Tunnel Explorer: Treebeard's

Tunnel Explorer isn't necessarily about turning up new places to eat. Sure, there might be the occasional hidden gem to mine out (I'll tell you if I find one), but in general, there's just not much down here that people don't already know about. Hopefully, with that said, you'll excuse the occasional bit of old news. Today's installment of Tunnel Explorer is an interesting mix of "duh" and "huh," featuring a new outpost of an old restaurant.

Those of you who inhabit my quadrant of the downtown grid are probably already well aware, but venerable Houston Cajun-cum-Southern eatery Treebeard's just opened up shop in the Houston Center mall. Our office, in particular, had been eagerly anticipating the quick-service kiosk's opening. My boss is an avid Treebeard's devotee, fond of springing for catering whenever non-locals are in the office.

Given that the Treebeard's welcome wagon was pretty much right under our feet before we moved this spring, gumbo was a pretty common fixture around the conference table. Since the move, we'd been sadly gumbo-less until now. We've catered Treebeards in at least twice since they opened.

Just because the place has been around forever doesn't mean it doesn't have anything new to offer, though. Of course, you may be more well-versed in the ins and outs of the menu than I am, but my forays into Treebeard's have been largely limited to gumbo, as that's what the boss brings in. Last week, I decided to change that, and ordered off the daily-specials menu. Fried catfish caught my eye, sided with dirty rice and some squash casserole.

As soon as I'd ordered the fish, I had reservations. I could be wrong, but from the looks of the place, this installment of Treebeard's seems to be a commissary setup, rather than a kitchen-equipped, cook-to-order affair. Of course, I'm not sure a business focused on take-out would be able to swing frying fish to order, at least not with the kind of volume business Treebeard's does. Visions of overcooked, soggy fish ran through my head. I needn't have worried.

Underneath a delightfully crunchy cornmeal crust, the fish was firm yet flaky, plenty moist, and harboring a clean and faintly mineral flavor that I find so pleasant in catfish. It was the best piece of fried fish I've had in quite some time. I wish I could say the same of the dirty rice, whose overcooked texture and pallid flavor had nothing of the vividly livery funk that sets good dirty rice as a side dish above most others, especially for fried fish. The squash casserole was, as always, competent, if unexciting.

For now, the urban spelunking continues, with occasional stop-offs at the surface for some tried and true items, and the occasional surprise. While this might not be anything new, to those unaware of the new-found proximity of an old friend, it's new enough.

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