Solid Comfort: Every Neighborhood Needs a Place Like Adair Kitchen
Get a behind the scenes look at Adair Kitchen in our slideshow.
It's a little like eating at your mom's house, if your mom's house is spacious and airy and looks like a page out of a West Elm catalog. Your mom will bring you solid comfort food like French toast and chicken enchiladas, and sometimes she'll even get a little fancy and chop up bacon and put it in the waffle mix. She'll heat up water for your tea, and if she's feeling really generous, she might make you some fresh juice. She won't rush to get your food out to the table, but it will arrive hot and in a fairly timely manner.
When you're done eating, Mom will ask only for a few hugs and words of thanks, not your life savings in kisses and accolades. She'll pack you a lunch, but she'll forget to tell you it's sitting on the counter waiting for you. She's a busy woman, and there's only so much she can do. Then you'll head off to school or work full and happy and eager to sit down at Mom's table again sometime soon.
Perhaps Adair Kitchen reminds me so much of eating at home because it's inspired by the family dinners of Nick Adair and his sister, Katie Adair Barnhart. The siblings grew up in the restaurant industry because their parents, Gary and Betsy Adair, started Adair Family restaurants. The company opened the first Skeeter's Mesquite Grill in 1988 and went on to purchase Los Tios Mexican Restaurants in 2000. Nick and Katie could have opened another Skeeter's in town but instead decided to start their own restaurant with a straightforward menu; uncomplicated home cooking; and clean, sleek style.
The duo have created a fast-casual dining joint that's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. It turns into a slightly more upscale spot at dinner, when orders are taken by waiters instead of placed at the counter. The menu for each meal fits on one very well designed page, so it's not overwhelming or too minimal. Everything on the menu is reasonably priced, and there seems to be something to appeal to any palate or dietary restrictions. There are coffee drinks, juices and inexpensive cocktails. The salads are fresh and healthy (depending on what you add to them), and the old standbys like chicken sandwiches and green enchiladas are simple and familiar without being boring. Adair Kitchen gets nearly everything right — from the crispy-but-not-greasy fried asparagus to the huge portion of creamy bread pudding with green apples — but nothing about the place is earth-shattering. And I wouldn't want it to be.
This is where I would take my friends who get freaked out by things like cumin and sriracha and the term sous vide. This is where I would go to have a pleasant, casual meal with no surprises. And I think every neighborhood needs a refreshing, no-frills place like Adair Kitchen.
Adair Kitchen was packed every time I went, which tells me the area was clamoring for a restaurant like this. It was a different crowd for each meal, but they always seemed to be enjoying themselves and the food. At breakfast time, the place is populated by middle-aged men in button-down shirts and ties, presumably on their way to an office somewhere nearby, and college girls in gym clothes rewarding themselves with French toast after a successful workout.
The lunch crowd sees more women and groups engaged in what appear to be business meetings. In spite of the packed house, people carry on interviews in booths and look over charts and graphs while attending to burgers and fresh-squeezed juices. At dinner, it's all older women and young yuppie couples enjoying a few cocktails and comfort food. You probably won't find any dirty hippies or gentlemen with their pants down around their behinds here, but the atmosphere is casual enough that they'd certainly be welcome. My date was worried that he'd feel out of place in shorts, a T-shirt and tennis shoes at dinner (though he wasn't worried enough to change), but he found that he fit in somewhere on the continuum from polo shirts to khaki slacks to gym clothes.
The menu is as inclusive as the clientele. I appreciate that the dinner menu — the longest of the three — has only 13 entrées and five large salads, as well as a few appetizers to choose from. Though all three menus are short, there's enough diversity among the offerings to please burger lovers and vegans alike. And when a menu offers less than 20 regular dishes, the chefs are able to ensure that the offerings are consistently well prepared.
