It was interesting — even intriguing — to hear that the new H-E-B near San Felipe and Fountainview would be the first in Houston to sport its own restaurant, Table 57. There are similar concepts in San Antonio and Austin.
Chef Randy Evans, best known for his former restaurant Haven and his time at Brennan’s of Houston as executive chef, consulted on the menu. However, he’s not actually cooking the menu. He’s gone on to a permanent position with H-E-B at its home base in San Antonio. The ideas are good, but the execution is flawed, and it’s hard to believe that dishes are coming out of the kitchen as Evans envisioned them.
That is not to say that Table 57 is without merit. It’s a boon to busy, frazzled parents. The family-friendly atmosphere enables them to have a moderately priced dinner out and get grocery shopping done immediately afterward. The kids’ menu has dishes that range from $2.50 (for a Hebrew National hot dog or grilled cheese) to $5 (for chopped brisket or cheeseburger sliders). Each comes with a choice of fries, sweet potato fries, yogurt or a fruit cup. There’s a play yard on the back patio, too, which allows parents to sit back, sip a glass of wine or beer and have a moment of peace.
Really, that’s the audience Table 57 is equipped to serve. Jaded diners seeking haute cuisine or even best-in-class cheap fare, though, may as well just keep on driving.
Casual Table 57 operates with a counter-service model. It’s not a full-service restaurant, although the staff are quite congenial and help seated diners when they can. The ordering process is a little clunky. Walk in the front door, order food and pay at the front counter. Diners who want wine or beer will then need to make their way to the eight-seat bar. There’s a list of Texas beers posted behind the front counter, but when we tried to order one with our food, we were told by the cashier, “It’s just easier if you order them at the bar.” Easier on whom? Certainly not the customer.
If the seats at the bar are full, the only option is to hang out awkwardly at the end of the counter until the bartender can take care of you. Pay (again) for the beverages, then find a table.
So ordering at Table 57 isn’t really much different from ordering at the sandwich or deli counter at Central Market — aside from the larger menu and Table 57’s much more attractive, rustically decorated space.
Occasionally, a staff member will walk around the floor and check on diners. After so much of the do-it-yourself motif, it was a pleasant surprise to go to the bar, order a bottle of wine and have someone bring it with glasses and pour the first sips.
One of Table 57’s main selling points is its barbecue. The store has a big wood-fired smoker, and placards on the tables proclaim the brisket is smoked for 13 hours. It’s an appealing thought that great barbecue could be so convenient, approachable and cost-effective. Is that too good to be true?
Let’s just put it this way: Killen’s Barbecue, CorkScrew BBQ, Roegels Barbecue Co., Pappa Charlies Barbeque, Brooks’ Place and all the other fine purveyors of smoked meat in the Houston area don’t have anything to worry about. Early on, the brisket at Table 57 was actually quite fine. Three months later, the slices of fatty brisket were thick, overcooked, mushy slabs.
Cooking brisket for 13 hours is no guarantee of success, and the claim is a meaningless statement. The time needed to cook it to perfection is not some arbitrary number. Ask any pitmaster how long he or she has to smoke briskets, and the answer is “It depends.” There are many variables. The size of the brisket, the moisture content, the outside temperature and the humidity are all factors that can skew the time needed one way or the other. Brisket is done when it’s done, and slices of it shouldn’t be squishy, as was the case at Table 57.
On the other hand, the pork ribs were actually pretty good. They were tender — but not falling off the bone — with a light rub that boasted some black pepper and just a touch of sweetness. That might explain why they were sold out by 6:30 p.m. on our first visit. (The bread pudding was also sold out on the same night.)
The barbecued turkey breast is moist, pleasant and mildly salty, as if it were brined before smoking. So getting a two-meat barbecue platter with the ribs and turkey with saucy, bold barbecue beans and cool, crisp coleslaw on the side might be the best bet.
We toyed with the idea of getting a bottle of The Prisoner to go with the barbecue. (Sommelier Justin Vann of Public Services Wine & Whiskey once told me, “Of course The Prisoner goes with barbecue. It is barbecue.”) We weren’t willing to pay $70 for it, though, so our young attendant guided us to a $35 Chain Gang blend from California’s North Coast that, while a bit too jammy to be a perfect match, was still an acceptable choice for the price.
