There were half a dozen cop cars and at least a dozen motorcycles, most of them Harley-Davidsons, in the parking lot of Kelley's Country Cooking on the Saturday morning of my first visit. I walked in the front door of the restaurant half expecting to see a major bust in progress.
Instead, I found a special private dining room reserved for bikers and a whole bunch of cops and ambulance drivers having breakfast. There was also a big group of senior citizens on some sort of an outing. The rest of the seats in the large high-ceilinged dining room were filled with plain old chowhounds, carving up enormous pancakes and giant ham steaks.
We sat down at a choice table by the front window and looked over the menu. "Hungry?" read the first word on the cover. I had no idea how apt the question was. I would come to discover that Kelley's trademark is giant portions. And the breakfasts, which are served all day, lead the oversize parade.
There's also a lot of them to choose from. Not counting the cereals, there were 33 featured breakfast combinations, including breakfast tacos, biscuits and gravy, chili and eggs, three-egg omelettes, one egg, two eggs, three eggs, and pancakes, all served with variations of ham, bacon, sausage, hash browns and grits. There were also eggs Benedict on the weekends. And Egg Beaters for dieters.
When the waitress came by, I made things easy by pointing to the first thing on the menu. It said "Kelley's grand slam breakfast, our specialty." There were three plates involved in the grand slam extravaganza. The first, which arrived with the coffee, held a hot biscuit about the size of a hamburger bun and a bowl of golden-colored gravy with a soupspoon in it. This was evidently intended as a small snack to tide you over until something more substantial arrived.
I resisted the temptation to split the biscuit in two and pour the gravy over the top. That's the way I usually eat a breakfast biscuit with gravy, but there was a lot more food coming. So I just tore off pieces of biscuit and dunked them daintily in the bowl while I drank my coffee. The biscuit was very moist, and I think it was chicken gravy.
The second plate arrived a few minutes later. It was covered from rim to rim with one of the best chicken-fried steaks I've eaten in Houston. If you ever have to explain to a visiting foreigner what "chicken-fried" means, let the crust on this battered steak, fried crisp and brown with lots of crunchy bits, provide the explanation for you. Not only was the crust perfect, the meat inside was juicy. The whole thing was covered with the same tasty gravy that came with the biscuit.
The third plate was loaded with three eggs fried sunny side up and a major pile of Kelley's handmade, never-been-frozen, hash browns, which are grated from Idaho No. 1 potatoes.
I ate all three eggs, the biscuit, half of the steak and a little bit of the hash browns before waving my napkin in the air and crying, "No más, no más!" I am a hearty eater, but I was no match for Kelley's grand slam breakfast.
Across the table, my dining companion had long ago given up on her pancakes. There is only a 50-cent difference between a full stack of three pancakes and a short stack of two at Kelley's. But you might as well save the half a buck because you can't eat two of these. My companion had eaten about a quarter of a two-pancake pile. I know it's hard to imagine someone getting full on half a pancake.
Rather than resort to metaphors and hyperbole, I brought the giant flapjacks home in a Styrofoam container and took the tape measure to them. Each griddle cake measured a half-inch in height and eight inches in diameter. I put the equivalent of a full pancake on the scale, and it weighed nine ounces. Which means a full stack at Kelley's is around a pound and two-thirds of pancakes.
There is a large photo of John F. Kennedy by the front door of the restaurant. The founder of Kelley's Country Cooking, J.W. Kelley Sr., was one of the motorcycle cops who accompanied Kennedy's motorcade through Houston the day before the president was shot. Kelley spent 26 years with HPD before he retired in 1983.
The restaurant opened in 1984 inside Lang's Pharmacy at Park Place and Interstate 45 as a 50-seat lunchroom with nine employees. Today there are five Kelley's locations in the greater Houston area, 450 employees and combined seating of more than 1,300. Kelley still hangs around the original Park Place restaurant sometimes, and he gives special treatment to cops, bikers and retired folks.
The walls of the restaurant are decorated with huge blow-ups of old photos of Houston. There are also some enlarged photos of Kelley's sons, who also became Houston cops. There's also an array of clocks set to various time zones in case you want to know what time it is in New York or Mexico City. Early in the morning, with the sunlight flooding in the big front windows, Kelley's is a wonderfully eccentric Houston institution.
On a dinnertime visit, the atmosphere looked drastically different. Without the sunlight, the fluorescent tubes were eye-stabbingly bright. And they shed an unflattering light on a clientele clad in XXXL T-shirts, pants with elastic waists and gimme caps.
My dining companion, a woman who was nine months pregnant, looked around the restaurant after we sat down and said, "I'm awestruck." The scale of her fellow diners made her feel "petite," she said. What do you expect in a restaurant famous for large portions? I shrugged.
I had learned my lesson. I wanted to try Kelley's burger, but instead of the Super K burger, weighing in at a full pound, I opted for the smaller Kelley burger with cheese. It was made with a half-pound, hand-formed ground beef patty cooked well done. The top half of the glossy, toasted bun had an American cheese slice melted onto the underside. It was dressed with iceberg, small tomato slices, dill pickle chips, mustard and mayo and served with a pile of potato chips. The meat was a tad dry and the dressings too generic, but with a little work it could be great. Next time, I'll ask them to cook it medium and add the 99-cent jalapeño upgrade.
My companion ordered a fried catfish dinner with a couple of fried shrimp on the side and substituted a baked potato for the fries, a $3 upgrade. The catfish was cut in strips and fried with a cornmeal coating, but the fish was oddly flavorless. The shrimp were excellent, quick-fried so the coating was crispy but the meaty shrimp weren't overcooked. But it was the baked potato that caused our jaws to drop.
A No. 1 Idaho is a large potato. In fact, the government minimum standard is one and seven-eighths inches in diameter. When the waiter put a platter of four half-potatoes in front of my dining companion, along with large stainless-steel containers of bacon bits, cheese, green onions, sour cream and butter, she looked a little overwhelmed.
"Why are there two potatoes?" I asked the waiter. I thought he had misunderstood our order and brought us both baked potatoes. But it turns out that when you order a baked potato at Kelley's, you get not one but two monster Idaho No. 1 spuds, cut in half lengthwise.
"It's a great deal," the waiter enthused. "You can order a baked potato for $4.39 and get a whole meal." While we sat wondering how anybody could eat that much potato, a server walked by with somebody else's order. It was a steak dinner, and beside the meat was the largest mound of mashed potatoes I have ever seen in a restaurant. The creamed spuds were formed into two rounded mounds, and each of the massive domes was covered with brown gravy.
If you are potato lover, I highly recommend Kelley's for dinner; otherwise, the meal to eat here is breakfast. But I suggest you have a strategy for dealing with the gargantuan portions. "Some people order these big breakfasts and feed the whole family with them," a waitress who had recently relocated from New Orleans told us. "And we always have plenty of to-go boxes on hand."
But this time I was way ahead of her. I ordered the "iron skillet" breakfast. The skillet was one of those cast-iron Mexican comals in a wooden holder that sizzling fajitas are usually served on. Instead of fajitas, it was loaded with three fried eggs, homemade hash browns and a full-pound ham steak with a biscuit and gravy on the side.
I ate the eggs, most of the potatoes and the biscuit, but I left three quarters of the ham steak uneaten. (Somehow I was able to get by on a quarter-pound of ham.) I put the remains in a to-go box. I had already started some black beans simmering in a slow cooker. When I got home, I cut up the leftover ham and added it to the beans. And I'm still enjoying it.
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