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?
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!
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.