Houstonians have a lot of choices when it comes to comfort food. Unfortunately most of the family-run cafes and diners have been pushed out by ubiquitous corporate boxes like Chili’s, Cracker Barrel and Cheddar’s. But a few traditional diners remain, and two of those – Barbecue Inn and Triple A – are considered Houston institutions. Here, comfort food is king – fried shrimp and chicken are savored by the regulars, with pot roast and chicken & dumplings often appearing as specials. But we’re here for the chicken-fried steak (CFS), and these two old-school diners serve up some of the most noteworthy CFS in Houston.
Barbecue Inn is a classic throwback diner/cafe that’s known mostly for its fried dishes rather than its barbecue. The same family has owned this restaurant for three generations. The dining room is low-slung and tidy with a straight-out-of-the-seventies feel; squeaky booths, four-top tables and a long bar provide comfortable accommodations for families out to dinner or solo diners in for lunch. Matronly waitresses hold court throughout. Customers tend to be older. You get the feeling that everyone here is a regular.
The menu is a thing of simple beauty – just the comfort food basics. Stripped of any extraneous dishes, it focuses on the classics – fabulous fried chicken, a full range of passable barbecue, solid fried seafood and a decent burger.
The listing for the chicken-fried steak is short and sweet: “Chicken Fried Steak, Cream Gravy, Salad and French Fries, 11.95.” That’s it. No needless distractions with different sizes (“I’ll have the Wrangler and my son will have the Lil’ Buckaroo”) or unwanted side dishes. Just CFS and fries.
Meat. Thin and extremely tender. Good flavor of beef but could use more seasoning.
Crust. Completely fused to the meat; appropriate ratio of crust to meat. Good crispness and flavor, but again, a lack of seasoning (you may be noticing a theme).
Gravy. One the the stranger CFS gravies in Houston – a perfectly creamy texture with only a flavor of milk/cream. I detected no underlying base such as pork fat, or black pepper for that matter. It’s not bad, just inoffensive.
Value. Decent. At $11.95, you get a couple of big chunks of CFS drenched in gravy with a big pile fries and a salad.
Extras. Average. The fries are good. The salad is a standard-issue iceberg lettuce-type deal, with basic dressings. A basket of crackers is provided, with some Texas toast.
Overall grade: B. Re-reading my descriptions of the CFS here, it doesn’t sound very appetizing. Indeed it’s generally underseasoned and borderline bland. But there’s something about the CFS at Barbecue Inn – some kind of strange holistic effect – that makes it hard to stop eating it. It’s just comforting. Season to taste with generous amounts of salt and pepper (a few dashes of hot sauce might help, too), and this is a CFS worth driving for.
Driving up Airline Drive just inside the loop, dodging eighteen-wheelers carrying fruits and vegetables to the produce markets, passing tire shops and flea markets, it’s easy to miss Triple A Restaurant. It’s tacked on to a long strip of buildings housing various produce associations and warehouses, and shares a parking lot with Canino’s Market. Inside Triple A, things haven’t changed much over the years. Wood paneling predominates, and a long counter facing the kitchen accommodates truckers and market workers. The floor on each side of the counter stools reveals concrete worn through the linoleum floor where tens if not hundreds of thousands of feet have rested.
This is another old-school family business where the waitresses and kitchen staff have been around for decades. The mostly older and blue-collar clientele dig in to classic diner staples like fried chicken and pork chops.
The CFS is listed as “The REAL” Chicken Fried Steak. The CFS comes with fries or a baked potato, salad, and bread basket for $9.95. You can substitute one of the classic side items – steamed veggies, usually – for the salad.
Meat. Pounded thin and very tender. I’ve never had a tough CFS here. Good beef flavor.
Crust. This is an aggressively applied crust. Higher crust-to-meat ratio than a lot of places, but it works. The shattery crust is fused to the meat and has a great flavor. Never greasy, in my experience.
Gravy. Good. Depth of flavor is established here through a base of pork or beef fat, or maybe just oil. Good thickness and a decent amount of pepper, but still not enough. Adding more pepper is recommended.
Value. Excellent. The quality and amount of food you get for under $10 is a steal.
Extras. Good. The bread basket comes with rolls and cornbread. The cornbread has good flavor but somewhat dry. Rolls are standard-issue. Fries are good. Mashed potatoes are good with a fantastic brown gravy.
Overall grade: B+. This is a solid chicken-fried steak. The gravy could use a bit more pepper and the bread basket could be improved, but this is still one of the better CFS experiences in Houston.
Triple A takes this one on the strength of the flavorful gravy and a generously-crusted and perfectly fried CFS. Honestly, though, I’ll probably split my CFS outings between both of these restaurants. There’s great tradition, atmosphere and service at both places, and with a little salt and pepper, the CFS at Barbecue Inn can be good too.