Doing the Time Warp
Houston's full of contempo-wannabe restaurants where the cuisine is clever and the decor ab-fab to say the least; mercifully, Ducho's Steak House isn't one of them. For decades this homely time warp has been hiding on a small residential street perpendicular to North Shepherd at the outside edge of Garden Oaks. It's sufficiently off the beaten track that only neighbors and longtime locals tend to be aware of its existence, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If the location were trendier -- Montrose, say, or the loftier reaches of downtown -- the way cool people in black would undoubtedly find delicious irony in frequenting this family-owned restaurant-bar. And probably ruin it in the process.
Before Houston became a megalopolis, Ducho's was where families went for a special Sunday dinner, and where business folks took their clients for lunch. Now the menu of steaks and chops, French fries and home-style pan-fried chicken seems to belong in a museum -- but that just makes the food a guilty pleasure.
When you chow down on Calvin and Joann Ducho's patented chicken-fried steak platter ($8.95), there's no room for shamefaced excuses. If you have a highly developed palate, give it the night off and just dig into a mound of nicely brown fries and blithely saw away at the saddle-size serving of pounded beef encased in crispy batter (which is, of course, slathered in the requisite bland cream gravy that's just right for sopping up with the buttery, Texas-size allegedly-garlic toast). If you must, you can try to salve your culinary conscience with wilted lettuce and canned beets from the salad bar.
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Better yet, order steak. The 12-ounce sirloin ($13.95) and the eight-ounce filet mignon ($8.95), both accompanied by either fries or a load-it-yourself baked potato, arrive perfectly crosshatched with char and prepared precisely to order. The medium-rare was indeed a sanguinary red, but perfectly warm throughout.
Steak purists please avert your eyes while I make a confession: I like my meat well-done. Unfortunately, when asked for such a steak, many kitchens create shoe leather, then blame the diner for making them do it. At Ducho's no excuses are necessary. The well-done filet is deliciously charred on the outside and, wonder of wonders, its still-tender center was thoroughly cooked.
The coffee's terrible, but the whimsically named Lemon Meringue Jazz Berry Pie ($3.25), which is a surprisingly tasty hybrid of lemon meringue and berry-laden cheesecake, provides an appropriate finale for a really retro meal.
-- Joanne Harrison