Is There Room in the Neighborhood for Heights General Store?
The hot dogs at Heights General Store are ground and cased in-house, a process that results in high-quality franks. Go behind the scenes of this week's restaurant review in our slideshow, "Heights General Store/Harold's: A Closer Look."
Harold's, as the restaurant up the stairs and above Heights General Store is affectionately called, isn't open for dinner on Monday nights, but somehow I missed that fact. Downstairs, the seating area by the deli will serve you until 9 p.m., but when I showed up at Harold's at 6:30 on a Monday, ready to eat, I was told a limited menu was all that was available.
It was Alli Jarrett, the owner of Harold's, who met my friends and me at the entrance to the small restaurant overlooking 19th Street and relayed that information.
"Y'all are welcome to come on in and sit down," she said genially in her thick Southern twang. "But I'm gonna warn you: I'm not the best server."
She really sold herself short.
Throughout that evening, Jarrett waited on every table, occupied by diners who, like us, had wandered to the patio to take advantage of the cool night, unaware that the space wasn't technically open. No bother, though. Jarrett — in a button-down shirt, jeans and tennis shoes, the ideal attire for running to and from the kitchen — was the only staff member manning the dining area that evening. She was every bit the gracious hostess, making us feel as if we were in her home rather than a place of business.
"Just order anything you want off the lunch menu," she said, apologizing to us for the fact that they weren't currently serving dinner, as if it were she who had made a mistake, not the several customers who perhaps didn't quite understand the hours of the restaurant. On Mondays, the market — situated downstairs — is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. The deli within the market shares those hours, but the restaurant upstairs, whose nickname is an homage to the department store that once occupied the building, is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. only. It serves food and drink until 8 or 10 p.m. for dinner the rest of the week.
It didn't matter, though, to Jarrett, who was obviously grateful for the business. She started us off with a bottle of wine and a "Southern Pie" pizza, whose thin, crisp yet wonderfully chewy crust had bubbled around the edges from the heat of cooking. Befitting its name, it's topped with Parmesan, braised collard greens, shredded oxtail and red onions — an interesting and ultimately alluring combination of toppings I hadn't before encountered on a pizza. The crust was the ideal platform for the heavy ingredients, but my companions and I agreed that the pie was missing acid in some form; perhaps pickled onions or a squirt of lemon juice would have been appropriate.
It's this pizza, more than anything else on the menu (except, perhaps, the shrimp creole tamales), that sets the tone for what the food at Heights General Store is all about. There's a Southern slant to it, thanks in large part to chef Antoine Ware, formerly of Catalan and Hay Merchant, who grew up in New Orleans and began his cooking career at the original Brennan's there. The menu is largely influenced by Southern soul food, which is also close to Jarrett's heart: She grew up in South Carolina. There's pulled pork, gumbo, boudin balls, shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and jambalaya, all evocative of small-town mom-and-pop restaurants in the Deep South. There's a bit of Houston that comes out in some Asian sauces, the ever-popular wood-fired pizza and the abundance of local produce.
And then, to close the meal, there's Granny's coconut cake.
"Are you sure you can make that?" we asked, aware that she was trying to serve a full menu without a full staff.
"Sure, let me just go to the back and whip something up," she said, smiling. "It's my granny's recipe. You'll love it."
And we did.
Go behind the scenes of this week's restaurant review in our slideshow, "Heights General Store/Harold's: A Closer Look."
After living in Houston's Heights neighborhood for a decade, Jarrett noticed something was missing: fresh local produce and a cafe-style restaurant that made use of it. Yes, there's Revival Market and Down House and Zelko Bistro, all of which make use of local ingredients in their cuisine. Coltivare just opened up on White Oak, adding to the mix, but compared to other areas of Houston, Jarrett found the Heights lacking. So she decided to do something about it.
So in November 2013 Jarrett opened Heights General Store, a combination grocer/deli/restaurant, in a building that had housed a men's clothing store for 61 years before closing in 2011. Her plan was to maintain the historic integrity of the spot — the Harold's sign still hangs on the east end of the building, lit up at night so it can be seen from nearly a mile away — while giving it a rustic facelift.
Reclaimed boards line the walls of the upstairs space and were used to create the tables in the dining room, while outside the feel is more sleek and modern, anchored with metal chairs and tables. The bar gets a pop of color from chartreuse stools and turquoise light fixtures, but that's not why it's a novelty. Heights General Store happens to fall within a dry area of the Heights, so in order to drink alcohol, the person purchasing it must become a member of Harold's Club, a simple task that requires showing identification and filling out a short form. And it's worth it, since the restaurant offers interesting and fairly priced cocktails (nothing over $9), as well as draft beers and a lengthy list of wines available by the glass and bottle.
