Friday, August 22, 2008

The Black Eyed Pea - Houston, TX

OK, OK, the review should be called “A” Black Eyed Pea since it’s not like it is an original. Just your ordinary, run of the mill Black Eyed Pea you’d find at most any intersection of Any City, Texas and Regular Road. Chain restaurants aren’t regularly Chicken Fried Texan’s preferred choice of diner, but the Black Eyed Pea is a Texas tradition. And, I don’t mind admitting to you, loyal Chicken Fried friends, that the BEP is where I developed my taste for fried okra, fried corn and, of course, CFS when I was a tot.

This Pea was pretty much like any other, complete with countrified (but modern) décor and fake plants like at grandma’s house.

In fact, the meal starts out a bit like at grandma’s, with a basket of rolls and cornbread. Mrs. Chicken Fried Steak and tater tot accompanied me, scarfing a roll before I could snap a picture of the full basket. The rolls were tasty with a light buttery top but were otherwise forgettable. I had forgotten how much I liked the cornbread, which is baked with corn niblets in it, giving it a nice a juicy crunch when you take a bite (tot agreed and ate all that was in our basket, forcing me to eat only crumbs).

The CFS: I must say I was prepared to hate it but ended up liking it. The first bite was warm and crunchy. The steak (sirloin) was nicely cooked, was juicy and was tender. It still had the right amount of “give” so that the texture of each bite nicely complimented the breading.

A side tasting of Mrs. CFT’s chicken fried chicken demonstrated a similar tasty quality. Same breading. Same gravy. The chicken was nice and moist, giving a great balance to the crunch of the breading.

Breading: Also nice. It was “southern style,” which is most of what you find in CFS in East Texas. I’m guessing you’d find the same at other Black Eyed Peas in other parts of Texas; more like fried chicken than her pan-fried West Texas CFS cousin. The breading had a nice punch to it, made with what tasted like a little buttermilk. A nice amount of pepper and good crunch.

Gravy: Not so nice. A bit like library paste (but runnier). There was really no taste to it, surprising since the whole CFS was pretty tasty. It was thin and utterly forgettable. No option for having it on the side was given.

Knife: Standard knife fine here.

Sides: Reminiscing about childhood visits to other Black Eyed Peas, I ordered my two favorites: fried okra and fried corn. The okra was as perfect and scrumptious as I remember it. They were hot, fresh and had that great “just fried” look. My mouth is still burned from popping too dangerously many in my mouth at once. The fried corn was nice but belied her potential. The corn was a bit soggy (frozen?) and the fried breading fell off too easily before an adequate bite could be had. Still, I must give big Chicken Fried props to them for deep frying as many vegetables as possible. Mrs. CFT has the mashed potatoes (which were lumpy, creamy and very nice) and the French fries (not fresh cut but tasty, with a nice sweet/savory spice on them that had hints of cinnamon, clove, paprika and pepper).

Price: $8.99 for the “Texas-Sized” Chicken Fried Steak (sizes for other states were not offered). Actually, a really good bargain for the amount and quality of food you get.

The service was competent, corporate and by the book. A bit cold and distant, but I wasn’t looking for a long-term relationship. Since the tot was with us, it was nice to have pretty consistent help, including crayons (not to be eaten, we reminded the tot), coloring placemat and child-size milk.

The Black Eyed Pea is as iconic to Texas as dead armadillos, fire ants, traffic, the heat (my God, the heat), underfunded schools, miles and miles of highways, Kinky Freidman, and snakes in your garage. And, like those things, we can’t ignore it (even if we wanted to). These are all part of Texas and we must embrace all that is ironic and contradictory about our fine state. So, instead of snickering your way past your neighborhood Black Eyed Pea on your way home, stop in for an iced tea, a CFS and remember what your grandma told you: “if you can’t say anything nice, stuff another piece of cornbread in your mouth.”

Friday, August 15, 2008

Humble City Cafe - Humble, TX

“Slow food” advocates argue that food should be produced and consumed close to home. It made enough sense to me (certainly the consumption side) to drive a few miles to a quaint little café close to my house. Humble City Café (, located in downtown Humble, resembles hundreds of other neat little small town, county courthouse- adjacent, (sweet) iced tea brewing cafes in towns all across Texas. The food, décor and hospitality certainly equal those kinds of places, despite being only minutes from the fourth largest city in the country.

The location, building and interior décor look like a flashback to an old roadhouse. The room is big but inviting. Tables are good sized (enough for an open newspaper, a plate of CFS and an icy beverage). The presence of Humble Oil signs and the Texas flag remind diners of the storied history of the area. Reminiscent of a Cracker Barrel, there is a little county store that sells trinkets, old-fashioned candy and homemade root beer.