Where Adair Kitchen really shines is breakfast or brunch. Again, the breakfast menu is fairly short, but the variety and the prices mean you can satisfy nearly any morning craving without feeling like you won't be able to afford lunch or dinner later. A large Belgian waffle with bacon mixed into the batter is a hearty meal for only $5.95, and a three-egg omelette with any ingredients you want will keep you full for hours for $6.25. The French toast tastes exactly like what my mother used to make, though, sadly, without the real maple syrup. It's fluffy, full of cinnamon and way more food than I could eat before 10 a.m.
A favorite option is the chicken and waffles. It was originally offered only at breakfast, but it became so popular that it was added to the dinner menu as well. It is, perhaps, not the healthiest item on the dinner menu (far from it, in fact), but it's completely worth forgoing the roughage of a salad or side of veggies to devour the whole thing. The chicken tenders are, well, tender on the inside, and the batter on the outside is crispy and spicy to counter the sweetness of the waffle.
At the server's suggestion, I ordered the "simple green chicken enchiladas" for dinner. Enchiladas, though a staple of Houston Tex-Mex-lovers' diets, are not something I usually order because I'm still scarred from the enchilada platters I was served in my elementary-school cafeteria. I'm working on getting over that. This one was worlds away from my school lunch, though. It reminded me of California enchiladas instead of Tex-Mex. There was nothing greasy on the plate, and instead of refried beans and Spanish rice, I got black beans and cilantro rice. It was one of the least heavy enchilada platters I've ever encountered, and it made me feel like I was somehow doing Mexican food the healthy way. That said, it's filled with enough juicy grilled chicken that I couldn't finish the whole thing and had to take some home for later.
It irks me when restaurants make great dinners and then send out mediocre desserts, but Adair Kitchen did not disappoint in that respect. I ordered the bread pudding expecting a small ramekin of dry, raisin-filled bread, but what I got was a mound of moist monkey bread filled with thinly sliced apples surrounded by a puddle of crème anglaise and topped with a hefty scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream. I liked the enchiladas and the chicken and waffles quite a bit, but as soon as I had a bite of the bread pudding, I regretted that I hadn't just ordered two plates of that for dinner. The apples combined with the cinnamon in the bread and the custard sauce turned a dish that can easily be boring and stale into a masterpiece of a dessert.
My lunch visit was slightly less pleasant, if only because my BYOS (Build Your Own Salad) seemed overpriced for something I could, indeed, easily build myself. The BYOS comes with a lengthy ingredient list on a mini clipboard, and you simply check off which ingredients you want from dozens of options. I chose to add a piece of salmon to my $8 salad, which increased the price by $4.50, but the field greens, tomatoes, olives and feta weren't anything special for the $12.50 total. The lemon vinaigrette tasted like straight-up lemon juice, so I suggest you order the dressing on the side lest you get an unpleasant surprise like I did.
I also ordered a sirloin burger to go for a hungry coworker, which no one thought to tell me was ready and waiting for me until I went up to the back counter by the kitchen and asked. We were frustrated to find the burger way overcooked to the point of being tough, but I'm the type who likes her meat still bleeding. I'd still go back for lunch if I was in the neighborhood, but I think I'd get more bang for my buck with a soup-and-salad combo or grilled tilapia tacos.
For those on the go or in search of a healthier option than chicken and waffles or burgers, Adair Kitchen has a juice bar featuring six juices any time of day. I opted for the Ginger Spice — a mixture of spinach, carrots, green apples, celery, ginger and lemon juice that tastes like some sort of blended Asian salad — after the helpful fellow at the counter informed me that the Kalelujah juice was tasty but would have me running for the bathroom in about half an hour. I guess I appreciate the helpful word of warning.
Like Mom's comfortable, well-stocked kitchen, Adair Kitchen has everything you need and nothing you don't. It's a useful restaurant. It's filling a niche for young people who, like owners Nick and Katie, miss Mama's cooking, and it provides a pleasant, homey environment for businesspeople and ladies who lunch. It's not breaking new ground in the Houston food scene or creating innovative combinations to astound jaded diners. Though perhaps, in a world of molecular gastronomy and fusion everything, that's the biggest innovation a restaurant can make.
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