The Goode Son

Houston's First Family of Barbecue has anointed an heir apparent to its expanding empire. And his name is Levi.

Still, both Jana and Levi grew up expecting to work someday in their dad's business, which was growing beyond Jim Goode's expectations. In 1982 he and Kate bought the land across the street from Goode Co., and soon after, opened Goode Co. Hamburgers and Taqueria (known as "Burgers" in Goode-speak). Following its success, Jim, the dedicated fisherman, told Kate he'd always wanted to open a seafood restaurant. In '86 Levi watched as a crane lifted an old Amtrak passenger car off the nearby train tracks and lowered it onto the lot that would become Goode Co. Texas Seafood.

A few years after opening Seafood, Jim was buying bullets at Carter Country on I-10 and was drawn to the vacant building across the parking lot -- a white, gingerbready affair that to Jim looked like an old Western whorehouse. He made it the second Goode Co. Barbeque. "Q2," as employees call it, succeeded just like its predecessors. Jana talked about her dad's Midas touch; Jim talked about Kate's good business sense.

Because the schools in Delcambre weren't very good, Jana moved back to Houston for her freshman and sophomore year in high school. She lived with Jim and Kate, ate Mexican rice for breakfast at Burgers most mornings and returned there to work the dinner shift. She transferred to a boarding school in Austin but returned to Houston for college, at the University of St. Thomas. This time she lived on her own.

The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.
Courtesy of Jim Goode
The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Levi, too, moved to Houston for his first two years of high school. At Burgers, he washed dishes; at Barbeque, he sliced meat and trimmed brisket. Again he seemed to have no trouble making friends -- old Lamar High School buddies still honk at him on the freeway -- but he also spent time hanging around Jana's apartment. After all, she was old enough to buy beer.

Levi says that Lamar was beginning to feel dangerous and that lots of his friends were transferring to private schools -- that's why he finished high school at Fork Union, a military boarding school in Virginia. Jana says that their dad wanted Levi to learn military-style discipline. But Jana didn't want Levi to leave town. After he left, she sat crying in her apartment for days. She felt like his twin; she felt like his mother.

Jim had begun pulling back from Goode Co., going fishing more often, leaving the day-to-day operations to the employees he trusted and treated like family -- people like Ralph Cabello, the kitchen manager at Barbeque. Cabello has worked for Goode Co. for 18 years. Jim says that he's "like my son"; Ralph says Jim is his best friend. Other employees have racked up similarly long track records. Except for dishwashers and busboys, few people in the Goode kitchens have worked there less than five years -- amazing for the restaurant industry.

The Goodes often employ whole families: A mother may work as a "bean lady" at Barbeque, while her daughter makes pies at the commissary and her son manages Burgers. To Jim, that kind of nepotism only makes sense: If you get a job because you're somebody's cousin or brother, you feel a little extra responsibility to prove yourself, to uphold your family honor.

Jim felt close to his restaurant family -- in some ways, closer to them than he was to his flesh-and-blood children. After Levi left for military school, Jim hardly noticed he was gone.

Jim thinks about that now. "I got friends whose kids are going to college," he says. "These people spent their whole lives with their kids, went to every baseball game, and now it's like they're in mourning."

He takes a hit from his cigar, then exhales smoke. "I envy that," he says.

Like his dad, Levi grew up surrounded by serious cooking, but Levi's childhood food was the stuff of a different place and time. Besides pecan pies and enchiladas, Levi ate Cajun gumbo and boiled crawfish in Delcambre, and also Sicilian red sauces cooked by his New Orleans grandmother. And though Levi grew up partly in the Lone Star State, Texas food had changed since his dad was a kid: Houston now offered Vietnamese crabs, South American steaks and Indian curries. In the combination office/test kitchen that Jim and Levi share, it's hard to tell what belongs to whom; they both use the pots, the cookbooks, the table and even the phone number. But the shelf of Asian ingredients -- sambal, fish sauce, hoisin -- is clearly Levi's. If Levi represents the next generation of Texas cooking, then Texas seems a bit less mythical, a bit more like every other place in the modem-shrunk global economy: a place where people shop at the Gap and IKEA, where sport-utility vehicles log more miles on freeways than on farm roads, where the rodeo's main attraction is Garth Brooks, not livestock or cowboying.

Levi looks modern, too. Everything about him announces that he's a Serious Young Business Guy: his slicked-back hair, his button-down shirt, black Dell laptop and tiny black cell phone. Except for his shiny, pointy-toed boots, he could pass for one of those baby-faced software-company executives who populate California. He looks like he'd enjoy chatting about IPOs and stock options.

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