The Top Texan
You wouldn't think that giving diners what they want would be a particularly unique strategy for operating a restaurant. Even those with no experience in the hospitality field would no doubt assume that pleasing customers is something every potential restaurateur would seriously focus upon from day one. Yet this apparently isn't the case, unless you believe the public actually desires the slack service, mishmash menus, and inflated prices prevalent in so many of our faux-gourmet dining establishments. They don't, of course, which is why, on weekday evenings, so many of these dining rooms possess the sort of hushed ambiance more commonly associated with libraries.
Houston's, on Miracle Mile in the Gables, is the opposite of hushed; it is as loud and brash as a Texan. On a Monday-evening visit all 250 seats were occupied, and on a Friday night we had to wait 40 minutes for a table. Houston's is evidently giving diners what they want, and from this we can deduce they desire fresh, tasty food, solicitous service, reasonable prices, and a handsome, high-energy environment. What else, after all, could you possibly ask from a restaurant that doesn't pretend to offer fine dining?
Well, maybe a sizzling bar scene, and Houston's has that too.
That lack of pretension to being haute or cutting edge makes it so ironic that Houston's comes closer to capturing the spirit of today's national upscale dining trends than those that try so hard. After all, small menus of well-executed foods with clean, straightforward presentations is the current word in urban dining, something this Arizona-based chain has been practicing for 25 years.
As a steadfast proponent of small menus, I am pleased at the economy of choices. Most family-oriented restaurant chains have succeeded via the opposite strategy, which is to impress with prodigious portions of almost any food you can think of. For starters Houston's offers just three picks -- a plate of home-smoked salmon with toast points and tarragon-tinged "chef dressing"; a big bowl of tortilla chips with smaller bowls of sour cream, salsa, and spinach dip made with garlic, artichoke hearts, Parmesan, and jack cheeses; and a special one evening of alluringly grilled artichoke with the same remouladelike dipping sauce that accompanied the salmon.
For those to whom neither salmon, spinach, nor artichokes appeal, there are a number of salads available, each plentiful enough to share as an appetizer. House salad contains mixed greens topped with croutons, chopped egg, and bacon, while the caesar is tossed in an eggless dressing -- sort of a caesar vinaigrette. This succeeds in making the salad lighter than usual, though some at our table felt the dominating lemon taste became tiresome after a few bites. Other salads include a sashimi tuna salad with avocado, mango, and cilantro-ginger vinaigrette; a "club" salad that integrates the chicken, bacon, and avocado of the sandwich; and grilled chicken over greens with honey-lime vinaigrette and peanut sauce -- we didn't try this last one, but I suspect it may have one dressing too many.
Not a salad person? Start with soup of the day -- on Monday it's New Orleans red bean, on Tuesday wild mushroom, and so on. Friday's "Newport Beach clam chowder," with a thick cream base boasting clams, potatoes, and a smattering of oyster crackers on top, lacked the traditional pork product, instead relying on an unwarranted and overpowering garlic presence.
Excepting the marred chowder, Houston's is right on the money with its food -- and right with the money, too. Solid versions of filet mignon and New York strip top the main course price list at $26. "Hawaiian" rib eye, $23, stimulated with a mildly sweet soy, ginger, and pineapple glaze. Slow-roasted prime rib, just $21, arrived rarer than ordered, but was tender, juicy, and simply too tasty to return for more cooking. All steaks get served with "hand-cut" French fries, which had me thinking along the lines of thick wedges of potato but are in fact the thin type -- cleanly and crisply fried (or have it your way with rice or baked potato).
Other lunch or dinner options (same menu is used for both meal periods): half a roasted chicken, fish of the day either grilled or pan-fried, and "seared" (really grilled) tuna steak, sushi-soft slices drizzled with an emulsified champagne vinaigrette and surrounded by welcome warm-weather accompaniments -- two lush wedges of ripe red tomato and fresh, crunchy coleslaw, more tart than sweet, the way it oughta be. There are burgers and sandwiches too, and you can order these for dinner without any adverse attitude from the staff.
Brown rice appears on few non-health-food menus, the rationale being that if the chef and owner don't like it, there's no reason to serve it. Admittedly brown rice is something most diners do not crave, yet there is a segment of the public that pays attention to nutritional values -- and Houston's gives them what they want too, offering a side dish of the wonderfully complete protein/carbohydrate combo of black beans and brown rice. No wonder the line to get in here keeps getting longer.
Other popularly priced sides ($2 or $3 each) include very sweet, very smoky, very good baked beans, and a vegetable of the day, on one occasion bright green, perfectly cooked broccoli rabe. When a kitchen has only a few vegetables to prepare, or for that matter only a few meats, it increases the chances of those items being fresh and properly attended to -- just one of many reasons that limited menus make for higher-quality food.
If your taste buds don't tingle with the promise of a warm five-nut brownie pooled in creme anglaise and capped with vanilla ice cream, or key lime pie topped with freshly whipped cream and bottomed with graham cracker crust, then you probably aren't a dessert person to begin with. Both are terrific, though I could've done without cinnamon in the key lime crust -- about as necessary an addition to this pie as garlic is to clam chowder.
Houston's gives the public, and this critic, what we want. If only our other restaurants would do likewise, maybe they wouldn't have to rely on "Miami Spice" gimmicks to fill their seats.
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