Want a behind the scenes look at Frank's Americana Revival? Check out this slideshow.
I love going to mom-and-pop restaurants. Visit once, and the very next time you walk in the door you'll be greeted by name and taken care of with warmth and smiles that make you feel properly mothered. It's the same feeling I get when I go home for the holidays, and exactly how the Shine family — Mike, Chris, Colin and Whitney — makes me feel each time I set foot into their restaurant, Frank's Americana Revival.
I met all four of the Shines on my first visit to the restaurant, hearing the story about how Whitney would drive in from Austin after working a full week at an oil and gas company so that he could spend a day helping out at the host stand. I heard about how Colin, the youngest, had graduated with a degree in business but loved the kitchen so much that he'd become the de facto sous chef under executive chef Albert Estrada. I also heard about how Chris, the operations manager and sommelier, would rather spend his time talking about his wines than doing anything else.
Michael Shine, the owner and family patriarch, shared these stories like the proud papa that he is, almost distracting me from my mission at hand — figuring out how Frank's had managed to win so many local food contests — beating anywhere from 30 to 50 chefs and other restaurants at each competition — since it took over Frank's Chop House in July 2012. From February to May 2013, Frank's brought home titles such as Grand Reserve Champion at the Houston Rodeo Best Bites event, People's Choice at the Houston Press Menu of Menus® and People's Choice at Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation competition. It didn't take me long to find out.
'I can't remember the last time I went to a restaurant with so many dishes I'd want to come back for," my dining companion said to me as we relaxed in our booths, replete after an altogether satisfying dinner.
That was on a recent Saturday night at Frank's, and we had been seated in one of the six highly coveted two-seat booths — perfect for a couple — along the west wall of the restaurant. I wish all restaurants had booths like these: spacious enough so that you don't feel crowded in, with enough table real estate so that you can order quite a bit of food and not worry too much about where the plates will fit.
"They're definitely popular," laughed Colin when I told him how much I loved the feeling of sitting in the three-foot-wide booths. "People definitely fight over them, and sometimes, towards the end of the night, we'll even see them squeezing in together on one side," he added, smiling.
Looking around, I admired the clean dark-wood paneling and nautical-themed decor, which supposedly hasn't changed much since the Shine family began cooking in the building. It made me think of a seafood house in New England, a handsome, sparkling space decorated in rich mahogany tones.
All the couple booths were full that night, and by 7 p.m. the entire dining room was filled with families, River Oaks patrons and thirtysomething couples. I'm told that the place gets its fair share of prominent clientele (I saw a former Texas governor on a previous visit) and business people, and though it's by no means as hip as the restaurants you'll find down the street in Montrose, it is a very comfortable spot.
This was the first time I'd seen Colin outside of the kitchen. On previous visits to the restaurant, I'd catch sight of him working in the kitchen behind the stainless-steel counters, his hair covered by a white cap. On this night, however, he'd taken over his dad's job, working the dining-room floor in a plaid cowboy shirt and jeans, his wavy brown hair, easy smile and charming twang the epitome of Texas hospitality.
It was his gumbo that I tasted that night — a staple menu item at Frank's and one of the best I've ever tried — the murky, grayish-brown liquid rich with a deeply layered, strong seafood essence complemented by bites of rice, small Texas oysters and shrimp, and a good amount of spice that wasn't, thankfully, overwhelming. So often with gumbo, you get a watered-down flavor amplified by the addition of too much salt or spice, but Colin's gumbo was intense from having been cooked for four hours, without the slightest hint of oversalting, and when I told him so, he beamed with pride.
The pride that the Shines take in their food was a running theme in almost every dish that I ordered at Frank's, including the double-bone pork chop, brined for eight hours in maple, apple juice, brown sugar and rosemary before it's grilled and served glistening with a brush of fresh fruit and pepper glaze. Estrada had boastingly described it as something he'd feel proud to pit against Perry's Famous Pork Chop.