Berry Busy

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It's not very noticeable, the small sign behind the bar that says, "Franchises now available. Inquire within." But somebody must have spotted it while waiting for their cold beer and fish tacos, because Berryhill's Hot Tamales is selling faster than, well, hot tamales. The restaurant concept that started in a strip center space the size of a walk-in closet has opened two more locations in Texas and has six more eateries in the works.

"It's about time," says chef Jeff Brooks, who started out cooking at the 1,200-square-foot Berryhill's on Revere Street years ago. "I just hope we're not going too fast."

Things may be rolling now, but Berryhill's has been a work in progress for almost a century. Most River Oaks residents know the legend of Walter Berryhill, an Oklahoma-born Native American who perfected his tamale recipe -- substituting cornmeal for masa and adding chili gravy -- before he and his wife moved to Houston in 1928. Berryhill donned a white jacket and top hat and sold his tamales from a cart that he pushed through River Oaks and the Montrose. Berryhill hung on long after most tamale vendors parked their pushcarts, not retiring until the mid-1960s. Attorney and loyal customer Bob Tarrant bought Berryhill's cart and recipe then, but another 20 years passed before Tarrant and his daughters hooked up with Chuck Bulnes to open the little tamale cafe in 1993. The pushcart is a fixture at the corner of Revere and Westheimer, pointing down the tree-lined side street toward tamale heaven.

"We only had six or eight items on the menu," says Brooks, a self-taught chef, of Berryhill's early days. "It's sort of evolved."

And, oddly enough, the most popular item, the one that really made Berryhill's, wasn't Walter's tamales. "I'm from California," Brooks explains. "Down in Baja, the poor people catch fresh fish on the beach, fry 'em and put 'em on a taco." Texas Monthly has reported that Berryhill's brought the first fish tacos to Texas, but Brooks thinks they may have been around before he put them on the menu -- it's just that Houston wasn't ready for them then. Now, on the other hand, they're Berryhill's best sellers. Brooks substitutes farm-raised catfish for the Pacific catch you find in California, lightly frying the fish and stuffing it into a doubled tortilla along with red cabbage and cilantro.

Brooks says people thought the restaurant was a clothing store at first: "They'd stick their heads in and say, 'What is this?' and I'd tell them what we had and invite them to come back and eat. They did." Berryhill's did no advertising in the beginning -- they still rarely do -- but word-of-mouth is strong and fast in Houston when it comes to food, and little Berryhill's was soon the place to be. About three years later, Jeff Anon walked into Berryhill's and fell in love.

"I just said, 'I have to own this,' " says Anon. It was a pastime at first, but the fling soon developed into a full-time affair. Anon became the principal owner, replacing the Tarrants and Bulnes. He opened a second, larger location on Post Oak, and in 1998 explored an acquisition by Western Country Clubs of Oklahoma. According to the deal, Berryhill's would expand to eight Houston locations and six in Dallas and Anon would be CEO. "But I just didn't have a good feeling, so I decided against the Oklahoma deal," says Anon.

About a year ago Anon started thinking of growing again. The Revere site was still popular, and the 3,000-square-foot Post Oak site was running 400 to 700 customers a day. And so the franchise sign went up.

This February a San Antonio Berryhill's opened at the upscale Quarry shopping center, and Austin too will soon have a new tamale stand. A Berryhill's is even set to open in Canada this month; that one came about when Calgary businessman Jack Worth was visiting Houston and ate at Berryhill's. The corporation has already leased space in Houston at Royal Oaks, and it's also looking at The Woodlands and a soon-to-be-announced downtown tunnel location. Yet another franchise is set to open in Sugar Land in June -- Brooks bought that one.

"We have a lot of loyal customers from there," he says. "We haven't even started construction…and I've had three phone calls today about when it's going to open. I don't even know how people are getting my number."

Brooks's title is now corporate chef, or, as he says, "wheel greaser, problem solver, whatever." Essentially, it means he's in charge of ensuring product quality.

"Year after year," says one diner, "I come here and the food is always great and it's always the same." To keep up that consistency, Brooks will hire and train new kitchen staff and institute quality-control software. "We have very strict guidelines about the food, down to which brand of ingredients to use," he says. Walter Berryhill's tamale recipe is almost exactly the same as it was in 1928, and Brooks's fish tacos have also become classics.

But it's not just the food that brings customers back to Berryhill's. "I love the atmosphere," says Deloitte & Touche manager Kimberly Shockley, who's been eating at the Revere restaurant since it opened. "It's a great place to meet friends and neighbors. Plus, the staff has been there a long time, so you know the people when you go in there." Sort of like a Tex-Mex Cheers.

Keeping the food the same and maintaining a neighborly vibe in the expansion will be a challenge. But Anon, who's always leaping up to wait on his customers, instills confidence. "We take our food, our coffee -- Café du Monde -- everything, seriously," he says. "It's just such a rewarding business, to see people smile when they eat your food." Ol' Walter Berryhill should be proud.

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