King of the Hill

Located on a small rise at a bend in the road just east of Norhill Addition in the Heights, the King Biscuit Patio Cafe offers one of Houston's most spectacular vistas -- an absolutely killer view of the White Oak greenbelt, with the tips of downtown's skyscrapers peeking over the trees. It also offers relatively inexpensive prices, casual to bordering on slackeresque ambiance, a clever setting in a vintage-1927 converted Esso filling station and a diverse corps of quirky regulars. It's the sort of mix that, were King Biscuit in a university town, would have half the student body all but living there. Even in a non-university town it does pretty well. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the food is pretty darn good.

Still, despite all this, the cafe almost died aborning. Back in the 1980s, there was a huge political brouhaha over whether the location should be granted an alcoholic beverage permit. Some neighbors fought the idea, and King Biscuit's owners spent their first couple of years selling beer and wine in brown bags through a little window in the ex-gas station. When they finally obtained the proper permit, the restaurant went through several incarnations and name changes -- including Toucan and Beaux-Bo -- before returning to its original name and concept as King Biscuit.

The exterior is now as it was first planned, complete with colorful umbrella tables, banana trees, palm fronds and a riot of other almost-out-of-control vegetation. King Biscuit's multilevel patios are the place to be on lazy summer nights; diners who appreciate the fact that Houston shares a latitude with Delhi, India, take it slow while sipping a cold one from King Biscuit's collection of more than three dozen different beers. Just inside the French doors are party lights and whirling ceiling fans setting off a tequila bar that offers a wide selection of fermented agaves as well as endless variations on the basic margarita.

Some folks do frequent the King Biscuit (which owners Rob and Kendra Fleming named for the late blues harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson's band, the King Biscuit Entertainers of Helena, Arkansas) just for the libations. But savvy customers know that the menu is a major attraction as well.

Either as happy-hour munchies or as a prelude to dinner, the appetizer offerings include a number of worthwhile choices. Among the winners are the red corn tortilla chip chicken nachos ($4.95), which feature nicely flavored refried black beans and smoky grilled chicken, and five different versions of quesadillas. Four of these -- shrimp ($5.95), vegetable ($4.95), beef and chicken ($5.25) -- feature roasted sweet bell pepper, jalapenos and jack cheese sandwiched between toasty flour tortillas. All are good, but the standout is the more unusual pulled pork version ($5.25). It boasts bits of well-seasoned pork, oven-roasted until it's nicely crisped on the outside and so meltingly tender beneath that it pulls easily from the bone. Chopped into bite-size bits, layered with melted mozzarella and wrapped in the flour tortillas, it's served with mango pico de gallo and jalapenos. It's well worth ordering.

The wings, alas, are not. On one recent visit they arrived half-cooked (haven't these people heard of salmonella?) and sopping with a neon-orange sauce that tasted of little but vinegar. Yuk!

Still, one badly done dish can be forgiven -- if not forgotten -- when others exceed expectations, as many of King Biscuit's do.

The dinner menu includes a number of notable dishes, including a nicely done angel hair pasta simply prepared with freshly wilted spinach, ripe tomatoes and fresh basil tossed in a light olive oil dressing and an entree-size Thai pasta salad ($7.95) that uses basic garden greens to showcase its nicely cooked penne pasta, crisp snow peas, substantial slices of fresh mushroom, meaty Roma tomatoes, sweet red peppers and paper-thin slices of Bermuda onion. The piece de resistance is a generous serving of chicken breast so exquisitely grilled that it rivals the best I've had anywhere. Add a flavorful, Thai-spiced peanut vinaigrette dressing and a crunch of whole peanuts on the top, and you have a true standout.

The dinner-plate-size salad that accompanies most entrees is nothing special -- basically just mixed greens with a token carrot round, a wisp of purple cabbage and a frizz of thready sprouts -- though the fruity, house-special vinaigrette can make all the difference. Unfortunately, on one visit the kitchen was out of the dressing. The manager himself came out to apologize, and comp the salad. And this wasn't unusual. While King Biscuit's service can be sweetly befuddled at times, in my experience it is never lacking in warmth and willingness to steer diners right. "You might not want to order the apple tarts tonight, they've been sitting a while," I was told once, and it's such honesty that keeps people who know about the place coming back.

Another reason they come back is the bow tie blackened tuna ($10.95), which won first place in the 1995 Great Tastes of Houston competition. A substantial tuna fillet, nicely blackened and perfectly seared, sits atop a mound of farfalle to which has been added a mixture of spinach, sauteed fresh mushrooms, Italian basil and lots of garlic. But the generous ladle of rich Cheddar cheese cream sauce that cascades over the top contains entirely too much smoked jalapeno for my taste -- and I like dishes that err on the side of being picante. The roasted seasonal vegetables around the edge provided a bit of cooler color and crunch; still, the peppers' heat tends to obscure the dish's more subtle flavors, and diners with sensitive taste buds should order this one con cuidado.

While the bow tie tuna remains the restaurant's most popular entree, to me it's overshadowed by the truly splendid shellfish fettucine ($11.95). Here the ribbons of pasta are topped with a goodly helping of scallops, shrimp and bits of crawfish meat all perfectly sauteed in a zesty pico de gallo butter sauce. The whole is then tossed with a confetti of black beans, fresh diced red tomato, bits of purple Bermuda onion and nuggets of green and red bell pepper. In this transcendent dish, these tastes and textures meld in ways that bring out the best in all of them.

Another standout is the shrimp plate ($9.95); in the beer batter that coats the shrimp, you get not only a whiff of coconut, you can actually bite into the sweet shreds amid the crunch of each butterflied crustacean's golden brown jacket. The shellfish are served atop a mountain of nicely crisp French fries, which is okay, though tame. A fillip of horseradish for the bland red sauce wouldn't be a bad addition.

The lunch menu emphasizes burgers and sandwiches such as the house special, Ed's grilled chicken ($5.95), which was named for the ex-bartender who invented it several years ago. It features a grilled chicken breast topped with sliced jalapenos, strips of smoky bacon and melted Jack cheese, all served on a sesame-seed bun and accompanied by your choice of chips or fries. "Ed's" remains one of the lunchtime faves. Another is King Biscuit's Philly cheese steak, on which the usual grilled onions, green peppers and thinly sliced strip steak are spiked with a good shot of Worcestershire sauce and enough blackening spices to rev up the flavor before being topped with melted mozzarella and served on a freshly baked Kaiser roll.

Those who manage to save room for dessert would do well to consult with the server, as these items vary. Among those available on recent visits were a fine Neapolitan cheesecake ($3.95), its three flavors distinct, its Oreo crust nicely chocolatey, and some perfectly okay lemon squares ($3.95), unprepossessing, but deceptively rich and tart.

Finish with an espresso, one of several flavored cappuccinos or a liqueur on the patio. Sit back. Enjoy the view. On languid summer nights, this can be the perfect way to spend an evening.

King Biscuit Patio Cafe, 1606 White Oak Drive, 861-2328.


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