Want a behind the scenes look at Frank's Americana Revival? Check out this slideshow.
I love going to mom-and-pop restaurants. Visit once, and the very next time you walk in the door you'll be greeted by name and taken care of with warmth and smiles that make you feel properly mothered. It's the same feeling I get when I go home for the holidays, and exactly how the Shine family — Mike, Chris, Colin and Whitney — makes me feel each time I set foot into their restaurant, Frank's Americana Revival.
I met all four of the Shines on my first visit to the restaurant, hearing the story about how Whitney would drive in from Austin after working a full week at an oil and gas company so that he could spend a day helping out at the host stand. I heard about how Colin, the youngest, had graduated with a degree in business but loved the kitchen so much that he'd become the de facto sous chef under executive chef Albert Estrada. I also heard about how Chris, the operations manager and sommelier, would rather spend his time talking about his wines than doing anything else.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays. Cup of gumbo: $8 Avocado and tomato salad: $8 Smoked beef tenderloin crostini: $15 Tuna tartare: $17 Pan-seared Creole snapper: $32 Buttermilk fried chicken: $22 Chicken-fried steak: $22 Maple-brined pork chop: $29 Prime rib eye with Lyonnaise potatoes: $48 Side order of Gouda mac and cheese: $8 Half berry cobbler: $4 Half tres leches: $4 Toffee pudding: $8
Want to know more about Frank's Americana Revival? Check out these links: Slideshow: Feels Like Home: A Closer Look at Frank's Americana Revival Blog: Frank's Americana Revival: Classic American Food Has Never Tasted Better
Michael Shine, the owner and family patriarch, shared these stories like the proud papa that he is, almost distracting me from my mission at hand — figuring out how Frank's had managed to win so many local food contests — beating anywhere from 30 to 50 chefs and other restaurants at each competition — since it took over Frank's Chop House in July 2012. From February to May 2013, Frank's brought home titles such as Grand Reserve Champion at the Houston Rodeo Best Bites event, People's Choice at the Houston Press Menu of Menus® and People's Choice at Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation competition. It didn't take me long to find out.
'I can't remember the last time I went to a restaurant with so many dishes I'd want to come back for," my dining companion said to me as we relaxed in our booths, replete after an altogether satisfying dinner.
That was on a recent Saturday night at Frank's, and we had been seated in one of the six highly coveted two-seat booths — perfect for a couple — along the west wall of the restaurant. I wish all restaurants had booths like these: spacious enough so that you don't feel crowded in, with enough table real estate so that you can order quite a bit of food and not worry too much about where the plates will fit.
"They're definitely popular," laughed Colin when I told him how much I loved the feeling of sitting in the three-foot-wide booths. "People definitely fight over them, and sometimes, towards the end of the night, we'll even see them squeezing in together on one side," he added, smiling.
Looking around, I admired the clean dark-wood paneling and nautical-themed decor, which supposedly hasn't changed much since the Shine family began cooking in the building. It made me think of a seafood house in New England, a handsome, sparkling space decorated in rich mahogany tones.
All the couple booths were full that night, and by 7 p.m. the entire dining room was filled with families, River Oaks patrons and thirtysomething couples. I'm told that the place gets its fair share of prominent clientele (I saw a former Texas governor on a previous visit) and business people, and though it's by no means as hip as the restaurants you'll find down the street in Montrose, it is a very comfortable spot.
This was the first time I'd seen Colin outside of the kitchen. On previous visits to the restaurant, I'd catch sight of him working in the kitchen behind the stainless-steel counters, his hair covered by a white cap. On this night, however, he'd taken over his dad's job, working the dining-room floor in a plaid cowboy shirt and jeans, his wavy brown hair, easy smile and charming twang the epitome of Texas hospitality.
It was his gumbo that I tasted that night — a staple menu item at Frank's and one of the best I've ever tried — the murky, grayish-brown liquid rich with a deeply layered, strong seafood essence complemented by bites of rice, small Texas oysters and shrimp, and a good amount of spice that wasn't, thankfully, overwhelming. So often with gumbo, you get a watered-down flavor amplified by the addition of too much salt or spice, but Colin's gumbo was intense from having been cooked for four hours, without the slightest hint of oversalting, and when I told him so, he beamed with pride.
The pride that the Shines take in their food was a running theme in almost every dish that I ordered at Frank's, including the double-bone pork chop, brined for eight hours in maple, apple juice, brown sugar and rosemary before it's grilled and served glistening with a brush of fresh fruit and pepper glaze. Estrada had boastingly described it as something he'd feel proud to pit against Perry's Famous Pork Chop.
