Liberty Kitchen Sink

The gumbo is difficult to resist.
Troy Fields

Have at look inside the charming Liberty Kitchen via our slideshow.

There is a bowl of gumbo at Liberty Kitchen with your name on it. And it's utterly unlike any other gumbo in town. It's served in a bowl nearly the size of a washtub, and it's topped not only with fried oysters but also plump pieces of fried okra. The dark, thin roux has a deepness and richness to it — swimming with both shrimp and andouille sausage — that is difficult for me to resist each time I visit. It's equally tough to resist the fat, breaded shrimp and meaty tomato-bacon jam inside Liberty Kitchen's "fried shrimp rémoulade sandwich" (just don't call it a po-boy).

Liberty Kitchen is an inviting place from the second you walk through its heavy front door. A semiprivate room with a rugged wooden table under a chic chandelier greets you to the left, while a long, sleek, marble-topped bar with its back to a wall of windows greets you on the right. Vivid pops of shiny orange are scattered among the rough-hewn boards that trim the shabby chic dining room, the Warhol-esque hues grinning against rustic New England background. The dining room is beguilingly casual, as is the sunny patio. The service is friendly and competent, the food mostly good.

And yet, Liberty Kitchen remains — at times — inscrutable.

I don't entirely understand the bent of the restaurant — whether it's Tex-Cajun-New England, or something more or less than this awkward stitching together of adjectives — although I admit to liking it most of the time. I enjoy Liberty Kitchen as more of an oyster bar than anything else, but an oyster bar where you can happen to also get a terrific burger and a milk shake that would put any old-school diner to shame.

Still, despite an ultra-casual atmosphere in which diners perch on old wood-and-metal school chairs and the waiters wear jeans, some of the prices are scorchingly high. I don't understand this, nor do I understand the uneven application of some of those prices. An extra $2.50 for a "fresh local hen egg" when restaurants like The Burger Guys charge less than that for a whole duck egg is but one bizarre example. And while that enormous bowl of wonderful gumbo is only $8 (this is one of Liberty Kitchen's best bargains), a tiny bowl of oyster stew is $7. The vast size difference between the two is baffling considering they're only $1 apart in price.

I also do not understand the rambling menu, which often undermines the talent in the kitchen by forcing its focus to be shattered into dozens of different directions. Fifteen different appetizers alone, ten items from the grill, a random section of mac 'n' cheese skillets, and the list goes on. There are so many dishes that it's no wonder the consistency of the food is schizophrenic from day to day.

On a recent lunch visit, there were two suckling pigs spread-eagle across a pit in the open kitchen. Their flesh was already starting to char and crackle a bit and I stared at them, wide-eyed, wondering if they'd be on special that day. Liberty Kitchen has strangely named "weekly platter specials" that actually change from day to day, with options like Dixie-fried chicken with cream gravy and hot sauce syrup on Wednesdays or tomato gravy with meatballs and a pork rib over spaghetti on Sundays.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the twin suckling pigs staring lasciviously at me from the kitchen were only the weekly platter special for dinner that night — not for lunch. Chagrined, I turned to that bowl of gumbo and a half-dozen Peter's Point oysters from Massachusetts. The almost translucent oysters were narrow and thin, with a sharp salinity to them that's entirely absent in Gulf oysters.

This is one of the things I love about Liberty Kitchen — being able to drop in any day of the week and be presented with an array of oysters from around the country, including Gulf oysters in season. Liberty Kitchen has the chops to be a serious oyster bar, especially with the cold draft beers behind the cool marble bar and the option to choose from a variety of other raw seafood dishes, from a ceviche marinated in ginger beer and chiles to a Hawaiian-style tuna poke. In fact, I often wish that Liberty Kitchen's entire menu was confined to its seafood-heavy appetizer list — nearly every item in that section is solid, and most of it well-priced.

Not every item, however, is terrific. The "deviled" eggs we tried were really just hard-boiled eggs cut in half, dusted with paprika and topped with fried oysters and bacon. Were the eggs actually deviled, this would rocket to the top of my must-eat list each time along with the gumbo.

