Liberty, Fraternity, Gastronomy

It may not surprise some cynics to learn that this town's criminals, lawyers and reporters have at least one thing in common. They, along with cops, bail bondsmen and others who frequent the municipal courts and HPD headquarters, have made the Avenue Grill an institution.

Settle in for a weekday breakfast or lunch at this steam table diner, and you'll probably rub shoulders with the likes of lawyer-to-the-silicone-implanted John O'Quinn or one of our boys in blue (and I'm not talking about Bud Adams' orphaned athletes). This is the sort of place where a woman in tribal-inspired African headdress and braids shares a table with a duo of dressed-for-success downtown bidness types in pumps and stockings; where a somber Malcolm X look-alike in horn-rimmed glasses and a conservative olive suit sits at the counter next to a couple who are dressed Go Texan style and carrying his-and-her cellular phones; where the suits mingle freely with the hard hats. It's one of those all-too-rare establishments where the entrance of a person with a look different from one's own causes not a ripple. That's because great food is a great equalizer.

Actually, it'd be pretty hard for anyone to feel elite after being called "Hon" by a gum-snapping waitress wearing copious amounts of eyeliner. There's also no way to feel elite in a setting so unadorned and downright functional. Yes, there is red carpet, and yes, there are a large number of brushed aluminum chairs and Formica-topped tables that these days could form the backbone of any '50s-themed decor. But I assure you, the Avenue Grill did not select these furnishings to be on the cutting edge of retro-chic. They're just what fit.

This is not a joint in which pretensions matter. That fact was driven home to me when I lunched at the Avenue Grill with a friend whose birdlike appetite and strength of will in the presence of decadent food have always amazed me. I watched in surprise as she scarfed down every mouthful of a plate lunch consisting of a guy-sized portion of home-style meat, two vegetables, two types of yeast rolls and a cornbread muffin. Then I watched her polish off a generous wedge of homemade pie. In more than five years of friendship, I don't think I'd ever seen her take more than a bite or two of something rich or sweet. Yet there she sat at the Avenue Grill, zealously cleaning her plate and going after the dessert.

As, for that matter, was I. It was partially the hope of getting some of that mountain-high pie that had us dutifully finishing up everything on the table. After having given the pies a cursory inspection in their glass case, we had been happy to confirm that neither the chocolate pie nor the coconut pie had a weepy meringue, and that at its center, the meringue on each pie was thicker by an inch than the pie's filling. These looked to be pies done right, and the thought of getting to pry the last stubborn bits of sticky meringue off the fork with my teeth and mushing up the last errant crumbs of crust between the tines of my fork had almost distracted me from the first task at hand: ordering my plate lunch combo from the server waiting behind the steam table. But order I eventually did, and was presented with a plate whose edges were obscured by a gargantuan chicken fried steak.

This visually perfect, irregularly shaped patty of deep-fried cow (mine resembled a map of the Iberian Peninsula) refused to lie flat on its plate. Instead, the gently wavy terrain of its surface created perfect valleys for collecting cream gravy. Not that the pale, delicately peppered gravy was going anywhere. Once ladled onto the plate, it was dense enough to stay put. The breading on the steak was of the thick, crusty sort that separates from the meat once it's been cut into, and that stays crunchy and firm even after a gravy drenching. It was, I decided, one of the best chicken fried steaks in town.

The same sturdy breading that transports the chicken fried steak to the realm of the exalted similarly elevates the fried chicken. Vegetables, too, are given equitable treatment as a recognized cornerstone of the plate lunch. Here, the mashed potatoes -- the decisive test of any home-style diner's commitment -- are reassuringly lumpy and resolutely stiff. And even navy beans, whose pallidity suggests their rank as the least exciting member of the legume family, merit the same clean-your-plate status as everything else, even if they are oversalted. At the Avenue Grill, the carrot coins, glinting with butter, are overcooked in retrograde fashion and the green beans, redolent of salt pork, are simmered to the olive-green stage. The nouveau concept of vegetables cooked crisp-tender is an idea that never took hold here, and frankly, I'm all the more grateful for that fact.

I'm especially grateful that the Avenue Grill has seen fit to employ a dessert cook, one Annie Wallace, who realizes that all pies are not created equal. I'm pleased to report that, in the eating, her pies live up to every expectation that their appearance excites. The meringueless buttermilk pie speaks a whisper of nutmeg that recalls eating a homemade egg custard from a Pyrex cup. The filling of the coconut pie -- which doesn't really taste much like fresh coconut; they never do -- is thick and slippery to the tongue and just this side of cloyingly sweet. The chocolate pie has a near bitter edge that hints of a real cooked filling, as opposed to a powdered, instant impostor. No beads of caramelized sugar adulterate the tops of these meringues; none would dare. And no pie filling dares slide or ooze one millimeter out of line. My only laments are the store-bought crusts, with their machine-crimped edges, and the absence of a lemon meringue pie -- my personal gauge of a pie-maker's mastery.

Maybe those pies seem divine because they've been baked in a building that used to house a Baptist church. Or maybe the building's spiritual origins are what give this unpretentious restaurant its aura of community. For an ex-jock friend of mine, that sense of fraternity comes from the simple fact that the Avenue Grill serves square-shaped white rolls that he's sure are the same kind he grew up eating in HISD school lunches. Whether it comes from a spirit of commonality imbued by the sharing of good, inexpensive food or by the sharing of memories, a visit to the Avenue Grill leaves one confident that in a world where all women, men and children truly rub shoulders as recognized equals, the food will be memorable.

Avenue Grill, 1017 Houston Avenue, 228-5138.

Avenue Grill: plate lunch (includes meat, three vegetables and fresh bread), $5.35.


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