I'd smiled my skepticism at the time, but gave him points for trying. This double-bone chop was indeed one of the most memorable I've had in Houston, the meat slightly pink and as tender as the most perfect veal, served with a chunky, cinnamon-sweet homemade applesauce over whipped potatoes. I'd put Estrada's pork chop up there with the ones I've tried at Haven and Liberty Kitchen — both excellent — but it didn't have the thick-crusted caramelization and almost-bacon flavor of the chop at Perry's. It was, however, a fine plate, and I recommend it highly.
Frank's 14-ounce USDA prime rib eye steak was another matter. When I asked how good it was, my server, Joe, quickly replied, "It's dynamite!" He went on to gush about the accompanying Lyonnaise potatoes, adding that his mom would drive all the way from Galveston to eat them. Cutting open the steak's mahogany crust to reveal a flavorful, medium-rare, marbled red meat cooked to my exact specifications confirmed his assessment, as did my first forkful of the potatoes.
Crisp and garlicky, their texture approaching the almost-crunchy outer shell of the best iron-skillet potatoes, these Lyonnaise potatoes owe their unique deliciousness to a double-frying technique and a secret ingredient: duck fat. The fat took those potatoes over the edge from good to great, worthy of fanatical devotion. (I am a fan.)
An off-menu soft-shell crab special was another stunner, arriving at our table in whole-crab form blanketed in a honeyed panko-crumb shell, with a poached egg smothered in Béarnaise sauce nestled in the center of the crab, between its legs. The egg oozed beautifully yellow when we cut through the middle of its yolk, combining with the light-as-air textures of the sweet crabmeat to scrumptious effect. This dish is an absolute must-order if it is on the menu when you visit Frank's.
There were a few lackluster dishes that appeared during my three visits to the restaurant, none of them offensive but merely lacking in flavor. Be it a fluke or happenstance, I'm not quite sure, but all three were fish dishes: a blackened snapper over an okra and tomato ragout that was just okay, an off-menu special of crab-stuffed red snapper over butternut-squash risotto that was bland and a bit overcooked, and an ahi tuna and avocado crab tower that was noticeably lacking in seasoning.
I also found the desserts to be on the overly sweet side. Nonetheless, I loved that Frank's gives you the option of enjoying them as half orders. That allowed my two girlfriends and me to try four desserts instead of only three, enjoying a half berry cobbler and a half tres leches, along with a full-size bread pudding and a full-size toffee pudding.
In the grand scheme of things, these were small blips over the course of some very enjoyable meals, and they didn't matter so much, because there were plenty of other dishes worth coming back to.
If there's one thing to order at Frank's, it's the chicken-fried steak. A staple from when the restaurant was Frank's Chop House — and when it was named No. 56 on Robb Walsh's list of 100 favorite dishes in 2010 — the recipe has been tweaked by the Shines since they took over last year, and though it was already good, the dish is now better than ever. Even if you don't order it, which I had to force myself not to do on my second and third visits, seeing the impressively large mounds of chicken-fried ovals topped with pepper-cream gravy and nestled next to vegetables and tufts of whipped potatoes will no doubt make you want to do so.
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"I want that chicken-fried steak," I found myself muttering after seeing at least five orders of it go by my table, trying to figure out how I could eat a plate of it big enough for two in addition to the ahi tuna tartare, cup of gumbo, tomato and avocado salad, and 14-ounce prime rib eye that I'd already ordered.
It was a dilemma I experienced on each of my visits to Frank's Americana Revival: the need to order well beyond what my stomach was capable of handling. It's not that the menu at Frank's is too large. In fact, it's a very well edited two-page affair, with the starters, salads and daily specials on one side and the entreés on the other.
The problem was that there were too many things that sounded good, too many items that I'd been craving without even knowing it until I saw the words in front of me — simple descriptions that were in and of themselves tantalizing because of what they represented: comfort. Comfort as in buttermilk fried chicken, chopped sirloin steak, liver and onions, chicken pot pie, Gouda mac and cheese, a fried green tomato BLT and that chicken-fried steak that I was dying to order.
The menu at Frank's Americana Revival is brimming with these types of dishes, items that evoke memories of happy childhoods with the family, food that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and cared for. Those things, along with the hospitality you'll get from the Shines, will make you feel right at home.