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Before there was a 610 loop, the Triple A Restaurant anchored a corner of the near north side. From its inception, the Triple A has stayed the course of culinary purity; "trend" and "theme" are two words alien to its owners, Sonny and Lucille Schmidt. Opened downtown in 1938 by Sonny's uncle, in 1942 the Triple A transferred to its location hard by the farmer's market on Airline Drive. It moved to get closer to its primarily blue-collar clientele, workers who demanded plenty of solid food quickly served. The Triple A provided for their needs.
I search for restaurants such as the Triple A. They're the holy grail of my own special memories of childhood dining delights and young adult promise. I took my first date to a Triple A-type diner, my father saw me off to college after a last meal at a Triple A twin and I celebrated my first job with chicken-fried steak and white gravy at a Triple A look-alike. That was then, and this is now, and some things have changed in my life. But places such as the Triple A remain true, to themselves and to us.
The Schmidts' formula is simplicity itself: Waitresses serve up blue-plate specials whose portions are large, and whose prices won't come close to using up a ten-dollar bill. Starting at six in the morning and not closing until eight at night, Monday through Friday, the couple oversees the feeding of large numbers of their fellow Houstonians. (Saturday they close early, at 4 p.m., and Sunday, like many good folks, they don't work.) Sitting in either of the two dining rooms, I have eaten alongside Houston's richest lawyers, produce truck drivers, equal numbers of male and female business types and a bunch of good old boys and girls of variable incomes.
2526 Airline Drive
Houston, TX 77009
They, like me, have come to worship at the altar of plain cooking. The Triple A's hamburgers, models of their kind, are one example of such cuisine. The patty is large, but not too thick. The bun has kissed the hot, greasy grill just long enough to be heated through. The onions, tomato slices and pickles are thin and allow the burger to rest comfortably wrapped in a midriff napkin, like a topless bather who promises more when the beach towel is dropped. I've eaten Triple A burgers since 1968, and unlike fickle bathing beauties, the Schmidts' made-to-order burgers and fries remain reliable.
The regulars know the routine. Wait in line in the small lobby. When a table clears, and you're the next in line, you get to eat. The menu rotates daily, a cornucopia of vegetables and meats always headed by a special. Monday's special is corned beef and cabbage; Tuesday's is chicken and dressing; Wednesday's is enchiladas, pinto beans and rice; and Thursday's is the delight of the week -- chicken and dumplings. The dumplings are light, having simmered in the thick gravy until they float like clouds atop a sea of stewed chicken chunks. I've learned to recognize good chicken and dumplings by the faintly yellow hue of the broth cuddled in the concavities of the dumplings. The Triple A's are good chicken and dumplings.
Some addicts order the largest bowls of this soul-mending dish and then shamelessly scrape and sop until the final essences disappear from their plates. I plead guilty to this habit. When it comes to Triple A chicken and dumplings, my table manners may not present a pretty picture. But so far, nobody has noticed, perhaps because their heads are deep in their own bowls of lunchtime heaven.
Chicken and dumplings a la Triple A are so popular that on occasion the kettles simmering on the stove run out before everyone is served. Then and only then have I seen the remarkably serene atmosphere of the place charged with bad vibes and not a little grumbling. The disappointed are assuaged with the shirttail of the menu, comprised on any Thursday of roast beef brisket, barbecue smoked sausage, grilled calf liver and onions or stuffed fried crabs.
Friday's feature is a seafood gumbo and rice or smothered steak. The latter is covered with a thick, rich-tasting gravy. Fork-tender, the steak could be round, flank or another piece of beef occasionally named steak, but it's well seasoned and well worth choosing. Saturday sees a repeat of one of the week's other specials or an occasional star brought up from the offerings below the specials.
Orders from the selection of specials offer the choice of three side items, one of which could be a dessert. Cobblers abound, Jell-O wobbles and bread pudding with fruit sauce shows up at least once a week. That last needs something to raise it above the bland and boring -- something like a good lashing of rum or a stronger hand with the flavorings. The fixed menu offers the usual list of suspects: steaks, burgers, club sandwiches, fries and onion rings. These offerings can come with the house salad, and your choice of dressings is ladled up out of large plastic containers from behind the counter. Louise Anderson, a dignified woman who captains the kitchen crew, is too busy with meats, vegetables and desserts to worry with the inconsequential "saucing" of little bowls of green stuff. Her salads are crisp and fresh, but really, who goes to a diner for a salad? I have, over the years, observed Anderson and I have asked myself why cooks such as her don't win MacArthur fellowships. They have done much to help humanity.