Take a quick walk through the museum-like produce wing of Central Market and you will notice a frightening thing: brussels sprouts. The terror stems not so much from the sprouts themselves, which, in addition to liver, take top billing in most childhood meal traumas. It's how they are showcased. The pert, tapered green heads are mounted on their stalks with vicious spindles protruding from the spines, like the thick nasty barbs of an infantry booby trap. You can almost feel them embed themselves in your shins, clinging firmly until you eat every last sprout.
As we grow into adults our phobias shift, changing from terrible vegetables to simple arithmetic: calorie counts, fat grams, carb loads and the parts per billion dreads found in smoking sections. Graphic vegetable frights become shadowy memories.
Though not as weirdly dramatic, Houston's has sprouts almost as nightmarish as Central Market's booby traps. They're large, sliced in half and sautéed in butter, with bright green layers slipping off with every fork nudge. They aren't mushy or undercooked but as firm and supple as they are tender--consistently, through three platefuls saddled to various entrées.
Houston's is one of the most successful upscale casual dining chains ever devised. Why? Typical explanations are tossed out, like "impeccable consistency." But lots of restaurants have such consistency. Examine a McDonald's cheeseburger. The unmelted cheese slice is generally in the same place, burger after burger. The pickles are embedded in roughly the same space, patty after patty, in a mustard smear. Chain machines possess consistency to an agonizing degree, but will people wait 90 minutes for the opportunity to diddle with that burger?
"The engine here purrs like a Honda," said an anonymous diner of Houston's in an article published in a 1997 issue of Nation's Restaurant News. People are fiercely loyal to their Hondas. And Houston's is a machine: smooth, meticulously meshed, impeccably lubricated. The place is swarmed on weekdays before 7 p.m. The hostess says the wait will be 30 minutes. A line quickly builds and backs up in front of her. A couple of twenty-something men filter through the crowd. One wears a baseball cap. "You'll have to take your cap off," the hostess says. "We don't allow hats in the dining room. Dress code." He snarls. She smiles. "You can wear your hat and eat in the bar." He scans the bar. He turns to his buddy. "Whadaya think?" His buddy smiles. Twenty minutes later the wait is 90 minutes.
Houston's is a powder keg, a knot of flammable anticipation itching for a spark. Yet the staff is calm, seemingly oblivious to the potential devastation lurking underneath. The servers never seem harried. They speak slowly in soft clear tones, moving with measured deliberateness, patiently answering every question. Yet while they know the menu, they're stingy with details. The recipes are tightly guarded corporate secrets, don't you know?
Not so with the grilled artichoke hearts. No secret there beyond simple genetic code. They're just straight-up grilled, the petals darkened and wilted from the heat. They retain a good amount of fume, though, from the wood-fired grill conflagrating in the kitchen. A rémoulade dip evens out the smog.
There's a rack stacked with wood in the open kitchen. The crew must eat through cords of the stuff on an average day. Steaks, ribs and burgers are flipped and pressed on the bars just above the wood-fed flames. New York strip steak retains a bit of the smoke, too, but not so much that it curbs the flavors of the juicy, rich meat, dribbled with a well-garlicked cook's butter shot through with Worcestershire. This steak is broad and firm, skirting beefy banality. Gristle, too.
A menu duel erupts between the rotisserie chicken and the "knife and fork" ribs. The server urges the ribs. They're famous, he says. They fall off the bone. Is there a menu around that doesn't boast of meat falling from bones? What's so great about falling meat anyway? Isn't it good to gnaw on bones clutched with bare hands, to chew the meat off skeletal remains with the savagery that a slab of ribs incites? Isn't this why fried chicken was invented?
Fame won out.
Falling meat isn't what makes these ribs good. It's that the sauce is applied with a sensible restraint seldom seen. The application doesn't garble the meat, though there is a pinching bite to keep the marriage from going limp. Smoke slips through, but not enough to quash the interplay.
The Hawaiian rib eye played out this way, too. The thin steak is deep amber, stained with a sauce composed of soy, ginger, garlic and pineapple juice. It doesn't blanket the meat. It works like lipstick, arousing with gloss, color and richness while allowing the meat to speak. Juices flow, independent of sauce chemistry. Gristle again was absent.
You can press some secrets out of the staff by shooting them little multiple-choice questions. "What's the fruit layer in this sauce? Is it orange or pineapple?" "Does the heat come from mustard or pepper?" Other bits of corporate discretion slip out casually, such as the annual revenue stream for this Park Cities location (roughly $7 million). They'll gossip all you want about the décor. Strange spindly pieces of dead flora dot the dining room near the stone walls. They're calcified cactus skeletons, says a server, hardened strands woven into a cactus shape. It looks like a page out of a human anatomy text illustrating tendons.
The drama is subtle but unmistakable. Thick wood beams branch through the ceilings. Wide ducts bulge underneath, like bodybuilder veins. Drilled through the wood beams are black bars that hold lighting boxes. The overhead lighting web looks like it was pulled from a stage or a television studio. Lights are positioned above each table, illuminating the surface without spilling illumination off the edges. Light is tightly contained. The restaurant feels dark, yet menu reading and food scrutiny is easy, creating the sensuousness of subdued lighting without its inherent dining annoyances. Is such balance really that hard to strike? Must be, because precious few restaurants seem to grasp it.
The lighting allows you to appreciate the pork chop and its bizarre dimensions. It's as massive as a thick slice of layer cake. It's juicy and pink, if a little spongy. It glistens with a sauce that is slightly sweet; notes that are picked up in the couscous spooned nearby, studded with golden raisins and currants among flecks of parsley.
Menu listings are droll and mundane: traditional salad, seasonal vegetable plate, famous French dip au jus and cheeseburger. Out of nowhere pops this: evil jungle Thai noodle steak salad. Corporate culture rarely flirts with evil, so let's explore. It's a lush mélange heightened with mint and a pungent sauce kicked with spice heat. Around this flavor core are cabbage shreds, carrot, small wedges of avocado, slices of juicy marinated beef, cooked tomatoes, peanuts and pieces of stringy mango.
"Today's fresh fish" is a red snapper fillet blanketed with a crab lemon-butter sauce. The sauce is thick. The crab is lumped generously over the snapper span. The fish is moist and flaky but seems overwhelmed by the sauce. Pull it back a little to let the natural fish juices and textures have their say, as well as the crab humps.
Houston's recipes may be closely held secrets, but that doesn't mean there aren't people out there working on knockoffs. One Web site says this: "Houston's Restaurants make the best apple walnut cobbler ever. Here is a copycat's version of Houston's recipe."
The formula calls for a 20-ounce can of sliced apples. It's doubtful Houston's uses a 20-ounce can of apples, not so much because they probably shun cans, but because it's hard to find any apple (or cobbler cake) in this heap of walnuts. Yet it's a rich delicious mix nonetheless with a heady sauce that makes it more of a chunky nut soup than a cobbler.
The Park Cities Houston's is a cog in a Phoenix-based, 47-unit chain. And it's a well-oiled machine that never lets its gears show. 8300 Preston Road, 214-691-8991, Open 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday; 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Sunday. $$-$$$
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