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On the Road

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

The first time I encountered a true Texas roadhouse was in the mid-'70s, during a grueling car trip from Atlanta to Los An-geles. Late into the afternoon of my bleary second day, I decided I had to have something to eat. My last sit-down meal had been at the Cafe Du Monde on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans, a lovely breakfast of beignets and chicory-laced coffee in the full glory of the French Quarter, and since then it had been fast-food hamburgers consumed at the wheel, the detritus thrown into the back seat. I didn't expect to find anything memorable on the flat plains west of Dallas, but for the longest time I didn't find anything at all. Until, that is, a small block building appeared on the horizon. The barely legible sign out front said James' Road House; there were three pickup trucks parked in the accompanying lot; it was four in the afternoon in late August, and the sun was still beating down hard.

When I pushed through the door, though, the sun disappeared. A quartet of grizzled men, one wearing a Stetson, sat at a bar that looked like it'd been rescued from some suburbanite's rec room. A similarly grizzled woman stood behind the bar. Nearby, a trio of tables covered in oilcloth were scattered in front of a small stage. I pulled a ladder-back chair away from one of the tables, sat down and perused a menu propped up by a salt shaker and a napkin dispenser. I ordered the chicken-fried steak.

I'd like to say that the steak was tremendous, that as a true culinary adventurer I'd overlooked surface appearances and found a rough-hewn gem. I can't. The chicken-fried steak wasn't just mediocre, it was awful. The cream gravy was reminiscent of flour paste, and I suspect the cow the meat came from hadn't been slaughtered but had died of old age, then been found festering on the side of the road. Nonetheless, James' Road House fixed in my mind what roadhouses are all about, and though I've had much better food in much more inviting roadhouses, some aspects of the experience have never changed. Roadhouses are off the beaten path. They're haunted by locals. And whatever time it may be outside, inside it's evening.

I mention all this simply to point out that whatever else it may be, Dixie's Red Hot Roadhouse ain't no roadhouse. First, it's too big. Second, it's too bright. And third ... well, the third thing occurred to me when I first walked inside. The towering entrance, with its large wooden beams, reminded me more of a hunting lodge than a roadhouse, while the neon that flashed from every available surface was suggestive of the Las Vegas strip (a connection Dixie's owners seem to recognize, since the entire back wall is plastered with pictures of Vegas). The joint was packed. A barrel of roasted-in-the-shell peanuts stood guard near the door, and cheerful waitresses dipped metal bowls into it and offered them up to waiting patrons as solace for their having to cool their heels. Along one wall was a vast collection of beer cans from around the world; on another wall was a mounted marlin and a selection of stuffed fowl. In the back, a deceased mountain lion stalked the rafters, his glass eyes staring at the head of a Texas longhorn. A bison head was in there somewhere as well, as were flashing beer signs and beaten-flat wall coverings of license plates. The mammoth booths, which can seat six easily, sported tables made of the same metal you see on a diesel truck's back bumper. A warehouse allotment of hot sauces, steak sauces, ketchups, what have you perched on the shelves between each booth. The open kitchen sizzled. Music boomed from the ceiling. A mixed roar of conversation rose from the floor to fight with it for dominance. Some 24 television sets glared down at the melee. My, my, I thought. Chuck E. Cheese for adults.

A number of follow-up visits moderated my opinion somewhat -- the last time I was at Dixie's, the atmosphere could even have been called low-key -- but not tremendously. At times, the sensory overload threatens to shut down the brain, which is the only explanation I have for some of the service glitches I ran into again and again.

One would expect something so obviously thought out (excess of this nature doesn't come accidentally), and so obviously planned (the main idea men are Bob Wilson, who started Joe's Crab Shack, and James Hiliard, who was with Cabo's and the Pasta Co.) to run like a well-oiled machine. But on my first visit, when I ordered the chicken-fried steak in homage to my original roadhouse experience, I was very quickly presented with chicken-fried chicken. My next time out I arrived late in the evening, was promptly led to a booth, and was just as promptly forgotten. While the waitress chatted up a crowd of college students, I examined my nails, the walls, the televisions. After 20 minutes I went scouting for a server; the one I found was appropriately apologetic, but still slow. Another night, I was told it would be 15 to 20 minutes before a table was ready; it was only after I pointed out a clearly empty one that the captain agreed to shorten my wait. And at one lunch, when a friendly waitress brought me some to-go containers for my leftovers, I learned more than I cared to know about the restaurant trade. The waitress cheerfully allowed that I'd have to scoop the food into the containers myself because "people have been sued for what customers claimed was done to the leftovers back in the kitchen, and this way you can be sure they're okay." Comforting as that information was supposed to be, all it did was leave me wondering just what is done to the food in the Dixie's Roadhouse kitchen.

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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