As we placed our order, the server's eyes grew wider and wider, and his hand moved furiously across his notepad, attempting to keep up with our laundry list of desired appetizers. When we were finally finished, he stepped back and looked at us -- two people who had just ordered enough food to feed the Rockets' starting lineup.
"Okay. Sounds good." He kept eyeing us as if concerned that we might be dangers to ourselves.
"We're hungry," we replied simply and sheepishly.
"Hey, man, no worries," he finally said, laughing. "When you come here to eat, you eat."
And indeed we did. Something about the country cuisine at Punk's Simple Southern invites large portions and shared platters and a feeling of being with family, even among strangers. We passed biscuits -- flaky, buttery, pillow-soft mounds of dough that might just be the best in Houston -- back and forth across the table, and even offered some to the waiter, now an accessory in our plot to eat our way though the entire menu. We double-dipped spoons into a single bowl of gumbo, thick but not quite dark or complex enough for our tastes. We took photos of each other with the chicken-fried steak, a portion larger than each of our heads, and we finished the feast with two desserts because why the heck not?
In true Southern fashion, the menu is designed for indulgence, for people watching neither their waistlines nor their wallets, for families gathered together for something like Sunday dinner any night of the week. Of course, in the heart of Houston, you won't often find the large Southern families for whom "Ma's Meatloaf" and "Grandpa Doc's Buttermilk Biscuits" are named.
Tucked into a multi-use development in Rice Village between Coppa Osteria and Cloud 10 Creamery, Punk's tends to attract a more cosmopolitan crowd in a Disneyland-like setting. More than a hearkening back to the simple family meals shared around outdoor picnic tables in the Deep South, Punk's is a theme restaurant, and one that captures that Southern charm well, if inauthentically.
Food is served on aluminum trays or coated metal plates in lieu of china, and chic mason jars stand in for glasses at the bar. There's just something a little too kitschy about the country decor and dishes like "Grandma Pat's Crispy Buttermilk Fried Chicken" for me to be completely sold on the Punk's idea. It may be Southern, but there's little soul in the menu, aside from the names of some of the dishes, which only add to the silliness of the place.
It isn't all that simple, either, since everything from the biscuits to the restaurant itself is served with a bit of flair.
And who is this Punk character, anyway?
If you're familiar with other Clark Cooper Concepts restaurants, you already sort of know what to expect from Punk's. There will be decor -- almost too much of it at times -- mood lighting, themed embellishments and servers dressed to fit in with it all. There will be great service, as befits an established restaurant group like Clark Cooper, which prides itself on setting the front-of-house standard at spots like Brasserie 19 and Coppa Ristorante. There will be an excellent wine list and solid cocktails. And there will be a menu with a number of wonderful, flawless dishes pieced together by executive chef Brandi Key with assistance from Charles Clark and Grant Cooper. In fact, Punk's takes its name from Clark's childhood moniker, and many of the dishes are inspired by Key's family recipes.
Still, as with most Clark Cooper restaurants, there's a little too much emphasis on the flavor of the restaurant and not quite enough on the flavor of the food. The aforementioned gumbo, a must at any restaurant worth its Southern designation, is too light in color to have been prepared with a properly dark, dynamic roux. It's somewhere between chicken soup and gumbo, though the bone-in chicken thigh boasts melt-in-your-mouth dark meat.
A better appetizer is the homemade pimento cheese served with Ritz crackers and sliced vegetables. It's chunky and rich, clearly making use of no small amount of sharp yellow cheddar. Spread on a cracker or a stalk of celery, it has a gentle bite thanks to the bright red diced pimientos mixed with the cheese and mayo. And though I'm not always a fan of the gimmicky food, I can't help chuckling at the Ritz crackers, placed next to the cheese in a row as if they were just coaxed out of the wrapper.
I found myself spreading that cheese on most things that came to my table, hoping for a little more zing with each bite. The fried chicken -- initially supposed to be the restaurant's crowning glory -- is a disappointment, especially considering the price: Five pieces for $21.
It's not bad fried chicken by any means, but it's also not the revelatory battered bird I was led to believe it would be when I first heard about the simple Southern joint. The breading isn't quite thick enough or peppery enough, and the chicken isn't always juicy and tender. Sometimes it's dry, sometimes it's just right, but it's a guessing game what you'll get on any given night.
Somehow, the chicken-fried steak fares much, much better. It's cocooned in a substantial, flaky batter that's both perfectly seasoned and ideally crisp. There's no cavern between the breading and the beef where one has separated from the other; instead, they embrace, holding in all the moisture of the tender cut of beef.
Those who are fans of cream gravy will want to ask for extra, as there's only a modest drizzle topping the massive steak, but I found it was even better with the signature Punk's sauce that tastes like a combination of barbecue sauce and a sweet vinaigrette that pairs well with just about anything on the menu.
I doused a fried seafood po-boy in Punk's sauce, hoping to combat the sandwich's dryness, without success. Perhaps I'm still trying too hard to hold onto a season that has passed, but both the fried crawfish and the fried oysters were fairly flavorless, and when they're enveloped in a generous portion of baguette, the result is a dry mess of batter and bread with a hint of pickle and cocktail sauce every few bites.
The Punk's sauce also served me well on a filet of redfish, a fairly small portion for its $31 price tag, especially when I found myself so much more enamored of a buttermilk biscuit stuffed with a fried chicken tender. I'm always wary of biscuits, finding it difficult to track down a truly perfect blend of flour and butter -- flaky but not dry, buttery but not cloying.
Though the emphasis is on the cuisine of Texas and the Deep South, there's a little bit of something for everyone at Punk's Simple Southern. For those who aren't into heavy meat dishes, there's a menu of light, vibrant salads with seasonal veggies. If you hate oysters, shrimp and crawfish (shame on you), there are ample chicken and beef options, including that perfect biscuit stuffed with a chicken tender. Butterbean succotash and pimento cheese dip fill in any empty crevices, and, should you still be hungry after that, desserts like bourbon bread pudding or strawberry shortcake will surely put you over the edge.
The hand of Clark/Cooper is still very much upon dishes at Punk's, though, infusing "simple Southern" food with the mildly gimmicky atmosphere that brings us "Good Ol' Boy Gumbo" and the heading "Shuckin' Punk" above the list of oyster dishes on the menu. The restaurant group is responsible for the carefully mismatched chairs in the rustic dining area, and the big, neon blue sign spelling out SOUTHERN in such a radiant hue that its halo can be seen through every window.
In spite of the corporate whim that created Punk's, a little bit of chef Key's down-home Texas heritage shines through in dishes like the cheese and the biscuits and the best chicken-fried steak in the South.
In these things, I think, we get just a little taste of the type of food that would have made "Grandma Pat" and "Grandpa Doc" proud.
Whoever they were.
Punk's Simple Southern 5212 Morningside, 713-524-7865. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Pimento cheese dip $8 Good ol' boy gumbo $10 Chicken fry biscuit $5 Half bird fried chicken $21 Whole bird fried chicken $39 Fried seafood po-boy $16 Chicken-fried steak $21 Desserts $8
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