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.

His buddies lobbied him to stay in town. They'd eaten Jim's barbecue at parties and knew that it beat almost anything then available in Houston restaurants. Like many restaurants of the time, the city's barbecue joints weren't much to speak of. In Jim's opinion, Otto's, Luther's and Western Kitchen were the only places that knew how to cook the meat, and none of those was much to look at. He wanted barbecue as serious as the smoky beef he'd grown up eating in Brazoria County, and he wanted a place, as he puts it, with style.

To decorate his project, he began collecting cowboy stuff, buying photos and boots and rodeo posters from flea markets and auctions. He crammed the family's little rented house floor-to-ceiling with his finds; Liz, Jana and Levi had to maneuver around them.

One summer afternoon, scouting for a location, Jim stopped at The Barbecue Barn, a big red place on Kirby. It was known, he says, for making people sick. He ordered a beer, and the proprietor asked what he was up to.

I'm thinking about getting into the barbecue business, he told her.

You want this one? she asked.

He bought it for $18,000 -- $6,000 up front, the rest in installments. He didn't realize that he'd still have to pay rent on the building, and buy the kitchen equipment; he hadn't thought about the food costs. He was that green.

On a Saturday he went to the barn and handed over the check. The business came complete with a couple of employees, women who sat around on milk crates, smoking cigarettes, reheating meat in the rare event that a customer appeared.

He said, Monday we're gonna change all this.

Sunday he stayed up all night cooking, a little unnerved by the commercial kitchen's giant tools. He doctored the bottled sauce already on hand and decided the Sysco potato salad in the refrigerator would have to do. He didn't change the sign yet, and he figured it was good that the old place had been awful; nobody expected much, and any change was bound to be an improvement. On Monday, his first day, the gross sales totaled $50.

The restaurant became his family's life. To help with the cooking, Jim recruited his enchilada-cooking uncle, Joe Goode, a retired Air Force sergeant living in San Antonio. Either Joe or Jim or both of them would stay all night at the barn, sleeping on a stainless-steel table with a shotgun for protection, setting a timer so they'd wake up in time to check the barbecue pit's temperature and add wood to the fire. Liz worked 14-hour days, arriving at the restaurant with Jana and Levi right after they woke up. Levi stayed there all day; Jana left for elementary school, then returned in the afternoon.

The kids entertained themselves with the materials at hand, melting drinking straws in the ash pit, constructing Swiss Army knives out of Band-Aids and plastic cutlery from the nap-paks. Bored, Jana memorized the flyer that her dad handed out in nearby office buildings. "This is a one-of-a-kind, family-owned, good place to eat," the menu declared. (To this day, she recites the sentence like a verse of scripture.)

That flyer reflected Jim's sense of style. Designed by one of his old art buddies -- Jim didn't have time -- it featured a black-and-white photo of Jim in a cowboy hat and suspenders, his face defined by a beard and sternness suitable for an Old Testament patriarch. The photo bears no hint of the '70s; it could have been yanked from an archive of Texana, a portrait of an 1890s cowboy cook still dusty from the trail.

Another photo on that flyer showed Joe, Jim, Liz and the kids standing with a truck in front of the barbecue barn. The human figures are tiny, dwarfed by the restaurant. They stare blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Jim worried constantly that the restaurant would fail. He thought he'd either "swim or drown," and he was determined to swim. He couldn't return to commercial art, and he didn't know what else he was fit to do, how else he could support his family.

An inch at a time, he dragged Goode Co. Barbeque up to his standards. Together, he and Joe developed its signature barbecue sauce, a complicated affair, tomatoey, hot, sweet and smoky. Slowly, they replaced Sysco-brand potato salad and beans and slaw with superior versions they concocted themselves. For pecan pie, they used Jim's mother's recipe. They continued to make sandwiches on the classic, squishy white bread so dear to hard-line traditionalists; but they also offered a superior alternative, thick slices dotted with bits of jalapeños and yellow cheese.

Jim's old art buddies began eating at Goode Co., and they brought their friends; Kirby office workers discovered the place, and families from West University started to drop by. Jim could estimate the day's take when he emptied the garbage bags -- the heavier the bag, the more money they'd made. By fall of '77 the daily gross hit $400.

Sometimes, late at night, Jim talked with the manager of the Burger King next door, and from him learned some of the basics of restaurant management. The Burger King manager showed Jim the chain's policy manual, and Jim was impressed. It was full of rules he hadn't known. Be consistent. Avoid nepotism. The customer is always right.

