Comfort Clash: Who Serves the Best Comfort Food?

To this day, my mother still uses her great-grandmother’s cast-iron skillet to make fried chicken, the buttermilk-brined legs and thighs coated in flour and still more buttermilk before being nestled in a shallow pool of gently bubbling lard. I have an intimate relationship with the rich, mouth-coating taste of the gravy she makes out of the drippings. I know the exact color the roux should become as the flour cooks down (something between soft muslin and hardy burlap). I’ve been apprised of her secrets: heavy cream, chicken stock, salt—lots of salt. These are the ingredients of my fondest childhood memories. This is my comfort food.

Not your childhood? Not your comfort food? Well, it’s a personal thing. How else to explain the anger we feel upon discovering that the kid who grew up down the street, a kid we thought we knew, has the audacity to think that mashed potatoes taste better with brown gravy? (Yeah, yeah, yeah—his mom’s brown gravy recipe has its own antediluvian origins in, you know, Hungary. Whatever. We still can’t believe we used to be friends with him.) 

Needless to say, questioning people’s taste in comfort food means insulting more than their palates. It means insulting their childhood, their family traditions, the way their mothers and grandmothers cooked, the integrity of the Luby’s they ate at after church on Sundays. 

Yet still we argue—about whether beans belong in chili, why chicken-fried steak should be served with the gravy on the side, how someone could possibly think that fancy macaroni and cheese has any place in this world. We argue as if there’s some objective standard, even as we know that comfort food is subjective by definition. It’s the shrimp and grits—or cheese enchiladas or bowl of pho—that makes us feel the way we did when someone we loved gave us something good to eat. And that’s something worth fighting over.

In this town, thanks to the deeply diverse array of Houstonians who’ve come to call it home over the years, comfort food runs the gamut from congee to kolaches. Within the variety, however, a few common themes have emerged: chicken-fried steak, for instance, makes its way onto Vietnamese restaurant menus like Hughie’s; fried chicken is now beloved from Korea to Kentucky; grilled cheese’s many manifestations now have entire food trucks devoted to them; macaroni and cheese must make its way onto the menu of any Nigerian-Guatemalan fusion sushi bar worth its salt. No mac ‘n’ cheese on the menu? Get out. Just go.

It’s dishes like these that we’ll be debating, deliberating over, and arguing about in the pages that follow: deep-rooted Southern comfort foods that every self-respecting citizen of Houstonia ought to have an opinion on. Haven’t picked a side yet in the great gravy battle? Still in the undecided column when it comes to Goodson’s vs. Mel’s? Your fence-sitting days are over. Pick a flag and plant it. We’re going to war.

Chili, Two Ways

Left: Goode’s Armadillo Palace; Right: JCI Grill (formerly James Coney Island).
Left: Goode’s Armadillo Palace; Right: JCI Grill (formerly James Coney Island).

No Cincinnatian—or Terlinguan, for that matter—is more serious about chili than your average Houstonian. Whether the hearty stew should be served with or without beans is a more contentious issue than the proper pronunciation of “San Felipe” (for the record, we’re staunchly in the “San Fuh-LEE-pay” camp). 

 Goode’s Armadillo PalaceJCI Grill
Founded: 2005, across the street from the original Goode Co. BBQ opened by Jim Goode in 1977 1923, by Greek immigrant brothers Tom and James Papadakis
Meat: “We get our venison from Broken Arrow Ranch outside of Ingram,” says Levi Goode, Jim’s son and keeper of the Goode family chili con carne recipe, upon which the Armadillo Palace’s is based. The venison is added after they reconstitute and puree New Mexican and ancho chile pods. “It’s a little bit more heart-healthy than your traditional pork and beef style,” says Goode. “It’s not an easy process, but we think it makes a difference.” “We use inside round beef chunks instead of ground beef,” says Darrin Straughan, president of James Coney Island. But that’s not all—they also use beef suet. Before adding the spices, tomatoes, or even water, “we melt the fat and make a roux,” Straughan explains of a original family recipe so guarded it’s kept in a safe. “It reminds you of a Texas chili, but Jimmy [Papadakis]”— James Papadakis’s son—“said it was devised by his uncle and his dad.”
Served with: grated cheese, diced onions, Saltine crackers grated cheese, diced onions, beans on request
Price: $9.95 $3.99
Beans? “Beans are a little bit of a northern thing; it’s not traditional to our great state, so we just figured beans are really kind of a filler if you don’t have enough meat to go around,” says Goode. “There’s plenty of meat in Texas, so no need for that.” “I actually prefer our chili with beans, because it’s too rich to eat [otherwise],” says Straughan.

Edge: Too close to call: you decide.

