Busy Beaver's

The Berkshire ribs are small and tender.
Troy Fields

The fork-tender pork carnitas at Beaver's came on a slice of Texas toast that floated on a pool of savory greens surrounded by bacon and bean ragout and guajillo chile sauce. Wisps of fried onion garnished the homey masterpiece. Beaver's new chef, Jonathan Jones, calls this kind of combo plate "salt-of-the-earth Texas food." Jones grew up in La Porte with a European cook for a stepdad and a lot of Mexican neighbors — it's easy to see those influences on his ­cooking.

You may remember Jones as the guy who brought us Kobe burgers with house-pickled jalapeños, hot dogs with venison chili, and mussels steamed in Lone Star Beer at Max's Wine Dive. His other recent blackboard specials at Beaver's have included panfried black drum with pickled serranos and fried cabbage, as well as slow-smoked chicken over grits.

Located in the icehouse formerly known as Doodie's near Washington Avenue and Sawyer, the business was already named Beaver's when it was taken over by a group of partners, including Monica Pope and Andrea Lazar of T'afia.

Beaver's was completely revamped and reopened with an inventive cocktail list, a great craft beer selection and a menu of barbecue, burgers and creative comfort foods. The "neo-icehouse," as some called it, made Bon Appétit's list of "summer blockbuster" openings this year. "These are the restaurant openings for Summer 2008, with marquee chefs and lots of buzz," the magazine breathlessly exclaimed.

Beaver's actually opened in November 2007. It was immediately popular as a neighborhood watering hole, but the food was uneven from the start. On my first visit, last January, I sampled a wonderfully airy bison and beef meatloaf along with some dismal barbecue, which I described as a "big tough pork rib that tasted like it had been cooked with diesel fuel" and "brisket (that) had an aroma reminiscent of burnt rubber." ["Keep Houston Weird," January 24.]

Beaver's started over when its famed mixologist Bobby Huegel and the original "marquee chef" Dax McAnear departed last month. McAnear went to go cook at Scott Tycer's Textile restaurant. Huegel is opening his own bar.

I decided to revisit Beaver's after I heard that Jonathan Jones had taken over the kitchen. But when I sat down for lunch, I was disappointed to find the same menu as before. The menu didn't change when Jones took over, the waiter explained. If you wanted to eat the new chef's food, you had to order from the blackboard, he said.

I ordered the only thing on the blackboard for lunch that day, a barbecued Berkshire rib plate. Instead of the ­dinosaur-size pork ribs Beaver's used to serve, I was delighted to get my hands on some tender little Berkshire ribs.

A lot of discriminating barbecue men cook the Berkshire "black pig" meat these days. The British Berkshire breed, "swine herd of the House of Windsor," is prized for superior flavor. These pigs yield a small rack of ribs that's perfect for tender barbecue. (Home barbecuers can find Berkshire ribs at Central Market.)

The Berkshire ribs at Beaver's had a nice smoky flavor and fell apart as soon as you picked them up — not unlike the ribs at Burns Bar BQ in Acres Home. They were served with a toasted bun, sauce on the side and some of the chef's awesome housemade pickles.

We started with an excellent seafood campechana appetizer with guacamole and sour cream. My vegetarian friend got the nut burger, which the menu described as a "protein bomb with Texas brown rice, cashews, walnuts, herbs, cheddar cheese and spices." He said it was tasty, but it fell apart in his hands as he tried to eat it. In the end, he declared it not worth the ­hassle.

The fresh fried potato chips with coarse pepper that came with the burger were splendid. He also liked the red cabbage cole slaw. I agreed it tasted fine, as long as you don't mind that the dressing was the same color as Pepto-Bismol. We also sampled the rich "macaroni and cheese," which might be more accurately described as a bowl of orecchiette pasta in a cheddar cream sauce with minced tomato.

My lunchmate loved the "old school potato salad." His grandmother in East Texas made a similar potato salad, he said. She started by mixing the yolks of the hard-boiled eggs with mustard and mayo and then tossing the potatoes, egg whites and pickles in the bright yellow dressing. I hated the runny dressing and found Beaver's potato salad way too soupy. Your opinion may vary depending on your own grandma's recipe.

We were both in agreement about the gray-colored, grainy-textured banana pudding. It was awful.

On a happy hour visit to Beaver's, I sampled an intriguing salt and pepper margarita, made with a peppercorn-infused syrup and rimmed with coarse salt and pepper. It was one of the "front porch" drinks that sell for half price during ­happy hour.

We also got some half-price chicken wings — one of Beaver's best appetizers. The wings are marinated and then baked, so they have a pleasantly firm and chewy texture without a lot of grease. They come with a blue cheese dressing.

The beer and cheese dip was described by our waiter as "Anglo queso." Served with tortilla chips, it tasted like a cross between cheese fondue and cream gravy. I wondered aloud if a can of Rotel tomatoes could have fixed it. My drinking companion responded that this would only work if we threw the cheese dip away and ate the Rotel tomatoes with the tortilla chips.

With our appetizers, I also sampled a delicate drink called a Midlands Cobbler, made with gin and Lillet, and a sotol cocktail. I first drank sotol years ago on a visit to Big Bend National Park; those were the days when you could summon a guy in a rowboat to take you across the Rio Grande to the little village of Boquillas. The sole cantina over there served sotol, the official drink of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Sotol is named for a plant with a long, single-spiked flower that thrives in the desert. The liquor tasted like kerosene, as I recall. But I predicted that someday, somebody would age sotol in oak barrels and sell it for a fortune.

I saw my first bottle of super premium reposado sotol while I was sitting at the bar at Beaver's. It's called Sotal Hacienda de Chihuahua. I sipped a tiny bit all by itself. It had a weirdly herbal flavor and a smoky aftertaste. Beaver's serves it in a cocktail made with orange flower water that's called a "Chihuahua Artista." It's a little reminiscent of a margarita, but with an eerie desert tang.

The fabulous, innovative cocktails and the choice of 75 beers are reason enough to visit Beaver's — it's a great place to drink. After sampling the cocktails, I ordered a Left Hand Milk Stout and a Beaver burger for dinner. The stout was chocolately and smooth, with a sweet aftertaste. The burger was unusual.

The juicy eight-ounce hamburger patty had some pork added, according to the menu. Maybe they're following the example of the famous Squealer burger at Tookie's near Kemah, which combines ground beef and ground bacon. The condiments were served on the side. Along with lettuce and tomato, there was Jonathan Jones's housemade bread and butter pickles and pickled onions, which gave the burger a tart, salty flavor that went great with my creamy stout.

Just before we went to press, Beaver's finally released its first new menu under the Jonathan Jones regime. The changes were pretty subtle — the frou-frou lamb wrap was gone; there was a new Berkshire pork and beans entrée that resembled the carnitas special; and the cabbage in the slaw wasn't purple anymore. There's still plenty of room for improvement. The bland Anglo cheese dip and the crumbly nut burgers are still there among other ho-hum items. But I'm betting it won't be long before Beaver's menu is made up entirely of Jonathan Jones's smashing "salt-of-the-earth Texas food."

And when that happens, this place really will become a "blockbuster."

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2310 Decatur St.
Houston, TX 77007


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