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Life After Mrs. Brenner
It is instructive to note which restaurants Houston expatriates rush to when they come home again. It's not the fancy or ambitious or high-concept places my visitors seem to pine for; it's eateries that satisfy some primitive need in our Texas souls. A cherished Tex-Mex joint oozing Velveeta. Goode's barbecue. Someplace conducive to the serious sucking of crawfish heads. One acquaintance of mine would drive from Intercontinental straight to Otto's hamburger side, where he would consume two consecutive cheeseburgers looking as blissed-out as a $75 million lottery winner.

Last week my out-of-town guest, who has spent the last year in Thailand, had a single urgent restaurant request: Brenner's. Made sense to me. This 58-year-old Houston steakhouse has always struck me as one of life's more reassuring verities, from the way its changeless panel-and-fieldstone interior wrapped you in the Texas of three or four decades ago, to the knowledge that somewhere back in the kitchen, the formidable (and seemingly ageless) Mrs. Brenner was cracking the whip over her formidable slabs of beef. Invariably they were meticulously cooked, pooled with strong, salty pan juices, escorted by a gloriously sloppy, oniony, crusty pile of German-fried potatoes.

Times change, of course. Nobody's ageless. Mrs. Brenner retired last year and sold the place to a small group of investors; her son, Carl, is no longer with the business either. Yet it feels eerily the same, right down to the no-nonsense waitresses and the tinny radio wheezing big-band music. And that archetypal food? Largely intact, from those outrageous German fries to the imposing aged ribeyes and New York strips, both with the depth of flavor and resilience demanded by the primal urge for red meat.

And yet... and yet. Under the crunchy crust of the sainted hand-cut onion rings lurked a slightly pasty film. The classic roadhouse iceberg salad? Remove the splendidly excessive boulders of cheese from the sainted Roquefort dressing, and you'd have been left with a bland, oily bore. Small things. "The beginning of the end?" nagged the paranoid voice inside me. Nobody else seemed to think so. Not my companions. ("These potatoes look nasty!!" one crowed delightedly.) Not the 12 suits (none of them Armani) who filled a long table, har-haring and swigging Chateuneuf du Pape. Not the pairs and trios of bidness guys, the mature Memorialites, the young couple on an expensive date. Not Churrasco's beefmeister Michael Cordua, busman's holidaying with his wife and a friend. I had to admit that the retrograde garlic toast had acquired lots more garlic, lots more soul. Mrs. Brenner was gone; maybe everything would be all right. I left smiling.

-- Alison Cook

Brenner's, 10911 Katy Freeway, 465-2901.

 
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