It's 6:30 a.m., and the breakfast shift at Frank's Grill on Telephone Road has already been at it for an hour and a half. The head chef is wearing one of those pointy-at-both-ends white paper caps. We take a seat in a vinyl booth along the front window. The waitress greets her regulars by name with their favorite beverage in hand and has their lunches packed and waiting to go at the register when they leave. I've been here only once before, but the waitress recognizes me, brings me coffee and asks if I need a menu, as if I already knew what I wanted to order.
Frank's appears to have been decorated by the same crew that paints Houston's fire hydrants bright blue and white. The other booths and counter seats seem to be occupied by house painters, ambulance drivers and others who start the workday early. The temperature at this hour is a cool 78 degrees, but the National Weather Service has issued an excessive heat advisory for today and tomorrow. The high today will be in the mid-90s, with the heat index between 105 and 110, according to the report on my car radio, and the heat will edge up even higher tomorrow.
While I sip my coffee and read the newspaper, I overhear a conversation in the next booth. A burly guy in a blue T-shirt is lecturing his tablemate, a dude with shoulder-length hair and a leather cowboy hat, about the importance of eating a good breakfast in the summer heat. When the cosmic cowboy gets up to go to the bathroom, I tap the big man on the shoulder and ask to hear more of his nutritional philosophy.
4702 Telephone Road, 713-649-3296. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.; Sunday, 7 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.
Steak and eggs: $6.50
Chicken-fried steak and eggs: $4.90
Two eggs with bacon or sausage: $3.95
Three pancakes with bacon or sausage: $3.05
Belgian waffle with bacon or sausage: $2.95
"If I eat a major breakfast, I'm good all day," he says. "I go home after work in the afternoon and have a little snack and I'm cool. But if I eat a big lunch in this heat, I'm totally wiped out." His name is Marlin Roberts and he drives a truck on a local route. Even though the truck is air-conditioned, Roberts believes that working in the heat of a Houston summer requires strategic nutritional thinking. And he thinks his tablemate's breakfast of tea, toast and cigarettes is going to cause him to get hungry by noon. He'll eat a hamburger for lunch and spend all afternoon fighting to stay awake, Roberts predicts.
I'm with Marlin.
Chicken-fried steak and eggs over easy is my strategic breakfast choice. Frank's CFS, which is served on a separate plate, is the extra-crunchy crumb-coated variety. It's served with very plain white cream gravy over top. I slice off a large wedge of the breaded meat patty and transfer it to the plate with my eggs and grits. I've also asked for grilled biscuits in lieu of toast. This special biscuit treatment is available only before 8 a.m. Frank's biscuits are very tall and a little dry and doughy in the middle, so griddle-toasting the half-biscuits with butter improves them dramatically. Like a conductor tapping his baton, I shake the Tabasco bottle preliminarily a few times over the breakfast ensemble. Then I begin composing forkfuls. Runny yellow egg yolks combine rhapsodically with different combinations of fluffy grits, crunchy CFS in cream gravy, and toasted biscuits. It's a lot of food, but if you're going to eat a big meal, you might as well do it while it's cool outside.
My dining companion, who has a sweet tooth, has opted for buttered Belgian waffles with bacon. The waffles are thick and crunchy and absorb every drop of syrup. It's a pleasant breakfast dish, though not in the same league with Frank's serious egg-and-meat combos. Along with the conventional eggs with bacon, sausage or ham and the CFS and eggs, Frank's offers such hearty breakfasts as steak and eggs, chopped steak and eggs, pork chops and eggs, and hamburger patty and eggs. Egg-and-bacon sandwiches are also available for dainty eaters.
On my first visit to Frank's Grill, I went for the steak and eggs. This is always a risky bet. The best steak and eggs are made in your own kitchen using the leftover portion of a humongous USDA Prime porterhouse that you doggie-bagged home from some fancy steak house. But Frank's did an admirable job with it. The steak was remarkably tender, and it still had a little pink inside. Sure, the sirloin was skinny, but what do you expect from a diner breakfast steak?
Frank's offers a choice of grits or hash browns, or half and half if you can't make up your mind. My breakfast companion was thrilled to discover that the hash browns were gently crisped and remarkably grease-free. I was thinking they were too grease-free before she made that observation. I like mine with more caramelized onions and orange grease, thanks. The biscuits were a little burned on the bottom this time. And the SOS was also a disappointment.
My tablemate giggled to find SOS on the list of side orders. "When's the last time you saw that on a menu?" she asked. "My dad loved that stuff. My mom used to make it for him sometimes when I was a little kid," she said. I seem to remember my mom attempting to re-create that boot-camp delicacy for my father as well. SOS, "shit on a shingle," was once common in military mess halls. It was officially known as creamed chipped beef on toast. If you've ever seen the brown gooey stewed meat on a toasted bread slice, it's easy to understand the creative moniker. But despite the revolting name, many military retirees found themselves craving the stuff.
Unfortunately for veterans, the SOS at Frank's is just a name for biscuits and gravy, which is made here by mixing sausage chunks with the bland cream gravy and pouring it over split biscuits. This yielded one of the dullest versions of biscuits and gravy I'd ever had the misfortune to taste.
A stack of three fluffy pancakes made up for the floury biscuits. The high-rising hotcakes were light and airy, with none of that dense cake texture that can make a short stack feel like a lead weight in your stomach. The bacon was sliced thick, cooked just crisp enough and spread flat with a bacon press.
I also got a hamburger to go, which I intended to eat for lunch. But I didn't get hungry until late in the afternoon, when I cut the burger into quarters and ate a wedge cold. The hamburger patty was the classic thin variety. But the burger was extremely well dressed, with a double layer of tomato slices, lots of lettuce and an abundance of the requested mustard and mayo. It was a very juicy burger, even hours past its prime.
While everything at Frank's Grill wasn't perfect on that first visit, we developed an immediate affection for the place. It's pretty easy to predict that I'm going to love a funky joint with lots of great food. But I was surprised that my picky friend was enthusiastic, too. Old diners that I love, like the Triple A on Airline, she finds depressing. So why did she like Frank's?
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"There's a difference between cheery tacky and hang-yourself-in-the-ladies'-room tacky," she said cryptically. "This place is fun tacky."
After Marlin Roberts's comments during my later trip to Frank's, I paid attention to my eating habits for the rest of the day. He was right. Following my big breakfast, I wasn't the least bit hungry for lunch. In fact, I didn't have anything else to eat until 3 p.m., when I had a cup of coffee and some corn chips. As soon as the sun set and the evening cooled off a little, I was ready for a healthy dinner. The big-breakfast idea really worked.
Of course, I'm really an advocate of the Latin American "eat a big lunch and take a siesta" program. And I wish Houston businesses would adopt the four-hour lunch break so we could all eat hearty and nap in the heat of the day. But until that happens, the Marlin Roberts summer breakfast strategy is a great way to keep from falling asleep at the wheel.