To start the meal, they bring a perfect little cast iron singlet of cornbread – soft, moist and just the right amount of crumble. Accompanying the cornbread were two kinds of butter, a plain butter and a honey-infused butter. I probably should have objectively tried both, but, frankly, the honey butter was so good I couldn’t stop eating it. There was nice texture to the honey butter (ground nuts, perhaps?) and it came frozen, making it the prefect consistency to slice some off and let it melt pleasantly into the warm cornbread.

The CFS: Very good. Very big. The picture in no way does this bad boy justice (I had to step back from my chair to snap this photo). To be fair, I did order the larger of the two size options – still, I had no idea of the Flintstonian slab of meat that would emerge. Still, it was tasty through and through. It was nice and tender with just the right consistency to make each bite substantial.

Breading: Crispy and flaky. It was nice and lumpy, showing somebody took care to shape it by hand and fry it up nice and crispy. A crispy breading like this is important because it has to stand up to the gravy and keep the texture of the meat intact.

Gravy: Smooth and creamy. My waitress asked whether I wanted it or not (does anyone ever say no?) and it came to the table smothering that tender giant of a steak. Hints of pepper but nothing overpowering. Again, I like a little more kick and a little more salt, so I would have liked more of both.

Knife: A standard kitchen knife won’t do here. A serrated steak knife came suggestively tucked under the steak, hinting one could be wise to use it.

Sides: Select two. I chose fried okra (a personal weakness of mine) and the cole slaw. The okra was divinely delicious – so hot and fresh that my progressive popping of 2-3 in my mouth at a time was unwise (but so satisfying). The cole slaw was also excellent. The thing most nice about it was the ratio of cabbage to carrot: the cabbage was sliced into longer strips and the carrot were in small flacks, allowing the cabbage to shine. The creaminess was spot on and the little dish they give you wasn’t enough for me.

Cost: $12.99 (with two sides). $10.99 if you want the smaller size (and plan to eat again anytime in the next week).

The service was excellent. Friendly, fast and perhaps a bit freaked that I was (1) taking pictures of my lunch and (2) in for lunch at 10:50 (hey, I’m a busy and hungry man).

Make a trip to Humble for this. Seriously.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Willy Ray's Bar-B-Q - Beaumont, TX

Who orders chicken fried steak at a barbeque place? Answer: The Chicken Fried Texan.

Willy Ray’s Bar-B-Q in Beaumont was voted as one of Texas Monthly’s 50 best barbeque joints. The place is quaint and smaller inside than it looks outside. It’s a bit of a maze to get to (what isn’t in Beaumont?) but worth a trip.

To the main event: chicken fried steak. The steak itself was juicy and tender, making it easy to cut and nice to chew (some can take serious choppers). It had taken a nice pounding to make it nice and flat.

Breading: The breading was nice but not too thick. (Since this is my first post, I should note to my faithful readers that CFT prefers a thicker breading).

Gravy: on the side. This isn’t too common, but maybe it is an East Texas thing. I didn’t really like the gravy much. It was too bland and needed a kick of something to give it some shoulders.

Knife size: small. It was thin enough to use a standard knife. Despite her east Texas location, leave the Bowie knife at home.

Sides: the dish came with two – I had cole slaw and corn (off the cob). The cole slaw was really bland and needed a shot of vinegar and a little more creaminess to make it stick to CFT’s ribs. The corn was simply great – it was probably canned (too perfectly cut to be fresh) but had a great flavor. There were hints of bacon and red peppers. The tater tot loved it, and if you can get a tot to eat corn, you know you’re doing something right. Mrs. CFT had French fries, which were very well seasoned, hot and fresh.

Cost: About $10.00 (including two sides and a drink). A little on the high side, but fame has it’s price.

The service was a bit sub par. There was confusion at the front of the house (felt like the very nice woman taking our orders was new). The twice-baked potato ordered for the tot never arrived. CFT’s CFS took an extra five minutes to arrive (the cook missed it: good news in a way because it was clearly made to order). But, despite these slips, the staff couldn’t have been nicer and more welcoming – it really felt like a neighborhood joint where you could get comfortable, with no hint of arrogance, despite the coronation from Texas Monthly as barbeque royalty.

Music selection: oldies.

Overall, a nice place and an enjoyable visit. But, as far as the chicken fried side goes, stick to barbeque at Willy Ray’s.
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