Meatball on 34th Street
Spaghetti "Works" at Doyle's on 34th Street near T.C. Jester is a heaping pile of spaghetti with the restaurant's Sicilian-style meat and mushroom sugo ladled over the top. Two humongous meatballs perch on the summit of spaghetti. Then comes a topping of melted mozzarella cheese. It is the kind of spaghetti dinner that once defined Italian food in America.
As old-fashioned comfort food, the mountain of spaghetti at Doyle's has a dated charm. The red gravy is pleasant enough, and the meatballs taste like Mom's. But if you've eaten any pasta in the last 50 years, the strands of naked spaghetti that stick out of the bottom of the plate look a little weird. Who puts pasta on a plate and pours sauce over the top?
In 1954, when Doyle's opened, spaghetti was still exotic ethnic food in Houston. It wasn't really Italian, though. There are meatballs in Italian cuisine, and there is spaghetti in Italian cuisine. But there is no dish that combines spaghetti and meatballs. In fact, Italian chefs deride the combination as stupid — the big meatballs can't be incorporated with the skinny noodles.
So where did spaghetti and meatballs come from? Food writers speculate that the Italian-American combination evolved in restaurants opened by Italian immigrants on the East Coast early in the 20th century. The logic goes that the restaurants probably served the spaghetti first, followed by meatballs and sausage simmered in red sauce. And their non-Italian customers who liked their meat and starch together combined the two, just as they poured their stew over their mashed potatoes. That would explain the bizarre presentation.
However spaghetti and meatballs evolved, it became the iconic Italian-American dish — and the frequent target of Italian culinary purists. For Tex-Mex lovers, the authenticity debate is painfully familiar. As food lovers have learned more about authentic ethnic cuisines over the last quarter century, Tex-Mex combination plates, Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs, and Chinese-American chop suey have all become the butt of foodie jokes.
I like the spaghetti and meatballs at Doyle's, and I can't wait to bring my own kids here to try it. But I can't really champion this old-fashioned Italian-American dish like I have championed old-fashioned Tex-Mex. While I really like Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas in chili con carne more than any Mexican enchiladas I've ever had, I'd honestly rather eat spaghetti Bolognese than Doyle's spaghetti and meatballs.
What recommends Doyle's spaghetti and meatballs is the nostalgia factor. It tastes like the spaghetti and meatballs I ate as a kid. The restaurant is a time capsule. And this presentation of spaghetti and meatballs has been so popular over the years that the restaurant's menu revolves around it. You can get the spaghetti plate with plain tomato sauce, meat sauce, meat and mushroom sauce, or with red sauce and Italian sausage. On the half a page it takes up, there are other variations, including "Spaghetti Creole" with a New Orleans Creole sauce, and "Spaghetti Chicken," with white meat chicken in Alfredo sauce.
My lunchmate at Doyle's wisely skipped the whole authenticity question by ordering a true Italian dish at Doyle's — baked lasagna. The layered and oven-baked combination of meat sauce, pasta sheets and cheese was sensational. It was possibly the best thing on the menu, and I highly recommend it. Skip the previously frozen ravioli.
Doyle's was also one of the first restaurants in Houston to serve pizza. And speaking of nostalgia, along with "The Works" and the "Meatza Pizza," Doyle's also offers that 1950s-era classic "Hawaiian Pizza" with smoked ham and pineapple.
Charming. But I think I'll eat pizza elsewhere.
I met the owner of Doyle's at the Houston coffee seminar last fall. He sells coffee to convenience stores for a living. The restaurant belonged to his mom and dad. He may be the only restaurant owner who ever discouraged me from reviewing his restaurant.
"The food is dated," he apologized. "But the staff has been working there for decades and the customers have been eating there for decades, and it's almost impossible to change anything." It sounded like he was keeping the place open purely out of respect for his parents, the employees and the customers. Or maybe he was actually eager to get rid of it.
Too bad, because Doyle's could be great. The long, low building has a takeout window on the side that may be busier than the interior. Inside, there are a couple of cozy dining rooms presided over by a staff of friendly waitresses. The menu at Doyle's reminds me of neighborhood New Orleans Creole-Italian restaurants like Liuzza's. Along with pizza and pasta, there is New Orleans-style shrimp gumbo and other Creole fare on Doyle's menu.
Unfortunately, Doyle's kitchen is not up to Liuzza's standards. Doyle's gumbo tasted like it had been sitting around for days. It was flavorless, with lots of overcooked mush floating around in a dark, but bland, roux-based stock. You had to wonder why they bothered.
The poor boys are a better bet. In fact, the best reason to visit Doyle's is the sausage sandwich. It comes on a long, crusty roll that's been split open and filled with Doyle's tasty red gravy and lengths of Italian sausage cut into thin strips. (I wish I could say it was high-quality fennel sausage, but it's not.) The sandwich is then showered with grated mozzarella and baked in the oven until the bread is super-crusty and the inside is gooey. The cheese pulls away in long strings with each bite.
The Golden State poor boy is another oven-baked sandwich that I haven't had a chance to try yet. I don't know if the "Meatball Missile" is oven-toasted or not. There are also several cold Italian-style heroes and grinders that sound promising.
Doyle's "Classic" hamburger was disappointing. It's made with Certified Angus beef patties (I am guessing they come frozen) and topped with lettuce, tomato and red onions. The waitress asked if we wanted mustard or mayonnaise. We said we wanted both. Oddly, the sandwich came with the mustard spread on the crown bun pressed against the lettuce. The mayonnaise was on the bottom bun with the burger patty. Doesn't logic dictate that it should be the other way around? But regardless of the fine points of spread application, the whole thing tasted dry.
Doyle's feels like a restaurant lumbering toward the dinosaur graveyard, and that's a shame. It wouldn't take much to fix. But I think the coffee salesman who owns the place would need to take a lesson from the Barbecue Inn. There is no need to run off the old employees or drastically change the menu of a well-loved vintage restaurant. But you have to be good at what you do. Barbecue Inn isn't known for its barbecue anymore, but the place is packed all the time. The chicken-fried steak, the fried shrimp and the rest of the old-fashioned Texas diner fare is always top-notch. And the owners are always there.
Doyle's is a wonderful old institution with a loyal clientele. There is no need to get rid of the dated spaghetti and pizza — the place just needs to add some juicy homemade hamburgers, decent gumbos and a couple of homemade desserts. But most of all, it needs an owner who is willing to be there.
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