Consistency made sense to Jim: He wanted to be fair to customers and thought they had a right to receive what they expected. The other rules weren't so obvious.

For starters, he didn't think customers were always right. Once, one complained about Jim's chili: It didn't have beans. Jim pointed to the menu, which stated clearly that the chili was the Texan kind, all meat and spices -- no beans, no junk.

Still, the man demanded his money back. Jim refused. The bean lover dumped the chili on a vacant table and ran out of the restaurant.

Jim ran after him, leaving the cash register unattended, his smooth-soled boots slip-sliding on the parking lot pavement. At a car lot, the bean man doubled back, heading toward his car in the Goode Co. lot. He jumped in the old Pontiac, but Jim caught the door and tried to extract him from the car. The bean lover managed to crank the Pontiac and roared away.

When Jim walked back into the restaurant, the remaining customers applauded. Those were Jim Goode's people; to hell with the bean lovers.

Likewise, in the abstract, Jim thought it made sense to avoid nepotism. But outside of his relatives, hardly any of Goode Co.'s early employees met his approval; he considered them a mix of warm bodies and drunks. Instead, he wanted people who'd be "like family": people like Liz and Joe, who'd do a job without being told, who didn't whine, who felt as fiercely about Goode Co. as he did.

Stanley Woo was one of the first outsiders to qualify for Jim's adoptive business family. Jim describes Stanley as a "Chinaman," 70 years old, who'd spent his adult life working at Texas barbecue joints. Stanley was reliable and a hard worker, a guy who'd rather sweep the floor than sit still -- but even more important, he knew how to carve a brisket, a skill neither Jim nor Joe had mastered. At first, Jim says, it took him 15 minutes to cut meat for a sandwich. Stanley taught him the secrets of speed.

But Stanley began telling another employee that the only reason Jim was succeeding was luck. She told Jim, and Jim didn't like it.

Stanley, he said, you gotta quit saying that.

Stanley said okay. But a week later, he did it again.

Stanley, Jim said, I'm going to have to fire you.

You can't fire me, Stanley said. I'd lose face.

Jim was exhausted; Jim was like an animal. Jim said losing face is better than losing your ass.

That was the last he saw of Stanley.

"He was a good man," Jim says mournfully now. He tells the story to show how tired he was, how hot his temper was running, how Goode Co. Barbeque operated then: not by the cool rules of a policy manual, but with the passion and heat of a family fight.

By the next summer the zeitgeist was smiling on all things Texan. Gilley's was hot, Willie Nelson was on the radio, and customers were lining up at Goode Co. Barbeque. Houston and Texas were full of themselves, and more than any other place in town, Jim Goode's place fit that mood.

But Jim didn't relax. Nothing but the restaurant commanded his full attention; even his family came second. Off the top of his head, he can tell you what Goode Co. Barbeque was grossing in the summer of '78 -- $1,500 a day -- but he can't remember the year he and Liz were divorced. It was 1980.

Liz remarried and moved with Levi and Jana to her new husband's home, Delcambre (pronounced "del-cum") in southeast Louisiana. The tiny town, only a few miles from the Intracoastal Waterway, had one pharmacist, no hospital, and even in the '80s, remained effectively segregated. There was no Wal-Mart, no McDonald's, no Sonic. Kids swam in horse troughs. Crawfish shells filled the potholes. Cops carried coolers of beer in the backseat of the police cruiser. "I think we had one homosexual," says Jana. "But he was married."

Jana, a fourth grader, had a hard time breaking into the social circle of kids who'd known each other practically since birth. But preschool Delcambre welcomed Levi as one of its own. He grew up hunting and fishing with his Cajun buddies, watching as their grandmothers transformed the morning's catch into the evening's gumbo. In return, Levi taught his friends to break-dance, an urban skill he had learned in the big city.

Back in Houston, Jim also remarried, and with his second wife, Kate, soon had two more daughters, Katie and Emma. Kate, too, was absorbed into Goode Co.: She watched over the finances, the profit-and-loss matters Jim had never much cared for.

Levi and Jana saw their dad every couple of weeks. Usually that meant flying to Houston and spending time at Goode Co. Barbeque. On Friday nights Pappy Selph, a Texas swing fiddler, would play at the restaurant. Five-year-old Levi, big boots clomping, would lug beer out to the crowd; Jim taught him how to open a bottle so that the cap flipped into the air. Both Levi and Jana would join Pappy on stage to sing "The Cotton-Eyed Joe."

