On the Road

Crowded and confusing Dixie's Red Hot Roadhouse may be. But, oh, what a fryer.

From what I can tell, both too much and too little is done too often. The menu is adventuresome; along with roadhouse verities such as chicken-fried entrees, hamburgers, poor boys and the like there's fresh seafood, prime rib, pricey steaks and lobster ceviche. Most of it is perfectly fine, if not particularly memorable. The prime rib ($11.95 for a 12-ounce serving) is juicy, properly cooked and accompanied by a somewhat mild horseradish sauce, but otherwise indistinguishable from all the other prime rib out there. The fresh salmon ($16.95) was surely fresh, and surely flaky, and surely grilled to the correct specifications. And it was just as surely very much like very many slabs of salmon I've had in very many restaurants.

The stuffed bell pepper ($9.95), though, was like nothing I'd seen since my high school cafeteria days: a limp slab of pepper smothered in a pile of mild, barely spiced hamburger meat made moist by what appeared to be mushroom gravy. It was food to make a lunchroom lady smile. As, for that matter, is the oysters au gratin ($6.95), an appetizer that reads like an update of oysters rockefeller on the menu (spinach, cheese, oysters, bacon), but which arrives at the table as Sysco-fied creamed spinach glopped over fried oysters, then sprinkled with cheese and bacon.

Were it not for Dixie's fried offerings, I'd be more than happy to dismiss the place as one of those overly cute, overly conceptualized franchises in the making whose popularity will forever remain beyond my ken. But in its frying, it actually gives itself a reason for being. The oysters that are lost in a grave of greens as an appetizer resurface on the oyster poor boy ($5.95) as delectable mounds, creamy of texture and full of flavor. And the onion rings ($3.95) are sheer marvels, the best I've tasted in Houston. The catfish platter ($9.95), too, sits high in the pantheon of fried fish.

The secret seems to be both in a careful hand with the deep fryer and a thin, cornmeal-based breading that puts to shame the thick coating too often found elsewhere. Anything with this breading is worth eating; anything with it is worth waiting for.

And that applies to the chicken-fried steak ($11.95), which, if not the best to be found in town, surely ranks among the elect few. In this case it's not simply the breading and the frying that are exemplary, it's the cut of meat itself, which isn't pounded round steak but thin, delicate veal. Had I been served a chicken-fried steak of this quality when I sat down at James' Road House two decades back, I might never have continued on to California. That could have wreaked havoc with my future (I was heading west for college), but it would have left my stomach satisfied. And so it is with Dixie's Red Hot Roadhouse. There's much there that wreaks havoc, but if at times it troubles my soul, when I choose correctly, it surely pleases my tongue.

Dixie's Red Hot Roadhouse, 8135 Katy Freeway, 681-4200.

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