Short Orders: Houston's

8300 Preston Rd.

Houston's is a habit. Not a bad habit, like meth or American Idol, but one that does call into question several sacred culinary beliefs.

Most obvious is our tendency as gourmands to dismiss chain restaurants--something we put up for discussion last week. Hillstone, the parent company of Houston's, lists five branches in Texas alone, as well as venues in Florida, New York, California, Colorado...There are more, but you get the point. Instead of stooping to attract the broadest possible crowd, however, the chain--at least the Dallas area operations--maintain an impressive level of upmarket consistency.

But it also questions why we pay more for quality ingredients and imaginative cooking, since you can spend as much here as you will at celebrated restaurants like Samar or The Grape--and much more than you'll shell out to dine at Bolsa.

Given the success of both Dallas area Houston's, the questions may not matter. Service and atmosphere generally matter more than the food itself--unless the kitchen begins to stumble, and it's unlikely management will allow that to happen. Pork ribs are plentiful in portion, tender and completely approachable. Their famous double-cut pork chop is also rather mild (as well as defying culinary logic by remaining sweet and juicy from edge to middle, even when cooked through). When you go to Houston's, you know just what to expect--and you almost always get it.

So the popularity is driven by a proper, well-functioning wait staff, an easy going yet somewhat upscale ambience and dishes that meet a certain standard, over and over and over again.

If there's any damage done by this Houston's dependence, it's the way it skews expectations. Many times, for example, I've heard people claim "Houston's makes the best fries." They don't--not even close. They are pale and chewy, but also cut into thin shoestrings. This tends to disguise the shortcomings much better than thicker versions.

But I can hardly blame the restaurant. Few pick Houston's for a night of fine dining--or for something out of the ordinary, for that matter. Besides, they are well-positioned to rake in cash, especially from the monied crowd who consider it their go-to diner.

As I left the Park Cities location one recent evening, two guys--most would label them douchebags--pulled up in a convertible European sports coupe with its top down...on a frosty 30 degree day. They probably don sunglasses when they walk in, but I didn't stick around to find out.

I just hope Houston's keeps selling them $13 burgers and $28 entrees.

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