The Goode Son

The sun-dried tomatoes scared me. I was worried that something had gotten into Jim Goode.

For years I've loved his very Texan empire: the two barbecue joints, the taqueria/hamburger emporium, the seafood place, the retail store. The restaurants' food is a crash course in Lone Star cooking, old-line dishes served plain and honest or jazzed up in ways that please even traditionalists. The variations stay true to the Texas theme: Smoky brisket is served not only on time-tested Wonder Bread, but also with a far preferable jalapeño cheese bread; fat, fresh-ground burgers mix the pleasures of mesquite smoke and Swiss cheese; grilled Southern catfish happily marries with a snappy Mexican salsa.

But Goode Co. is as much about style as about food. Each operation radiates prickly charm, equal parts Lone Star hospitality and ornery cowboy swagger. Jim Goode's decorative touches tend to involve guns and dead animals. For years the company flagship, the original Goode Co. Barbeque, has sold "Bullie Bags," hairy sacks made out of bull testicles. They hang over the cash register, a sly dirty joke, but also an announcement: Here is a restaurant with cojones.

So you can understand why, this summer, I was alarmed when two new dishes surfaced at Goode Co. Seafood. The crabs and flounder shared the same crabmeat stuffing, an uptown affair that involved not only those sun-dried tomatoes, but also Parmesan cheese and, Lord have mercy, hearts of palm. The stuffing was terrific, peppery and self-assured. Anywhere else, I'd have been purely pleased.

But here, I was worried: What had happened to Jim Goode's pitch-perfect sense of Texas myth-making? Was he suffering some kind of midlife crisis? What had possessed him to mess with sun-dried tomatoes? And why was he doing it now, nearly a decade after Italifornian cooking had first reared its trendy head?

I called Goode Co.'s corporate office and was told that I needed to talk to the stuffed crabs' creator -- not Jim, but Levi Goode. I expected a Levi to be elderly, maybe some grizzled uncle of Jim's, but the voice on the phone sounded young. We talked a while about the stuffing's ingredients, about how not much changes at any of the Goode Co. restaurants, and about his and Jim's plans to open a big new Goode Co. Seafood on I-10 -- news I welcomed. Organizations either grow or die, and it had been ten years since Goode Co. opened its last restaurant. If Goode Co.'s survival required sun-dried tomatoes, so be it.

"How should I identify you?" I asked Levi: a reporter's closing question.

"Well," he said, "I'm Jim Goode's son."

I laughed; I had been wondering. "But what's your job title?"

"Well," he said again, "I'm Jim Goode's son."

That's when I learned two things about Goode Co.:

1) Blood means more than an organizational chart; and

2) It's a full-time job, being Jim Goode's son.

Levi was two and a half years old when Jim opened his first restaurant, the Kirby barbecue place. It was 1977, the oil boom was in full swing, and newcomers drawn by the smell of money were crowding Houston's freeways and apartment complexes. Oilmen, anxious to impress out-of-towners with the city's savoir faire, took them to eat French food at Maxim's. Roughnecks and rednecks, eager to make the opposite point, slapped "Native Texan" bumper stickers on their pickups.

Thirty-year-old Jim Goode was one of those rare native Texans. He'd grown up in Brazosport, the youngest of five kids. His mother, a Mexican immigrant, could create terrific meals out of whatever raw materials she had at hand: the chickens, rabbits, pecans and vegetables that the family raised, or little tin-foil packs of leftovers that crowded her refrigerator. His dad baked breads and did manly cooking out of doors; his uncle specialized in enchilada feeds for the extended family.

But despite his family's way with food, Jim didn't see cooking as a profession. He joined the Navy and worked as a plumber and pipe welder before his sister, herself an artist, suggested that he try art school. He graduated from the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and back in Houston, called his commercial-art business Goode Co.; he'd taken the name from an antique cigar box, a gift from a friend.

By '77 he was eking out a living designing brochures and billboards and catalogs. He and his family -- wife Liz and their two kids, Levi and Jana -- lived in a little rented house near Rice University. Jim and Liz slept on a mattress on the floor; they couldn't afford a bed frame.

It wasn't the low pay that bothered Jim; it was the tight deadlines that forced him to deliver designs before he thought he'd done them justice. He wanted to do things right, and he wanted to do them his own way. A longtime fisherman, he thought about opening a bait shop. Either that or a barbecue joint.