Although Antone's is a Houston institution, I am still a relative newcomer to the city, and therefore I have only had its po-boys a few times. Sometime this fall, I'm gonna order three of them with various species of (fried) fish and watch the Steelers. I'm an especially big fan of Antone's fried catfish, which boasts a uniquely flaky cornmeal batter I've yet to see replicated in other Houston restaurants.
But I'm jumping ahead of myself. I stopped by the San Felipe location for an early dinner in late August, just about an hour before closing. Having worked in food service, I always feel a bit guilty visiting a restaurant on the later end of service because I know the staff is in the process of winding down. (Not to say, however, that I don't agree with the general rule that patrons should be very welcome to arrive at a restaurant any time before doors close.)
It could have been noon for all I knew, for the staff was as friendly and attentive as during the lunch rush. Not so much in the mood for a classic po-boy, my dining companion and I split a lovely hummus appetizer and some sandwiches.
It's obvious that Antone's makes its hummus fresh (nearly) daily; unlike other "homemade" varieties at competing food stores, the balance of oil, spices and chickpeas is completely on mark in terms of flavors and consistency. And with just a hint of lemon juice in the background, the hummus tastes of a lush citrus and earthy legumes.
I'm the first to admit that french dip sandwiches aren't my favorite. Or my second favorite. Or even my third. As a child, I wasn't exposed to decent french dip sandwiches, having only sampled the disgusting, greasy, shriveled version proffered in my school cafeteria. Later I tried the sandwich at a few more reputable institutions, but again found the meat bland and the au jus over-salted.
But I very much liked the french dip I had at Antone's. With soft, chewy buns from Slow Dough Bread Company and thin (but not annoyingly translucent) slices of roast beef, the sandwich was simple, savory and delicious. Antone's makes the unorthodox move of adding a few slices of cheese, affording the sandwich interior a creamy texture that only highlights the fleshiness of the meat. And while I was hesitant to challenge that balance with a dunk in the accompanying au jus, thank goodness I did. I had forgotten how really fresh bread becomes that much more delectable fully saturated with meat juices.
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Another pleasant surprise was the pulled sandwich, then a special that management tells me is a strong contender for the permanent menu. Like many restaurants, Antone's dutifully prepares its pork with an overnight brine followed by a low and slow roast. But the twist is the barbecue sauce, which lacks the heavy, brown-sugary, borderline saccharine quality common in other dressings. Ancho peppers lay the foundation for some serious heat, and the addition of red wine vinegar provides another dimension to the spice. And with a topping of red onions and jalapeños (pickled in-house), the sandwich is so far from mild, you may want to chase it with a glass of milk.
As a creature of habit, I can't promise that next time I go to Antone's I won't order the fried catfish po-boy. I may plead, though, to go half and half with that and either the pulled pork or french dip.