There are better restaurants than Treebeards, certainly, but I don't know of any that are held in higher regard. Treebeards is that rare case, a restaurant that actually inspires affection. And not just among a small cadre of loyalists. Go there any midday, and you'll encounter tout le monde grazing as contentedly as a herd of Holsteins. I, myself, know people who eat there two or three times a week. And yet, for all the thousands of people it draws, I've never once heard anyone speak ill of it. It's a signal achievement, the more so because I can think of no other restaurant in Houston cherished to this extent. Brennan's, perhaps, comes close. But Brennan's doesn't draw the wide cross-section Treebeards does. One of the charms of this place is its democratic ethic. The cut of your jib means nothing here. Whether you're highborn or low matters not a whit. All must stand in line, and all must wait their turn. If Houston has a people's restaurant, this is it.
I have my own reasons for admiring Treebeards. It was the first Houston restaurant I ever ate in. And it was there that I was first exposed to Cajun food. Back in the early '80s, Treebeards was something of a pioneer, serving etouffee and boudin, gumbo and jambalaya. And at the time, I hadn't heard of any of them. It was the kind of education you don't forget, and I've felt passionately about Treebeards ever since. Recently, though, it and I have drifted apart. I work at home now and venture downtown only when I must. But two weeks ago, curiosity drew me back. Curiosity and trepidation. Since Treebeards had undergone a renovation costing half a million dollars, the thought crossed my mind that the restaurant might have tired of being egalitarian. It had been ignoring social distinctions for some 20 years, after all. Maybe it wanted something more. A better clientele, perhaps. Or a higher profile. Maybe it had decided to sell out.
Physically, Treebeards is a little grander now. On the second floor, some of the old rawness survives, but downstairs, the place is both more sensibly arranged and more commodious: There's a carpet where a cement floor used to be; there are new tables and new chairs (the latter have rush seats, a big improvement); and once-white walls now sport decorator colors: Tudor beige (actually yellow), turquoise gray (more a dark green) and soft willow, a greenish-blue that co-owner Dan Tidwell jokingly refers to as "our gesture to Martha Stewart." But for all that, the new Treebeards remains very much like the old one. There's still the hubbub that puts one in mind of a frat house during pledge week; and there is, as well, the same roar of conversation. (I don't suggest you come here if you're sensitive to noise; there are times when "clamorous" doesn't begin to describe this place.) In Treebeards, for some reason, everyone seems to talk at once. Is there something about gumbo that makes people voluble? Is there an element in etouffee -- one that's still unknown to science -- that loosens the tongue? It warrants investigation.
For the fact that the character of Treebeards remains unchanged, credit Tidwell and his business partner Jamie Mize. Twenty years ago, these two men took it into their heads to serve Cajun food at modest prices, and the idea worked -- worked so well, indeed, that the restaurant has four locations in Houston now, and there's a fifth in Dallas. Over the years, his advisers have suggested to Tidwell that he go upmarket. But sensible man that he is, he ignored them. As he sees it, he has a winning formula. To tinker with it would be folly.
The best news about Treebeards I save for last: The food remains as good as ever. Though for five years now the restaurant has been offering daily specials (a chicken breast on our first visit; baked catfish on our second), the old standbys -- the classics that cemented the restaurant's reputation -- are still here in all their glory: shrimp etouffee, duck gumbo, jalapeno corn bread, a superlative butter cake....
The red beans and rice, served with sausage, grated cheese and chopped green onions (a remarkable value at $2.80 a cup), were just as I remembered them: earthy and forcibly flavored. And the shrimp and chicken gumbo ($3.05 a cup) -- another great favorite of mine -- has, if anything, improved. Striking a range of notes, this gumbo was surprisingly complex, though if I had to choose, I would have to say that I liked it best when it was being grave.
The jambalaya ($3.05 a cup) has its adherents, too, though I must admit to not being one of them. This is the soupy kind of jambalaya -- the New Orleans kind, with lots of tomatoes in it. Because Cajun cooking is fiercely libertarian, there is no single classic jambalaya. There are, instead, several, my favorite being the sort with the texture of a good risotto.
The breast of chicken, marinated in lemon juice and costing $6.95, came with rice and turnip greens, the latter served in a nicely robust, peppery broth. And the corn bread (65 cents) is still among the best anywhere: great, hefty, orange-colored wedges studded with vicious jalapenos.
The special on our second visit was a piece of catfish ($6.95) with a bad case of shrinking-violet disorder. Had it not been topped with etouffee, it would have had no personality at all. But it hardly mattered: There were the stalwarts to fall back on: more corn bread, more gumbo -- this time the seafood variety -- the excellent etouffee ($3.05) and a cup of avocado soup ($1.95) generously laced with sour cream. I now regret not having visited Treebeards in so long. If you hear of a job downtown I might be suited for -- parking meter attendant or restroom custodian -- do let me know.
Treebeards, 315 Travis, in Market Square, 225-2160. And other locations: 1117 Texas, 229-8248; 1100 Louisiana (tunnel level), 752-2601; 700 Rusk (tunnel level), 224-6677.
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