At first all Levi knew was the word "Bullshit!" It was cute, but cute wasn't enough for Jim: If Levi wanted to keep singing, he'd have to learn the verses. Levi played the 45 till he knew the words by heart.

Jim took Levi hunting and fishing. The girls, Jana and Katie and Emma, didn't like stuff like wade-fishing, Levi says; they hated to get dirty. Jana remembers things differently: She went fishing a couple of times with her dad, she says, but generally wasn't invited on such excursions. "I begged all my life to go hunting," she says with a shrug. "But I was a girl. Levi's the guy."

Still, both Jana and Levi grew up expecting to work someday in their dad's business, which was growing beyond Jim Goode's expectations. In 1982 he and Kate bought the land across the street from Goode Co., and soon after, opened Goode Co. Hamburgers and Taqueria (known as "Burgers" in Goode-speak). Following its success, Jim, the dedicated fisherman, told Kate he'd always wanted to open a seafood restaurant. In '86 Levi watched as a crane lifted an old Amtrak passenger car off the nearby train tracks and lowered it onto the lot that would become Goode Co. Texas Seafood.

A few years after opening Seafood, Jim was buying bullets at Carter Country on I-10 and was drawn to the vacant building across the parking lot -- a white, gingerbready affair that to Jim looked like an old Western whorehouse. He made it the second Goode Co. Barbeque. "Q2," as employees call it, succeeded just like its predecessors. Jana talked about her dad's Midas touch; Jim talked about Kate's good business sense.

Because the schools in Delcambre weren't very good, Jana moved back to Houston for her freshman and sophomore year in high school. She lived with Jim and Kate, ate Mexican rice for breakfast at Burgers most mornings and returned there to work the dinner shift. She transferred to a boarding school in Austin but returned to Houston for college, at the University of St. Thomas. This time she lived on her own.

Levi, too, moved to Houston for his first two years of high school. At Burgers, he washed dishes; at Barbeque, he sliced meat and trimmed brisket. Again he seemed to have no trouble making friends -- old Lamar High School buddies still honk at him on the freeway -- but he also spent time hanging around Jana's apartment. After all, she was old enough to buy beer.

Levi says that Lamar was beginning to feel dangerous and that lots of his friends were transferring to private schools -- that's why he finished high school at Fork Union, a military boarding school in Virginia. Jana says that their dad wanted Levi to learn military-style discipline. But Jana didn't want Levi to leave town. After he left, she sat crying in her apartment for days. She felt like his twin; she felt like his mother.

Jim had begun pulling back from Goode Co., going fishing more often, leaving the day-to-day operations to the employees he trusted and treated like family -- people like Ralph Cabello, the kitchen manager at Barbeque. Cabello has worked for Goode Co. for 18 years. Jim says that he's "like my son"; Ralph says Jim is his best friend. Other employees have racked up similarly long track records. Except for dishwashers and busboys, few people in the Goode kitchens have worked there less than five years -- amazing for the restaurant industry.

The Goodes often employ whole families: A mother may work as a "bean lady" at Barbeque, while her daughter makes pies at the commissary and her son manages Burgers. To Jim, that kind of nepotism only makes sense: If you get a job because you're somebody's cousin or brother, you feel a little extra responsibility to prove yourself, to uphold your family honor.

Jim felt close to his restaurant family -- in some ways, closer to them than he was to his flesh-and-blood children. After Levi left for military school, Jim hardly noticed he was gone.

Jim thinks about that now. "I got friends whose kids are going to college," he says. "These people spent their whole lives with their kids, went to every baseball game, and now it's like they're in mourning."

He takes a hit from his cigar, then exhales smoke. "I envy that," he says.

Like his dad, Levi grew up surrounded by serious cooking, but Levi's childhood food was the stuff of a different place and time. Besides pecan pies and enchiladas, Levi ate Cajun gumbo and boiled crawfish in Delcambre, and also Sicilian red sauces cooked by his New Orleans grandmother. And though Levi grew up partly in the Lone Star State, Texas food had changed since his dad was a kid: Houston now offered Vietnamese crabs, South American steaks and Indian curries. In the combination office/test kitchen that Jim and Levi share, it's hard to tell what belongs to whom; they both use the pots, the cookbooks, the table and even the phone number. But the shelf of Asian ingredients -- sambal, fish sauce, hoisin -- is clearly Levi's. If Levi represents the next generation of Texas cooking, then Texas seems a bit less mythical, a bit more like every other place in the modem-shrunk global economy: a place where people shop at the Gap and IKEA, where sport-utility vehicles log more miles on freeways than on farm roads, where the rodeo's main attraction is Garth Brooks, not livestock or cowboying.

