Simple Delight

Before there was a 610 loop, the Triple A Restaurant anchored a corner of the near north side. From its inception, the Triple A has stayed the course of culinary purity; "trend" and "theme" are two words alien to its owners, Sonny and Lucille Schmidt. Opened downtown in 1938 by Sonny's uncle, in 1942 the Triple A transferred to its location hard by the farmer's market on Airline Drive. It moved to get closer to its primarily blue-collar clientele, workers who demanded plenty of solid food quickly served. The Triple A provided for their needs.

I search for restaurants such as the Triple A. They're the holy grail of my own special memories of childhood dining delights and young adult promise. I took my first date to a Triple A-type diner, my father saw me off to college after a last meal at a Triple A twin and I celebrated my first job with chicken-fried steak and white gravy at a Triple A look-alike. That was then, and this is now, and some things have changed in my life. But places such as the Triple A remain true, to themselves and to us.

The Schmidts' formula is simplicity itself: Waitresses serve up blue-plate specials whose portions are large, and whose prices won't come close to using up a ten-dollar bill. Starting at six in the morning and not closing until eight at night, Monday through Friday, the couple oversees the feeding of large numbers of their fellow Houstonians. (Saturday they close early, at 4 p.m., and Sunday, like many good folks, they don't work.) Sitting in either of the two dining rooms, I have eaten alongside Houston's richest lawyers, produce truck drivers, equal numbers of male and female business types and a bunch of good old boys and girls of variable incomes.

They, like me, have come to worship at the altar of plain cooking. The Triple A's hamburgers, models of their kind, are one example of such cuisine. The patty is large, but not too thick. The bun has kissed the hot, greasy grill just long enough to be heated through. The onions, tomato slices and pickles are thin and allow the burger to rest comfortably wrapped in a midriff napkin, like a topless bather who promises more when the beach towel is dropped. I've eaten Triple A burgers since 1968, and unlike fickle bathing beauties, the Schmidts' made-to-order burgers and fries remain reliable.

The regulars know the routine. Wait in line in the small lobby. When a table clears, and you're the next in line, you get to eat. The menu rotates daily, a cornucopia of vegetables and meats always headed by a special. Monday's special is corned beef and cabbage; Tuesday's is chicken and dressing; Wednesday's is enchiladas, pinto beans and rice; and Thursday's is the delight of the week -- chicken and dumplings. The dumplings are light, having simmered in the thick gravy until they float like clouds atop a sea of stewed chicken chunks. I've learned to recognize good chicken and dumplings by the faintly yellow hue of the broth cuddled in the concavities of the dumplings. The Triple A's are good chicken and dumplings.

Some addicts order the largest bowls of this soul-mending dish and then shamelessly scrape and sop until the final essences disappear from their plates. I plead guilty to this habit. When it comes to Triple A chicken and dumplings, my table manners may not present a pretty picture. But so far, nobody has noticed, perhaps because their heads are deep in their own bowls of lunchtime heaven.

Chicken and dumplings a la Triple A are so popular that on occasion the kettles simmering on the stove run out before everyone is served. Then and only then have I seen the remarkably serene atmosphere of the place charged with bad vibes and not a little grumbling. The disappointed are assuaged with the shirttail of the menu, comprised on any Thursday of roast beef brisket, barbecue smoked sausage, grilled calf liver and onions or stuffed fried crabs.

Friday's feature is a seafood gumbo and rice or smothered steak. The latter is covered with a thick, rich-tasting gravy. Fork-tender, the steak could be round, flank or another piece of beef occasionally named steak, but it's well seasoned and well worth choosing. Saturday sees a repeat of one of the week's other specials or an occasional star brought up from the offerings below the specials.

Orders from the selection of specials offer the choice of three side items, one of which could be a dessert. Cobblers abound, Jell-O wobbles and bread pudding with fruit sauce shows up at least once a week. That last needs something to raise it above the bland and boring -- something like a good lashing of rum or a stronger hand with the flavorings. The fixed menu offers the usual list of suspects: steaks, burgers, club sandwiches, fries and onion rings. These offerings can come with the house salad, and your choice of dressings is ladled up out of large plastic containers from behind the counter. Louise Anderson, a dignified woman who captains the kitchen crew, is too busy with meats, vegetables and desserts to worry with the inconsequential "saucing" of little bowls of green stuff. Her salads are crisp and fresh, but really, who goes to a diner for a salad? I have, over the years, observed Anderson and I have asked myself why cooks such as her don't win MacArthur fellowships. They have done much to help humanity.

Part of that aid has been to remind us that "eat your vegetables" isn't an order to be dreaded, but a suggestion to be embraced. At the Triple A, the majority of the vegetables are fresh or, to paraphrase the trite saying about seafood, what's on your plate today was growing in the fields yesterday. The potatoes, okra, tomatoes, squashes of all sorts and corn on the cob are trundled into the kitchen from the market just a few dozen yards away. And a designated kitchen worker spends each day "looking the greens," a phrase I often heard while growing up where the tall cotton wouldn't grow, but plenty of turnips and mustard greens did.

True, a fair sampling of the menu's side items includes dried beans -- pinto, black-eyed peas and white limas. And true, the niblet corn and the green beans were decidedly not growing in the fields yesterday. But in each case, the seasonings, redolent of the magic rural cooks have worked on such items for decades, make up for the lack of freshness. Sometimes the beets are canned and sometimes fresh, but unless the cook is Jacque Pepin, a beet is a beet. The hot potato salad is warm with a touch of sharpness and a hint of bacon; it's a must-try. Other favorite choices are country-fried corn and fresh mustard greens. Add a meat order, and these dishes will make you think you've hit a jackpot in the lottery.

Meals are served with a yeast roll and a cornbread muffin, and while I find it difficult to ask for two corn muffins instead of the roll and muffin combo (seeing no reason to limit myself to one pleasure when two are available), that option is available. All you have to do is speak up when you order if you want to change the mix in the bread basket.

Soft drinks, coffee and water are offered, but iced tea is the beverage of almost universal choice. You may need a refill, but if you do, your capacity for liquid merits a Plimsoll line marked on your stomach.

All of the food is served by a bevy of waitresses who, like Coco Chanel, learned secrets in their youth and know how to keep them as women. They call their repeat customers by name, are knowledgeable about the offerings and provide no-nonsense service. The Schmidts and their staff have, like a world-class orchestra, practiced the set pieces of their repertoire long enough and surely enough to arrive at a tempo comfortable for everyone.

But not every composition is a gem, and neither is every offering at the Triple A. Less than triple A are the fish dishes; they remind me of the dangers of ordering fresh seafood in, say, Waco. These dishes, whether fried, broiled or "souped," are by the book, but without the succulence or savors imparted by a deep understanding of seafood preparation.

Then again, if seafood was what you were after, it's unlikely you would have ended up in the Triple A to begin with. Instead, you'd have ended up in Connie's Seafood, which sits across the street. In fact, you can see Connie's from the windows of one of the Triple A's dining rooms. The regulars, though, don't seem to notice. They're too busy staring into their chicken and dumplings.

Triple A Restaurant, 2526 Airline Drive, 861-3422.

Triple A Restaurant:
chicken and dumplings, $5.89; hamburger (with fries), $4.45; broiled chicken, $5.89; pan-fried catfish, $6.25; vegetarian plate, $4.69; baked ham with pineapple, $5.99.

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