Restaurant Reviews

Big Eyed Fish has a Great Concept but Needs More Great Food

The dense bread pudding at Big Eyed Fish is baked in a shallow layer in a round pan until the edges become dry, brown and crisp. Alongside is a fan of fresh strawberry slices and a metal cup of whipped cream piled in a tall, snowy heap. Despite these positive qualities, there’s nothing remarkable or memorable about it. It’s a little dry, there’s not enough bourbon sauce and it’s just overall boring. There aren’t any remarkable flavors. It meets expectations but doesn’t exceed them, and that just seems to be the way of things at Big Eyed Fish.

Whimsically named Big Eyed Fish is hard to miss once you know where it is. It’s across Henderson Street from Liberty Station. Alice’s Cafe & Lounge used to be there. The restaurant resides in an adorable 100-year-old house painted bright turquoise with white trim.

The idea of a family-owned country cafe smack dab among all the trendy new restaurants is really appealing. You’d think it would be a boon for the people who hang out at Liberty Station. A cafe just across the street that serves chicken-fried chicken, meat loaf and mashed potatoes should look like the Shangri-La of the South to someone in need of post-drinking ballast. It doesn’t look like that’s the clientele patronizing Big Eyed Fish, though. The crowd consists mostly of older white-collar types who look as if they just got off work downtown and picked up their spouse for dinner.

Since the restaurant is in a big old house with wood floors, the noise levels are naturally quite boisterous. Despite that, it’s better to sit inside during the warm months. Dinner on the porch was hampered by a fishy smell wafting over from the garbage cans stored near the back door. There were also a lot of pesky fruit flies that wanted to help drink our wine.

Other than that, the location is great, the environment is great, the concept is great and the service is great. The waiters and waitresses are kind and concerned, and there are frequent check-ins if it’s not too busy. At dinner, the place can get pretty packed, and there are delays in getting simple items to the table, like beer, but these instances are exceptions, not the rule.

What is often not great, though, is the food. The attentive service almost, but not quite, makes up for it. There are a few standout dishes, but there are just as many that are either quite average or in need of improvement. Right now, ordering is too much like menu roulette and there’s no way to know who’s going to come out a winner.

An overall winner is the Southern Platter, a $15 appetizer sampler of fried green tomatoes, slices of sausage and deviled eggs. The sausage is terrific — browned little slabs with rich speckles of white fat throughout and a dash of fresh chopped parsley for a bit of greenery. Our server said it’s from Louisiana, but it’s not andouille.

The deviled eggs are also good, with the creamy yolk filling piped in such neat swirls that it looks as if someone’s job depended on it. There’s a veritable crust of very fine bacon bits coating the swirled tops, and a smattering of paprika is a nice touch. The slabs of cornmeal-breaded and deep-fried green tomatoes are the weakest part of the sampler plate. The coating isn’t seasoned enough to be interesting, although it is nicely crispy.

It’s worth coming back for, and even more so is the Texas quail. It’s a whole quartered quail — two leg quarters and two breast quarters wrapped in bacon and fried with just a whisper of a batter. Accompanying it is a simply amazing mushroom bread pudding — sliced mushrooms sandwiched between layers of bread that are baked with a savory custard.

Those were the good things, but there are a whole lot of mediocre ones, too. Smothered poblano chicken sounded as if it would be right up Big Eyed Fish’s alley. It’s a seared chicken breast — perfectly cooked, in fact — topped with poblano peppers, cheese and a poblano béchamel. It was the béchamel that betrayed the dish. It was grainy and broken, dividing into a bicolor pool that slid off the chicken breast and onto the plate. There were mashed potatoes alongside that were no help. They were overprocessed and just shy of being gluey.

The meat loaf was a generous hunk of meat bathed in chunky tomato sauce. It looked better, but ended up being just as uninspiring. Meat loaf is homey, to be sure, but it can be memorable. One dining companion said, “I can verify that this is definitely meat loaf.” That was all there really was to say.

The macaroni and cheese comes in a darling little cast-iron skillet, and there’s a hearty dash of flaky panko (Japanese bread crumbs) on top, areas of which get toasted to a pleasing golden color in the oven. There are optional add-ons: thick-cut chunks of bacon, caramelized onions, mushrooms and truffle oil. The concept is great, but when we tried it, there was a pungent cheese included that was as overwhelming as it was unexpected. We asked a server what cheeses were used in a subsequent visit, and the answer — Mozzarella, white cheddar and white American cheese — didn’t explain the pungency.

Oddball Asian-influenced dishes, like an appetizer of coconut-crusted tuna wrapped in nori and a rare tuna steak entrée heavily encrusted in sesame seeds, have ended up on the otherwise Southern menu. It’s disconcerting. Did a bunch of people come in demanding sushi? It seems like the big sign out front that reads “American Southern Food” would be a dead giveaway. Neither of those dishes is particularly good. The nori-wrapped version comes on an unappealing bed of cold rice, and the tuna steak is so heavily covered in black and white sesame seeds that they take over the flavor. Save the hankerings for raw and rare fish for the next trip to a sushi restaurant.

Prices are not cheap and sometimes seem staggeringly out of whack. The crab beignets are essentially deep-fried battered crab nuggets and are a staggering $18. Lump crab is not cheap, but this might not be the best way to showcase it. They’re pretty good but not $18 worth of good. The aforementioned tuna steak is $26, and that poblano chicken with the broken sauce and overprocessed mashed potatoes was $15. If the food problems don’t cause a loss of enthusiasm, the bill might.

The beer list is quite good and there are always interesting Texas brews to choose from. Recent entries include Pedernales IPA from Fredericksburg, Goliad Redfish IPA (from Goliad, as you might expect) and Rahr & Sons Stormcloud from Fort Worth. The wine selection is also good, with entries from Napa, France and Chile, but red wines are served at room temperature. Room temperature does not usually showcase red wine at its best, especially here in Houston.

Big Eyed Fish is serviceable and meets the needs of folks who just want comfort food and good service in an attractive, fun location. It’s lovely and likable, but its propensity toward bland, uninspiring dishes makes it falter. Too little at Big Eyed Fish is eye-opening.

Big Eyed Fish
908 Henderson, 713-714-8367. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays.

Build A Mac-N-Cheese $7
Meat loaf $12.95
Chicken-fried chicken $13
Coconut tuna $14
Southern platter $15
Smothered poblano chicken $15
Crab beignets $18
Tuna steak $26
Rahr & Sons Stormcloud $5.25
Pedernales IPA $5.50
Goliad Redfish IPA $5.50
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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook