Phaedra Cook is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes of 2015. It's a collection of personal favorites that is also indicative of Houston dining. It's a scene where a vast range of dishes coexist: highbrow and lowbrow; local and international; cheap and expensive; modern cuisine and beloved tenets — and everything in between.
Rudi Lechner’s is a last bastion of a culture that has been encapsulated, commercialized and used as an excuse to sell more beer than usual in October. Most nights of the week, there’s a band playing. They’re decked out in Alpine hats and pounding out a warbling tune on accordions, horns and guitars.
Lechner’s was one of my first introductions to a heritage outside my own, a combination of citified Houstonian and Texas tomboy ranch hand. One of my best friends from high school did more for my cultural education than any teacher ever did. He took me to musicals, introduced me to new foods and gave me some perspective on life. Thankfully, he’s still my friend to this day, although his work as a newspaper editor means that he hasn’t lived in Houston for a long time.
One night, we went to a musical production of Cinderella at Miller Outdoor Theatre and he’d brought a picnic lunch from Rudi Lechner’s. That included the best roast chicken I’d ever had, the flavors amplified by the music and the open air.
Later, I’d go see the place in person. I ordered the Heritage Sampler Plate. (I’m pretty sure it had previously been called the Sound of Music platter.) I wanted to experience a little of everything this culture had to offer. In a way, it may have been my first realization that there was a big, wide world out there that I knew nothing about.
I should have known that the guy I was dining with about to break up with me when he uncharacteristically grumbled about the cost. (In all fairness, we were young, broke and I can unerringly pick the most expensive thing on the menu without ever looking at pricing. It’s a talent. After that experience, I learned to be more mindful of prices when on dates.)
Years down the road I’d marry a man of Danube Swabian descent with a Cincinnati upbringing—someone who taught me that the secret to delicious sauerkraut was to fry up sausage and then sauté the sour cabbage in the drippings.
When we visited Rudi Lechner’s, he declared, “This is home food for me. I don’t crave it, but there is definitely still something about it.”
The Heritage Sampler Plate is huge and it costs $26. Even though the menu states that it’s for one, it easily feeds two hungry people. It has a slab of roasted pork loin, pork wiener schnitzel, sausage sauerbraten, a bit of that roast chicken I originally fell in love with, fried potatoes, red cabbage, sauerkraut and a big, round dumpling.
The place is over-the-top kitschy, with its Alpine singers and gazebo-shaped center dining area. In the late evening, it is populated almost exclusively by elderly folks dancing with their partners on the little floor in front of the stage. This is home food, too, but the kind that feeds hearts not bellies.
“Is it home food for their children, too?” I wondered. “Where are the young people?” There’s nothing “cool” about this place. It’s exuberant and kind of goofy. Whether it will be preserved will depend on members of another generation embracing it.
The List of Top 100 Dishes of 2015 So Far:
No. 62, Oxtails at Le' Pam's House Of Creole
No. 63, The 420 Slice at Pi Pizza Truck
No. 64, Frenchy's Fried Chicken On Scott Street
No. 65, 3 Pig Mac & Cheese at Urban Eats
No. 66, Pucchia Pugliese Foggia at Sud Italia
No. 67, Triple-Smoked Pastrami On Rye At Kenny & Ziggy's
No. 68, Fume Pizza at Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana
No. 69, Banh Mi Thap Cam at Café TH
No. 70, Caramelized Onion Soup at Mockingbird Bistro
No. 71, Milk Chocolate Stout Malt at Fat Cat Creamery
No. 72, Pork Ribs at Roegels Barbecue Co.
No. 73, Carrot Pizza at Weights + Measures
No. 74, Jalisco Wings at El Big Bad
No. 75, Mussels at Cafe Brussels
No. 76, Cresta di Gallo at The Pass & Provisions
No. 77, Beef Fajitas at El Real Tex-Mex
No. 78, Chicken Tikka Masala from the Tandoori Nite truck
No. 79, Chocolates at Cacao & Cardamom
No, 80, Hummus Supreme at Al's Quick Stop
No. 81, Red Oil Dumplings at Mala Sichuan
No. 82, Tex-Cajun Fries at BB's Café
No. 83, Mac & Cheese at The Oceanaire Seafood Room
No. 84, The Principal Burger at Bernie's Burger Bus
No. 85, Hunter's Honey-Roasted Duck at Brennan's Of Houston
No. 86, Fish & Chips at Good Dog Houston
No. 87, Sausage, Egg & Cheese Biscuit at Blacksmith
No. 88, "Saucy Balls" At Brooklyn Meatball Company
No. 89, Perry's Steakhouse/Perry & Sons Pork Chop
No. 90, General Tso's Chicken from The Rice Box
No. 91, Eggs, Refried Beans, Hash Browns and Hugo's Sauce at 59 Diner
No. 92, Shipley Do-Nuts Plain Glazed
No. 93, Housemade Bologney at Public Services Wine & Whisky
No. 94, Bo Luc Lac at Cheno's (formerly Chino's) Fast Food
No. 95, Combo #5 at Soto's Cantina
No. 96, Carnitas Salad At Chipotle
No. 97, Pickled Shrimp At Punk's Simple Southern Food
No. 98, Lobster Roll At Maine-Ly Sandwiches
No. 99, Chili-Cheese Coneys At JCI Grill
No. 100, Corned Beef Hash And Eggs At House Of Pies