(That’s only a times-two markup over retail. Comparing that to many restaurants that mark up by three, it’s a pleasure to see reasonable prices for a change. At Table 57, wine can be consumed without a lot of guilt over cost. Guilt over drinking is a completely different problem beyond the scope of this review.)
Also not in danger of real competition from Table 57: any real Korean fried-chicken place. Table 57’s Korean fried chicken comes this close to being in the ballpark. The chicken is cooked all the way through and is still moist. The coating is thick, crispy and munchable — or at least it would be if it weren’t ruined with syrupy, thick, sticky sauce that seems like a mix of Karo and gochujang. It’s as if someone started making peanut brittle and decided halfway through, “You know what? What I really want is some Korean fried chicken.”
It’s so sticky that webby strings of goop will stubbornly cling to your fingers with nary a Wet-Nap around to save you. Remember that scene in Lord of the Rings where Frodo finds himself caught in Shelob’s web? It’s a bit like that.
The umami burger sounded like a good idea. It’s named that way because it’s topped with ingredients that have the most umami flavor, that hard-to-put-your-finger-on sensation of mouth-filling meatiness. The burger is topped with a Parmesan crisp, Soleggiati tomatoes (an Italian specialty product in which tomatoes are slightly dried, seasoned with garlic and oregano and packed in oil), shiitake mushrooms and shabu mayonnaise.
Unfortunately, the Parmesan crisp, a flat, cracker-like round of baked cheese, was thick and tough. It was utterly disconcerting to bite though the soft top bun and come to a dead stop at the unyielding cheese barricade. The huge wheels of onion rings that came alongside, though, were resplendent with golden, light, crispy batter.
That’s a recurring theme at Table 57: outstanding side dishes and lackluster entrées. The aforementioned barbecue beans have plenty of black pepper and tomato-spiked zest, and the coleslaw hits just the right balance between crisp shreds of cabbage and creamy sauce. (One dining companion compared it to KFC’s, which wasn’t meant unkindly.) Grilled okra topped with a smattering of sesame seeds turned out to have pleasing smokiness. The kimchi mashed potatoes are tart and spicy without giving up luxurious texture, and the greens are as good an example of that dish as any in Houston.
Pass on the bland macaroni and cheese and the deviled eggs, which lack sufficient mustard or any other tart element to give them the needed punch.
Every once in a while, though, when you least expect it, Table 57 will blow you away with something really good. Such was the case with the turkey burger. It didn’t look like much — a beige patty on a beige bun with a smattering of arugula for a bit of color — but it was one of the best tastes to be found. The patty was moist and seasoned with just the right amount of salt, pepper and herbs, and the soft, toasted bun proved to be a worthy companion.
The prices are reasonable, but assessing whether an offering at Table 57 is truly a deal relies on considering cost versus quality and knowing what else can be had. Most small sides are $3 and are so good they can be considered bargains. The turkey burger is $9 and includes a side of respectable fries. A quarter-pound of either spare ribs or brisket is a mere $4 and that’s quite affordable.
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On the other hand, the three-meat barbecue platter with two sides is $13, and the same platter at nearby Roegels Barbecue Co. is $14.95 and far, far better. The syrup-drenched Korean fried chicken is $15. Compare that to Dak N’ Bop’s order of two wings, one drumstick and two strips of breast meat at $10, and it becomes obvious that H-E-B’s lackluster rendition is definitely not worth the money.
Table 57 is clearly a respite for time-strapped families who come to the store to get their shopping done and have a convenient, reasonably priced meal at the same time. It just isn’t a destination restaurant worth driving out of the way for. The ideas on the menu are ambitious, but the execution falls far short of expectation.
Table 57 Dining & Drinks
5895 San Felipe, 713-978-5860. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (kitchen closes at 10 p.m.) Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday brunch.
Barbecue plate (three meats and two sides) $13
Brisket (quarter-pound) $4
St. Louis spare ribs (quarter-pound) $4
Deviled eggs $3
Brisket beans $3
Cheddar mac ’n’ cheese $3
Turkey burger $9
Umami burger $10.50
Korean fried chicken $15
Chain Gang red wine $32