Levi looks modern, too. Everything about him announces that he's a Serious Young Business Guy: his slicked-back hair, his button-down shirt, black Dell laptop and tiny black cell phone. Except for his shiny, pointy-toed boots, he could pass for one of those baby-faced software-company executives who populate California. He looks like he'd enjoy chatting about IPOs and stock options.

Jim always looks distinctly Texan, though not always the same kind of Texan. In October he and some buddies posed for the Goode Co. Hall of Flame catalog dressed in 1890s cowboy gear. Jim had his beard then, and looked perfectly comfortable in knee-high boots and a tall, round-domed hat. He appears equally comfortable clean-shaven and outfitted like a retired millionaire fisherman, in a white-white shirt, baggy shorts and new-looking Nike sandals; or in jeans, a cowboy hat and a 1940s-style Western shirt. It's hard, though, to picture him dressed like Levi, in nondescript business casualwear, or toting a laptop or cell phone.

Jim and Levi sound different, too. Jim tells long, funny stories and talks about "loyalty" and "responsibility"; Levi is more theoretical and hurried, and uses words like "proactive." Still, their points are often the same. They both brag, for instance, that Goode Co.'s staff doesn't tolerate fools or slow learners: "If someone's not carrying their own weight, we don't have to fire them," says Levi. "The kitchen runs 'em off." The business might be a family, but it's not one that nurtures low achievers.

If Levi feels pressure to prove himself, he doesn't show it; he makes his position in life sound only natural. He describes the new Seafood as a milestone for the company, not for himself. He's gratified, but not surprised, that his crab stuffing is selling well. When he talks about "taking Goode Co. into the next millennium," it sounds like a kind of noblesse oblige, the hereditary obligation of a privileged family. Of course he wanted to go into restaurants, he says. "It's a natural tendency to want to do what your dad does, if he's successful."

But the fact is, Levi's position as heir apparent only recently began to seem obvious. After military school Levi went to Texas A&M and majored in agricultural economics. He left in '97 without graduating. According to Jim, he "had too much fun."

But back in Houston, Levi found his work ethic. He waited tables at Seafood and used the money to put himself through culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. He learned the theory behind cooking, the professional approach. Once, his dad had been intimidated by the huge pots, pans and spoons of a restaurant kitchen; now, to Levi, a home kitchen's tools looked dinky.

He struck out on his own with a couple of catering jobs, one for a film crew. Almost a year after returning to Houston, he felt able to stand on his own -- and more important, ready to meet his dad's standards.

For years Jim has talked about retiring, about spending less time at the restaurants and more time fishing, or listening to the coyotes on his ranch on the Brazos. He's 55 now; this fall, when he cut off his beard, it was because he didn't like seeing its gray hairs. He says that he forgets things, says that he could use help running the company. And he has always hoped that someday his kids would run Goode Co.

When Levi, newly confident, expressed an interest, Jim didn't expect great things, but said that he'd train him anyway as a manager and make him responsible for some of the top-level day-to-day problems. Levi would swim or drown. Like any other employee, if he didn't carry his own weight, the staff would run him off.

Jana felt a little sorry for Levi; she knows first-hand the standards he had to live up to. She managed Burgers for a while; then, burned out on Goode Co., she moved to Rockport and opened her own operation, Jana Goode's Seafood, serving poor boys from a trailer. But it wasn't just any poor boy trailer: Levi and Jim had the Airstream painted up to Goode Co. standards and topped it with a spotlit 300-pound marlin. "You got the name," they told her. "You gotta do it right." Sometimes, Jana says, she thought about changing her name so she could slack off. And at the end of the summer, she packed up the trailer, leaving both Rockport and the restaurant business.

It's hard being Jim Goode's daughter, even in Rockport; you can see how it'd be harder being Jim Goode's son, working directly for Jim Goode's company. As Jana sees it, Levi had to do more, to try harder, precisely because he was the boss's kid. "Levi's gotta be better than everyone else," she says. "He's family."

Sitting in Seafood -- the original Seafood, packed on a Friday night -- Jana says it's strange for her, knowing that Levi's in the company but that she's not. She's hyperaware of the restaurant: She knows the waiters' and bartenders' names, notices that the ficus needs to be watered, that the rug's a bit crooked, that a door must be open because the air's a tad damp. Like her dad and Levi, she talks about how tough it is to work for the company. You've gotta have it, she says, the kind of gung ho responsibility that her father demands.

Levi has it, Jana says. She's proud that he has not only survived in Goode Co., but that her dad and his employees regard him as a success. She's a little jealous, too. Levi belongs not just to the Goode family, but to the Goode Co. family, tied to their dad not only by blood, but by work. It's not clear which bond is stronger, and Jana obviously feels drawn toward the business. Just the night before, she talked to Jim about someday returning to Goode Co. Jim says there's a place for her -- and a place, someday, for high-school-aged Katie and Emma, too, if that's what they want.

I'm not sure what those places would be. But even after watching Levi off and on for a month, I'm not sure precisely how to define his job. At first I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a division of labor: where Jim left off, where Levi began. Levi wasn't much help. Talking about Goode Co., he almost always says "we" -- we decided to go into seafood, we opened the barbecue place on I-10 -- even if the event occurred when he was five or six or 12 years old. Ask what he's doing with the new Seafood, and he says he's "handling things."

There are, at least, some general patterns. Jim is mostly interested in the artistic elements of the new restaurant, in its design and food; he and Levi will both develop new recipes. But Levi alone sweats the less artistic details: the building permits, the sprinkler installation and delivery of flatware samples. It's Levi who's out at the building site, worried that the construction workers will be taking Fridays and Mondays off during deer season.

If all goes well, the new Seafood will open in March, joining the throngs of new restaurants now jostling for patrons. Yes, the economy is booming, and Houstonians spend almost twice as much in restaurants now as they did ten years ago. But competition has grown fiercer than ever: Though the pie is bigger, more would-be restaurateurs are fighting for a slice. Back in '77, when Jim first began learning the ropes, a restaurant's honeymoon period, when customers try out the "new place," used to last for a matter of months, even a year; now, it's six weeks, a couple of months, tops. An operation has to prove itself right away.

Jim and Levi don't seem worried. Jim has never paid much attention to industry trends, and besides, the new Seafood will draw on the established Goode Co. name, its proven staff and concept and menu. The Goodes are spending far more to set up the new Seafood than they did on the old one, but this time the expenditures look less like a gamble and more like an investment -- less Jim's old learn-as-you-go world than the Levi-and-Kate realm of controlled risk and manageable expansion.

Already Jim and Levi are looking past the new Seafood, talking about their next possible project. Levi, the jargoneer, suggests that I describe the venture as "an affordable, high-quality, home-meal-replacement concept." I think that translates as "cheap, good takeout." And I think it also means a drive-thru.

That marks a departure for Goode Co. (the Barbeque sign brags specifically, "This ain't no drive-thru"), but another departure seems more significant. This next restaurant, a prototype, wouldn't depend as much on the Goodes' loyal, intensively trained staff, on Jim's restaurant "family." Jim and Levi shy away from the word "franchise," though they admit that's the general idea. Jim likes the thought of selling his design and cooking secrets to someone in Denver or Yokohama and then reaping the royalties for years to come. Those restaurants, he figures, could be like "little oil wells" for his unborn grandchildren -- Goode Co. businesses that don't require Goodes.

At the moment, though, Levi's presence is definitely required. Pulling off I-10, and into the parking lot of the next Seafood, he dials his cell phone without looking at the keypad. This morning he's supposed to meet a contractor to figure out where the parking lot's sign should go, but he doesn't see the contractor or the crane he's expecting. On the phone, the contractor's secretary says not to worry, she thinks he's on his way. Levi looks worried.

This turn of events isn't unusual: Levi often looks worried, and he's always on the phone. He drives a Suburban Z71, a red truck so humongous that it towers over regular SUVs. Levi says the truck's size means he never has trouble changing lanes -- and that's a good thing, because he changes lanes while consulting his notepad, or while dialing the operator for numbers.

He parks the Suburban next to the restaurant-to-be and carries his cell phone inside. At 11,000 square feet, the empty, echoing space seems as outsize as Levi's truck; it's almost twice the size of the original Seafood. Vacant almost two years, it smells like a dead animal. An Italianate mural still lingers on one wall, a ghostly reminder of the site's previous tenant.

