Restaurant Reviews

Past Its Prime

The cramped salad bar at Taste of Texas featured a bin of chopped iceberg lettuce accented with colorful streaks of sliced red cabbage. Among the toppings were broccoli and cauliflower florets, along with black olives from a can, chopped eggs, pickled beets and a shredded-carrot-and-raisin salad. When we returned to our table with our salad plates, our server brought us our complimentary appetizer, a bowl of cream cheese with jalapeño jelly poured over the top. There was a 40-minute wait for seating on Tuesday night at eight, and we were quite hungry. But as we sat there looking at our food, our appetites waned.

I tried to sell my companion on the salad bar as a '70s nostalgia trip. You don't see salad bars in expensive steak houses in Houston anymore. "Yeah, but they've got better stuff on the salad bar at Souper Salad," he complained. He was utterly stupefied by the cream cheese and jelly, another '70s throwback. "Suburban housewives don't even make this stuff anymore," he said, stirring it with a grimace.

We'd selected our steaks from the butcher's station. I got a custom-cut, two-inch-thick rib eye, and my friend ordered a small filet mignon. All of the steaks at Taste of Texas are Certified Black Angus beef, which the restaurant's Web site calls "simply the finest beef you can serve."

It isn't.

The Certified Black Angus-brand beef advertised by Taste of Texas is cherry-picked from the top end of the USDA Choice grade, according to beef industry experts. But USDA Prime is a higher grade, with more marbling. And the so-called American Kobe beef that comes from the nation's growing Wagyu cattle herds grades even higher than USDA Prime.

Lots of Houston steak houses are serving USDA Prime these days. Some even carry the super-premium dry-aged variety. And American Kobe steaks are starting to turn up as specials at restaurants like Cafe Annie. Meanwhile, Burger King has started serving Angus beef. Which is to say that in the great steak race, Taste of Texas has fallen way behind.

The waitress asked if we wanted to look at the wine list. While we were waiting for a table, I watched a young bartender pull a requested bottle of Stags' Leap 2001 off a shelf and flip it end over end in the air, practicing his bottle-twirling for the next bartender's contest. Here's a wine-buying tip: When you see the wine guy shake up the sediment in an $80 bottle just before sending it out to a table, order a beer.

The first time I visited Taste of Texas, a friend and I split the 32-ounce porterhouse. We asked for medium rare. The steak that came to the table was barely pink at all, even close to the bone. The meat had a full flavor but wasn't particularly juicy. We also ordered the sautéed spinach and a baked potato, with sour cream, bacon bits and so forth on the side. The spinach, lightly cooked in butter, and the plain potato were delivered along with the steak. But despite our desperate arm-waving, the potato condiments didn't arrive until we were halfway through the steak.

I learned my lesson, which is why this time I ordered the rib eye rare and skipped the baked potato. The steak came to the table very rare indeed. So rare, I had to send it back. When it came to the table the second time, it was perfectly cooked, but unfortunately it didn't taste like much. Have you ever eaten one of those huge slices of prime rib that tastes oddly loose and spongy? This rib eye had the same sort of texture. The menu doesn't say how long the Angus beef at Taste of Texas is aged. And I suspect the rib eye isn't aged at all.

My friend's filet mignon, served with béarnaise sauce on the side, was excellent. I was jealous. Filet mignon is usually too mushy for my tastes, but this one was quite firm. Maybe it was wet-aged in a Cryovac package. For our sides, we tried the sautéed mushrooms and au gratin potatoes. The mushrooms were a nice complement to the steaks. But we were so full, we barely touched the cheesy potatoes.

While most steak houses go for a plush men's-club atmosphere, Taste of Texas, with its high ceilings and wood paneling, looks like a refurbished barn. The walls are decked out with a collection of Texana. The large hall doesn't feel cavernous, because the space is divided up into smaller dining rooms and niches. But the ambience is pedestrian compared to the luxurious environs of Vic & Anthony's, Pappas Bros., Brenner's, Palm and the Strip House.

All of those steak houses also serve USDA Prime beef, which is juicier and more flavorful than Certified Black Angus. Instead of Taste of Texas's salad bar, modern steak houses serve iceberg wedges, crab salads and other items of current interest. And as for the sides, suffice it to say that at the Strip House, you can choose from potatoes cooked in duck fat or a baked potato slathered with caviar.

Taste of Texas Restaurant has been showered with awards since it opened in 1977. It has been called one of the top ten steak houses in America and has received Wine Spectator awards for its offerings.

For a while, it was considered the best steak house in Houston.

But that was then, and this is later on.

Taste of Texas long ago slipped into the second tier. And I say this regardless of my political opinions. Edd Hendee, the restaurant's owner, vents his hatred for Muslims, liberals and immigrants five days a week on his talk-radio show. "They must have failed Bomb Making 101 down at the mosque," he recently quipped about the London terrorists whose bomb didn't go off.

Hendee took over the show when the previous self-righteous far-rightist, Jon Matthews, was arrested for exposing his genitals to an 11-year-old child. Hendee reportedly encouraged listeners to bring letters of sympathy to Taste of Texas so he could deliver them to his fellow conservative. Houston Press columnist Richard Connelly called the restaurant "Dittohead Central, the gathering place for Rush Limbaugh fans and light rail foes" (Hair Balls, May 13, 2004). Hendee is a close friend of Tom DeLay, who is also a student in Hendee's Bible study class at Second Baptist.

Hey, I'm not a big fan of Tilman Fertitta's worldview either. But I give him credit for running some great steak houses. Regardless of his politics, Fertitta is keeping an eye on national restaurant trends and knows what's selling at the butcher shop. Hendee, on the other hand, is running a restaurant that's ludicrously out of date.

I'm often chided by readers to leave the politics out of my reviews. But I don't see how you can leave politics out of a discussion of Taste of Texas -- it's become the restaurant's main attraction. Showing support for Tom DeLay, Edd Hendee and the conservative agenda seems to be the real reason that so many people stand in line to get into this mediocre steak house.

It's surely not the salad bar.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh