Deep-fried Country

In a back room on Heights Boulevard, a fiddle player adjusts his Stetson, pushes his spectacles up in anticipation of the sweat that will soon drench his face and shouts into a microphone, "Aw right! Let's hoedown!"

The time is early on a Friday evening, and outside, the sun is beginning to sink below the horizon. Inside, fiddle, banjo and guitar come out kicking and swinging as bluegrass music lifts the very molecules of the air. Then a jarring accompaniment joins the music: a disembodied voice booming the words "Number 27" from a ceiling speaker. A moment later comes a more detailed reminder: "Number 27, your order is ready."

At a crowded table littered with iced tea glasses and longnecks, a man dressed Western with an ease that indicates that boots and snap-button shirts are his everyday attire stands up and moseys toward the other leg of the cedar-walled U that makes up the three contiguous rooms of Hickory Hollow. He returns bearing two round metal plates, and, handing his wife her grilled chicken breast and mashed potatoes, he resumes his seat, resumes his listening to the music and attacks a gravy smothered chicken-fried steak that's as large as the plate it rests on.

A treat for the ears, a treat for the mouth: it's a combination that, over the last decade, has made Hickory Hollow's Heights Boulevard location a favorite weekend destination for those who like their tunes acoustic and their beef battered and deep-fried. Hickory Hollow's delightfully battered, thick-crusted round steaks have become an addiction to multitudes who feel a cultural kinship to what Dan Jenkins once described as a peculiar class of Texans whose entire vocabulary consists of several vulgarisms and the phrase, "more gravy."

Gravy is, of course, as essential to the chicken-fried experience as batter, and adorning the peppery, delicately crunchy crust that encases Hickory Hollow's steaks is a tasty colloid that bears only a superficial resemblance to the pale paste all too often encountered elsewhere. Hickory Hollow's "Texas River Bottom Gravy" is gravy of considerable authority, one that will have even the most devoted of catsup consumers leaving their Heinz bottle capped in favor of dragging their fries through the creamy thickness, and leave them bemoaning the single slice of white bread they're given to sop up the gravy and crumbs of breading at meal's end. As befits the specialty of the house, Hickory Hollow's chicken-frieds come in sizes ranging from sandwich to near-tablecloth, with overkill awards going to the served-on-a-pizza-pan Wagon Master that serves as the centerpiece of a family-style meal for four. The various incarnations of chicken-frieds bear names that emphasize Hickory Hollow's nudge-and-a-wink country-bumpkin image -- Plowman's, Hired Hand and Rancher's in order of size -- and, like the rest of the menu, are attached to odd-change prices that, once tax and iced tea (served, as it should be, in threaded-lip canning jars) are added, work out to even-dollar amounts.

Having a pricing structure that eliminates fumbling with change speeds order processing, which is a plus in a waiter-free setup such as Hickory Hollow's.

Even during the lunch crush, when the line frequently stretches from the counter to the front door, there's an assembly-line rapidity that belies the restaurant's laid-back ambiance. There's barely enough time to take advantage of the truck-stop-style salad counter -- a galvanized washtub filled with a fresh, simple tossing of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes and red cabbage -- before the PA announces the number on your receipt and a return to the counter is mandated. This is basic food, artfully done, and a chicken-fried steak so wonderfully crunchy on the outside and so tender at the center is worth fetching yourself.

Less wonderful are Hickory Hollow's barbecue selections. While I admire the adroitness and patience that Hickory Hollow has obviously put into smoking its meat -- the pork ribs are among the tenderest I have ever eaten -- it's a tenet of my religion that barbecue sauce should have a noticeable heat index. And while Hickory Hollow has created a flavorful sauce, with more than a hint of bay leaves, it sacrifices heat for sweetness. The large and small barbecue sampler plates that mix ribs, link sausage and chopped brisket may make for a generous plateful of meat, but the sweetness of the sauce defeats the appeal of what it covers.

I must admit, though, that a number of people seem to disagree with my position on barbecue sauce, and that Hickory Hollow's has its admirers. A recent weekend-only addition to the menu has added some loyalists to those ranks. Though chicken barbecue isn't generally considered part of the Texas wood-smoke tradition, Hickory Hollow's has become an inevitable sellout, despite the fact that the kitchen has increased weekly the amount of slow-cooked chicken it prepares. The chicken is smoked to perfection, pulling away from the bone while retaining a moist hint of pinkness at the interior, but as far as I'm concerned, the sauce once more mandates a trip to the salad counter's jar of pickled jalapenos.

Barbecued isn't the only approach to chicken that Hickory Hollow offers those who must have an alternative to beef; there's also grilled and fried, though, alas, the latter version no longer bears the wonderfully redundant sobriquet of "chicken fried chicken." Still, it's a fine adaptation of the house's flagship entree. Heresy though it is to say in these heart-healthy times, grilled boneless chicken is generally the most boring dish around, even when accompanied by the grilled zucchini that sometimes shows up as a special at Hickory Hollow. This integral lack of excitement makes the grilled chicken chef's salad all the more imaginative: I don't recall ever before encountering a chef's salad that included a scoop of potato salad. But in a large bowl of minimalist house salad topped by a chopped chicken breast, a scoop of potato salad off to the side somehow makes sense.

Quirky ideas that somehow make sense are something of a Hickory Hollow tradition. The restaurant began in 1977 on Houston's northwest side (where the original Hickory Hollow still operates). The combination of deliberately rustic decor and fervently traditional preparation of iconic Texas entrees soon established Hickory Hollow as a destination worth the drive -- or, in those heady oil-money days, the flight. In a move that endeared the eatery to the mover-and-shaker crowd, the restaurant's owners built a helipad out back; there's no telling how many out-of-towners were enthralled by the uniquely Houstonian gesture of taking a corporate whirlybird to a joint in the woods.

The boom, of course, went bust and the helicopters went back to the leasing companies. Nonetheless, Hickory Hollow continued to prosper. In 1987, owner Tony Riedel opened a second restaurant on Heights Boulevard. After a short stint at the location of the Old Bayou Inn, the in-town Hickory Hollow moved up the hill to its current and more spacious home at the corner of Heights and Central. There, Riedel did what he could to correct the shameful paucity of Houston venues that offer live bluegrass -- and occasionally exercises the owner's prerogative of trading apron for guitar and sitting in with the band.

Providing a steady home for that chronically underexposed Appalachian folk music is another of the endearing traits that have resulted in a loyal base of regular customer. Chrome, Formica and Naugahyde are unusual furnishings for a live-music venue -- as unusual as the notion of a nightclub where patrons drink more iced tea than beer and where the majority of the folks on the dance floor are children who came with their parents. What Riedel realized is that listening to bluegrass while answering a craving for beef and cream gravy is eminently sensible.

Chicken-fried steaks have long been mainstays of local cooking. And when out-of-state visitors come calling, there are traditions that must be upheld. Before we can impress them with Vietnamese and Mediterranean and nouvelle Southwestern, our guests must first do Tex-Mex and trad-Tex. For the former, there are a number of fine options; for the later, it's hard to imagine a more in-your-face reminder that Houston is as Texan as it is international than Hickory Hollow, where it's considered good manners to hoedown with your mouth full.

Hickory Hollow, 101 Heights Boulevard, 869-6300.

Hickory Hollow: Hired Hand meal, $7.07; Rancher's meal, $9.06; grilled chicken plate, $5.68; barbecue sampler, $8.18 (large), $7.04 (small).


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