But to Levi the future is almost as vivid as the past. He shows me the new Seafood, gesturing toward points of interest that don't yet exist: Down here, he says, in this greenhouse-looking part, this'll be the bar. We're going to take out the glass wall, put in a new foundation, and on that we're gonna place this giant ship's propeller, 14 feet tall and 25,000 pounds. Up here, we're going to hang three old Coast Guard lifeboats; over here, that's where the Cris Craft boat's going to go.

He's especially excited by the gigantic new kitchen. The old Seafood's kitchen is tiny, even compared to the seating area; "we" never expected the place to do much business. The new place has room after room of kitchen space; so much, Levi says, that "we" haven't figured out what to do with it all. Kitchen space limits the current Seafood menu; you can't offer a new dish if you don't have space to prepare it. Here, Levi hopes to introduce some of his own creations.

Through a window, we spot the contractor's pickup. Luke Feild, of Signtex, wears a cowboy hat, a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ring, and a belt buckle that looks like something you'd win for riding and roping. Levi greets him with a hey-how-ya-doin' handshake.

Luke has brought a bucket truck, the kind that boosts repairmen to work on power lines. One of his workers will stand in the bucket; his helmet will be 42 feet from the ground, the top height of the new sign. The bucket truck will move around the lot, so we can test different sites, see how the sign will look from I-10 and the access road.

Signs are always supposed to be visible, but this one's high profile is especially important since the restaurant itself is hard to spot from the freeway. It's hidden behind a little freestanding building, once a Champs restaurant, now about to be reincarnated as the ritzy Jared Galleria of Jewelry. The new Seafood's impressive facade -- think the Alamo, only with a giant tarpon over the door -- won't even face the freeway. Instead, it faces the side parking lot; as diners enter, they'll see only the restaurant, and not its strip-mall neighbors.

Luke and Levi worry that the sign will get lost in a sea of competitors. Nearby signs tout Service Merchandise, Office Depot and Boot Town, and two billboards also clamor for attention. As Luke and Levi discuss the "cluster" problem, Tom Dayton, Goode Co.'s director of operations, appears, and Jim Goode pulls up in his shiny black van. Jim is wearing jeans and a faded Eddie Bauer T-shirt; judging from his clothes, he could be the guy who cleans Levi's pool. But the center of gravity shifts with Jim's arrival; while talking to Levi, Luke glances occasionally toward Jim.

We pile into Levi's truck -- Levi driving, Jim riding shotgun, me in the back, sandwiched between Tom and Luke -- and for the next half hour or so, drive in circles, Uturning at Memorial City Mall and heading west, then U-turning at Town & Country Mall and heading back, always looking for the spot, about halfway in between, where the Signtex guy is standing in the bucket. Levi, Jim and Luke discuss the pros and cons of each spot, then Luke uses a walkie-talkie to direct the bucket truck to the spot the Goodes want to try next.

The talk turns to hunting. Jim has seen an awful lot of game lately: An 11-point buck walked into his yard over the weekend, and he saw 20 pigs while he was driving into Houston this morning. Luke talks about a pig he shot two years ago, one that was tearing up his pastures bad. He was on a four-wheeler when he saw the pig, and he shot it with his .44 pistol. The pig fell over but got up, and it ran off faster than Luke could follow on the four-wheeler. Yeah, says Levi, those big ones have a plate in their shoulder, makes 'em hard to killŠ

We U-turn for the umpteenth time, getting ready to head west. I'm still taking notes, writing about pigs' shoulder plates, when I realize that the truck has stopped and Levi and Jim have bailed out. Tom is a half-second behind them; Luke, a half-second behind him. A station wagon has stalled ahead of us, blocking the U-turn lane. By the time I figure out what's happening, the four men have pushed the car to the side of the access road. Wordlessly, they jog back like a Marine unit, boots clomping in unison.

Back in the truck, the hunting stories resume without a hitch: an ostrich that Luke ran across out in the country; a giant alligator gar that Jim saw some kids catch in the Brazos, a monster that looked like something from an Alien movie. The men seem exhilarated by their minor adventure, but nobody mentions the station wagon. It was an obstacle; it has been removed; case closed. In the Goodes' world, it's obvious that obstacles must be removed, and that you don't waste breath congratulating yourself. The satisfaction is silent, and shared.

E-mail Lisa Gray at [email protected].

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Lisa Gray