Meat and Potatoes
The chicken-fried steak at Frank's Chop House (3736 Westheimer, 713-572-8600) is house-breaded and expertly fried to order so that the tenderized meat arrives covered with a crunchy blanket of golden batter. I got the cream gravy on the side. I like to cut off pieces of the battered steak and dip them individually in the gravy so that the crust doesn't get soggy. The garlic mashed potatoes that came on the side were decent, but the hand-cut mixed vegetables with lots of squash were really remarkable.
My lunchmate ordered the half-pound chopped Angus sirloin hamburger on a jalapeño bun, cooked medium-rare. The burger arrived rosy-red inside and crispy on the edges, which is perfectly cooked in my book. The burger was topped with melted aged cheddar, lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo. He asked for sautéed onions on the side. The bun might have been a little better toasted, but all in all it was a damn fine steak house burger. It came with a mountain of thin-cut crispy fries.
That lunch was the third time I visited Frank's Chop House, and it was the best meal I ate there. After two dinner visits, I came to the conclusion that Frank's Chop House was attempting to supply a meat-and-potatoes dining experience to an aging clientele. And that the fairest way to judge them was to sample the unambitious dishes on the menu. Frank's Chop House does middle-of-the-road exceptionally well.
Frank's Chop House is a portentous moniker. The climax of Arthur Miller's 1949 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Death of a Salesman took place at a restaurant by that name. The play, about the inhumanity of corporate America, echoes across the decades. At the age of 60, the life of a traveling salesman had become too much for Willie Loman. When he asked his boss for an easier job at the showroom, he got fired. He met his sons for dinner at Frank's Chop House that night for a celebration, but instead he had to tell them he had been given the boot. Willie lapsed into delusional fantasies at the table about his former greatness and ended up having a breakdown in the restaurant restroom. I wonder what he ordered for dinner that night.
On my first visit to Frank's Chop House, I got the brined double pork chops. It sounded like just the thing to order at a chop house, but I was disappointed. The pork was dense and salty, with very little internal marbling. The chop was cooked properly, it just wasn't a very exciting piece of meat to begin with. The brine helped a little, but it couldn't transform the pig-factory pork chop into something special. The chop came with buttery mashed potatoes mixed with corn and sautéed spinach.
My editor joined me for dinner that night. She had pasta puttanesca, a plate of spaghetti with a spicy red sauce made with a seafood mélange. The ragu was spiked with savory black olives and rich artichoke hearts and topped with jumbo shrimp that had been simmered in the sauce. It wasn't a very innovative presentation, but it was very tasty. I liked her dinner better than mine.
There are a lot of great steak houses serving dry-aged and wet-aged USDA Prime beef in Houston. At many of them, you can even go a step beyond USDA Prime and get a ridiculously well-marbled Kobe steak. By comparison, the USDA Choice steaks on the menu at Frank's Chop House sound middle-of-the-road.
The steak that appealed to me the most on Frank's menu was the filet mignon. I figured the USDA Choice filet mignon at Frank's is no better or worse than the filet mignon at any steak house. USDA Prime filet mignon is practically nonexistent. Meat cutters get more money by leaving the filet on the bone and selling it as a USDA Prime porterhouse. And anyway, the filet mignon from extremely marbled beef gets too tender — it becomes mushy when cooked.
So on my second visit to Frank's, I ordered the filet mignon, and I was pleasantly surprised. The filet was topped with a sautéed portobello mushroom slice and served with a rich horseradish cream sauce on the side. The meat had that loose and juicy character that I love in a steak. It melted in my mouth. I also sampled a grouper entrée on that visit. The fish was moist and perfectly cooked. It was served over a bed of couscous mixed with capers and sautéed vegetables.
A plate of lamb chops was gorgeously presented with the frenched bones intertwined like a little rack of lamb. The meat was perched on a luscious potato pancake and drizzled with a mint au jus. But sadly, the medium-rare lamb meat was just as dense and boring as the pork chop had been. The waiter said that the lamb came from New Zealand.
The best lamb I have eaten in recent memory was grass-fed lamb that came from Loncito Cartwright's Twin Oaks Ranch in Dinero, Texas. As one of the only locally owned chop houses in a city of big steak house chains, it might be hoped that Frank's would take advantage of local sources for meat. But between the economic downturn and the local clientele, it's clear that owners Frank Butera and Frank Crappito have had to make some compromises.
The location of Frank's Chop House was previously occupied by Joyce's Seafood and Steaks, which in turn replaced The Stables restaurant. Like the previous inhabitants, Frank's serves unchallenging, homey dishes and average but not exceptional steaks to an elderly River Oaks clientele.
I have eaten at all three of these restaurants. And, I would venture to guess, so have most of the customers at Frank's Chop House. It's as if these folks just keep driving to the same parking lot out of habit regardless of what the sign says out front. And now that the State Grill (formerly the Confederate House) a few blocks down the road has closed, Frank's Chop House is getting that overflow too.
Frank's excellent chicken-fried steak was only offered at lunch. But in an effort to attract more customers, the restaurant has begun offering the chicken-fried steak as a dinner special on Wednesdays. They are also offering buttermilk fried chicken on Tuesdays.
Houston has lots of mediocre chops to choose from, but there are very few restaurants doing as good a job with battered-to-order chicken-fried steak and fried chicken. Perhaps someday, the two Franks will put the CFS and the fried chicken on the regular dinner menu. If you ask me, middle-of-the-road meat and potatoes is what Frank's does best.
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