the Civic Hybrids and Subarus.

We were quite pleased with Antidote. It's obvious that they've taken the good of Starbucks (comfortable seating and decent coffee) without any of the bad (focus group determined hip CDs for sale). The baked goods are also an improvement, although that's not really hard to do. We do wish the croissants had a more crispy than doughy texture. Although we still prefer Catalina for its no-nonsense superior coffee, Antidote would be a good addition to any neighborhood. The Heights is lucky to have it.