During happy hour — 4 to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays — guests can be found mingling on the patio, enjoying house-made boudin balls or flatbreads cooked in a wood-burning pizza oven. Thanks to this particular piece of kitchen equipment, the pizzas at Heights General Store are a great bet, with unique topping options (ever had brie, arugula, duck confit and cherry coulis on a pie?) and that wonderful crunchy crust, also available gluten-free.
The salads are simple but fresh, and many of the vegetables and fruits they're made of come from local vendors like Spring-based Atkinson Farms, while meat comes from as far away as Tennessee and as close as Black Hill Meats here in Houston.
The HGS burger makes use of meat from a local (or almost local) vendor, and, like the hot dogs, it's ground in-house, so you can order your burger medium-rare without fear. Unfortunately, ordering it medium-rare means it might come out on the medium-to-well-done side, and the patty itself is bland, a case of timid seasoning. A good char on the outside of the burger would have done wonders for it, but it seemed to have been cooked evenly throughout — good for a flaky white fish but not so good for a hunk of ground beef, which can reveal unique flavors through degrees of cooking.
The meat loaf was similarly underseasoned, though it was saved by a delightfully tangy brown gravy and peppery mashed potatoes. Much of the food seems to suffer from a lack of salt, save for the skin-on french fries and homemade potato chips, both of which are just as salty and crisp as you'd want your fried potatoes to be.
At my marathon dinner on a Monday night, during which my companions and I inadvertently tested poor Jarrett by ordering one dish after another from the lunch menu, items that weren't usually served at dinner, the highlight was a sandwich featuring spicy house-made pimento cheese. Jarrett wisely suggested I add bacon to it, which pushed the already decadent grilled cheese over the top in the best possible way. The bright-orange pimento, flecked with red and green peppers, oozed out from between two slices of toasted Kraftsmen Bakery bread, while the crispy bacon added a textural element that kept the sandwich from being too soft or too soggy. I recommend everyone add bacon to this sandwich.
The ground-in-house hot dogs are also interesting texturally, but for a different reason. They aren't like the Oscar Mayer franks of your youth, all firm and smooth. Rather, they're somewhat crumbly, a clear indication that they aren't mass-produced. The texture may be unusual, but the flavor is divine — smoky and meaty without a hint of anything gritty or reminiscent of mystery meat. Topped with chili, cheese and onions and served in a pretzel bun, the giant hot dogs are a force to be reckoned with. And I'd gladly tango with one again.
During dinner, or as the menu calls it, "Supper," the dishes become even more substantial, with Ware offering up items such as impossibly crunchy yet moist fried chicken on a firm rectangle of sharp, creamy macaroni and cheese. There's the Low Country Beaufort Stew, a one-pot meal bursting with flavorful shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob and andouille sausage, like a shrimp boil without all the messiness on your fingers (though a bib might still be required). The only thing I found disappointing at dinner was the burger (again), still overcooked and, unfortunately, still missing some of the seasoning that makes dishes like the pimento sandwich and the Beaufort stew so alluring.
Does the Heights need a place like this?
I heard this question multiple times during my visits to Heights General Store, from dining companions and friends who caught wind of my latest subject.
Is the Heights really lacking in fresh local produce? Will people pay $18 for fried chicken — even really good fried chicken — or $13 for a hamburger? Can the prices compete with those at bigger grocery stores or farmers' markets? Is HGS destined to be simply a neighborhood hangout, or could it ever truly be a dining destination?
I answered the questions with this: "I'm really not sure yet." Nearly five months into the market and restaurant's life, I can't quite tell if it's filling a niche in the neighborhood. I don't know if it will attract a clientele willing to pay higher prices for local food or if a small selection of produce can ever challenge the stranglehold of places like H-E-B or Whole Foods. I don't know where the various diners live or how far they've traveled to eat here or if they'll be back.
But I can speak for myself. And the truth is, in spite of a few pitfalls, I enjoy my experiences at Heights General Store. I adore the atmosphere, and the impeccable service is something that I appreciate, especially at a casual establishment. I could sip wine on that patio all evening, then sate my hunger with a generous serving of cake made from a recipe handed down through generations. I could eat two of those darn pimento sandwiches.
Will Heights General Store be a dining destination? I don't know. But I'll definitely return to 19th Street.
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