Our other dishes that afternoon were equally muddled. My Alabama catfish from Liberty Kitchen's charcoal and peach wood grill was overcooked and underseasoned, while the creamy malt slaw that accompanied it was equally bland. Where was the punch of malt vinegar? Where, even, was the creaminess? It was dreadfully dry, as was my friend's overcooked patty on his "Hawaiian MacCock" burger. (Lance Fegen seems to have a thing for both Hawaiian flavors and oddly juvenile phallic references; his other project, BRC Gastropub, stands for "big red cock.")

On a different day, though, I think the Hawaiian MacCock burger could have been a winner. I liked the salty Spam, the runny fried egg on top and the dual cheeses that melted sweetly into every crevice of its English muffin bun. And on a different visit, another burger was a winner.

The restaurant's namesake Liberty burger is what McDonald's Big Mac would taste like in an ideal world. Lest anyone think that's an insult, let me assure that it's not. It's utterly refreshing to see a burger come out of a chef-driven restaurant like Liberty Kitchen that's straightforward and simple, its main ingredients confined to crispy sheets of iceberg lettuce, thick red tomatoes, pickles, minced onions and a "BRC sauce" that tastes like a homemade version of McDonald's famed "special sauce."

I do not think that any of this is coincidental. It's almost as if someone, perhaps Fegen, sat down and attempted to construct the perfect "fast-food" burger. Liberty Kitchen even has the perfect fast-food shakes, blended up with the wickedly smooth custard from partner store Petite Sweets — partly owned by Fegen — and any slice of pie from its current Petite Sweets dessert selection. And that perfect fast-food burger is served on a Slow Dough Bread Co. bun, its patty a custom blend of meat that's ground every day and cooked to order.

Unlike the Hawaiian MacCock burger from my previous lunch, the Liberty's patty was cooked to a requested medium-rare and oozed juices merrily all over my dinner plate. Is it worth $12? That's a personal decision (although I'll tell you that $5 for a side of onion rings is definitely not worth it), but the burger is a stunning example of the genre regardless.

But it was still outshone that night by a whole-fried speckled trout, served in a simple herbed butter with a paprika-dusted lemon wedge that added bright pops of acidity to the fish's fine, dewy flesh. On the side, a well-cooked dish of risotto and a bowl of bright green spinach lightly sautéed in garlic reminded with subtle elegance that Liberty Kitchen is more than penis jokes and raw oysters.

What does Liberty Kitchen want to be? At times, I feel that it's trying to be all things to everybody: Between the outstanding items and excellent daily specials are anachronistic items like burger bowls for adherents of the Atkins diet or the aforementioned mac 'n' cheese skillets that seem like more of an afterthought. And while I suppose the option to order breakfast for dinner is tempting on certain occasions, I feel like the "Big As Your Ass Breakfast" is equally lost among the other menu items.

Does Liberty Kitchen want to be an oyster bar serving excellent seafood items amidst over-size pints of Karbach and jolly cocktails with New England-inspired monikers? Or does it want to be a slightly more serious restaurant serving $28 rib-eyes and $18 porterhouse steaks from its grill? Should it have to choose? Can it be both?

These are questions which I seem to be the only person asking, as Liberty Kitchen is consistently packed every day and night — and with new afternoon hours that encourage grazing between lunch and dinner on its terrific appetizer menu, it will likely only get even busier. I'm happy for Fegen and his crew, despite not being able to peg this place. And in my ideal world, Liberty Kitchen would pick one direction and run with it (maybe that oyster/burger bar direction, but that's just my dream).

The Heights has been overrun with restaurants lately, many of them chains — local or otherwise — but what Fegen is doing at Liberty Kitchen is entirely his own. For that reason alone, it's a welcome addition to the landscape here along 11th Street. And who wouldn't want to have a hip oyster bar within walking distance of their neighborhood, especially one that also serves great burgers?

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Liberty Kitchen

1050 Studewood St.
Houston, TX 77008


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