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Deep-fried Country

At Hickory Hollow, what fills your ears is as fine as what fills your mouth

Quirky ideas that somehow make sense are something of a Hickory Hollow tradition. The restaurant began in 1977 on Houston's northwest side (where the original Hickory Hollow still operates). The combination of deliberately rustic decor and fervently traditional preparation of iconic Texas entrees soon established Hickory Hollow as a destination worth the drive -- or, in those heady oil-money days, the flight. In a move that endeared the eatery to the mover-and-shaker crowd, the restaurant's owners built a helipad out back; there's no telling how many out-of-towners were enthralled by the uniquely Houstonian gesture of taking a corporate whirlybird to a joint in the woods.

The boom, of course, went bust and the helicopters went back to the leasing companies. Nonetheless, Hickory Hollow continued to prosper. In 1987, owner Tony Riedel opened a second restaurant on Heights Boulevard. After a short stint at the location of the Old Bayou Inn, the in-town Hickory Hollow moved up the hill to its current and more spacious home at the corner of Heights and Central. There, Riedel did what he could to correct the shameful paucity of Houston venues that offer live bluegrass -- and occasionally exercises the owner's prerogative of trading apron for guitar and sitting in with the band.

Providing a steady home for that chronically underexposed Appalachian folk music is another of the endearing traits that have resulted in a loyal base of regular customer. Chrome, Formica and Naugahyde are unusual furnishings for a live-music venue -- as unusual as the notion of a nightclub where patrons drink more iced tea than beer and where the majority of the folks on the dance floor are children who came with their parents. What Riedel realized is that listening to bluegrass while answering a craving for beef and cream gravy is eminently sensible.

Chicken-fried steaks have long been mainstays of local cooking. And when out-of-state visitors come calling, there are traditions that must be upheld. Before we can impress them with Vietnamese and Mediterranean and nouvelle Southwestern, our guests must first do Tex-Mex and trad-Tex. For the former, there are a number of fine options; for the later, it's hard to imagine a more in-your-face reminder that Houston is as Texan as it is international than Hickory Hollow, where it's considered good manners to hoedown with your mouth full.

Hickory Hollow, 101 Heights Boulevard, 869-6300.

Hickory Hollow: Hired Hand meal, $7.07; Rancher's meal, $9.06; grilled chicken plate, $5.68; barbecue sampler, $8.18 (large), $7.04 (small).

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