Chicken & Waffles

Chicken ’n’ Waffles at The Original Timmy Chan
Chicken ’n’ Waffles at The Original Timmy Chan
 The Original Timmy ChanThe Breakfast Klub
Price: $6.25  $14.99
Number of waffles: 1 1
Number of wings: 6 to 9 6
Endearing quirk: every Timmy Chan in Houston is the “original” Timmy Chan spelling everything possible on its menu—e.g., pekans, biskits, bakon—with a “k”
Length of wait before ordering: between 30 seconds and three minutes between 30 minutes and three hours

Edge: The Original Timmy Chan, thanks to the sheer convenience of its multiple locations (the Medical Center spot, address above, is our favorite) and super-short lines.

Chicken & Dumplings

Chicken ’n’ Dumplings at This Is It
Chicken ’n’ Dumplings at This Is It
 Cleburne CafeteriaThis Is It
Price $6.49 $7.04 (small); $11.37 (full serving)
Year opened: 1941 1959
Endearing quirk: consistently refusing to take credit cards; bring cash an absurdly terrible parking situation; carpool
When you can get it: Tuesdays only Tuesdays, Saturdays
On the side: squash, mashed potatoes yams, cabbage, collards
Finish it off with: homemade chocolate icebox pie homemade banana pudding

Edge: This Is It, for its twice-weekly availability and for chef/owner Craig Joseph’s adherence to grandfather Frank Jones’s recipes.

Shrimp ’n’ Grits It

Left: Brennan’s of Houston; Right: Ouisie’s Table
Left: Brennan’s of Houston; Right: Ouisie’s Table

Besides a prodigious number of rooms (seven plus the Courtyard patio at Brennan’s, five plus the Bears’ Garden patio at Ouisie’s), these two Houston landmarks have something else in common: both lay claim to the best shrimp ‘n’ grits in the city. But whose is the greater grit?

 Brennan’s of HoustonOuisie’s Table
Founded: 1967 1973 (moved to new location in 1995)
Local flavor: Housed in the New Orleans–style 1929 John F. Staub building that originally served as the Junior League of Houston’s headquarters; damaged in 2008 by Hurricane Ike and a subsequent two-alarm fire, Brennan’s was rebuilt and reopened in 2010. Horton Foote based his play Dividing the Estate on chef and owner Elouise “Ouisie” Adams Jones’s family; Miss Ruby, the scarlet dress Jones’s sister wore to the 1958 Houston Debutante Ball, hangs in the restaurant from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day each year.
Shrimp: Six premium Gulf 16/20 shrimp from Jimmy Evans of J&J Shrimp Company in Houston, coated with Creole seasoning and seared in a hot pan Six—and always from the Gulf
Grits: stone-ground yellow from Homestead Gristmill in Waco, which executive chef Danny Trace calls “the best grits you can buy”; cooked down with milk and butter; Texas goat cheese, roasted corn, and fresh thyme added at the end “A lot of people think grits are just grits, but that definitely is not the case,” says Jones. “We think we found the best to be made by Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina. Their grits are stone-ground and milled from heirloom corn.”
Price: $25 (lunch); $36 (dinner) $18 (brunch); $20 (lunch); $24 (dinner)
Why it’s the best: “It’s about flavor, and it’s about seasoning absolutely everything,” says Trace, who’s been overseeing the kitchen at Brennan’s since 2010. That includes deglazing the pan with both white wine and brandy. “We’re probably the only restaurant in town that uses two types of alcohol,” he laughs. "Once it’s deglazed we splash cream in the pan and put in [compound] butter," says Trace. "You don’t come here for the lack of calories." “The basic recipe comes from one of the most exceptional chefs I ever met, Bill Neal of Chapel Hill, North Carolina,” says Jones. “I had the pleasure of getting to know him before he became famous, and he personally okayed me using this recipe. Over the years, we've had two people who worked in our kitchen and went on to become chefs on their own try to copy ours. We were happy to hear from their customers [that] neither of them were able to replicate ours.”

Edge:Too close to call. You decide.

Pancakes & Syrup

Pancakes & syrup at Fountain View Café.
Pancakes & syrup at Fountain View Café.
 Fountain View CafeThe Buffalo Grille
Founded: 1983, by Stephen Drayer 1984, by Mac McAleer
Run today by: Stephen Drayer multiple generations of the McAleer family
Number of pancakes in a stack: three two
Price: $6.10 $5.95
Secret ingredient: plenty of vanilla extract hot maple syrup served from a carafe

Edge: Fountain View Cafe, for lacy, thin, vanilla-perfumed, crepe-like pancakes that aren’t so filling you can’t order a signature omelet too.

Biscuits & Gravy

Biscuits & gravy at Lankford Grocery.
Biscuits & gravy at Lankford Grocery.
 BRC GastropubLankford Grocery
Founded: 2010, by Lance Fegen and Lee Ellis 1938, by Nona and Aubrey Lankford
Run today by: Lance Fegen and Lee Ellis Eydie Lankford Prior, her husband Cotton, and their family
Served on: Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2:30 Saturday mornings from 7 a.m. to noon
Served with: fried chicken, eggs, bacon jam, french fries two sausage patties
Price: $18 $5

Edge: Lankford Grocery, despite its cash-only policy, for being a tried-and-true classic.

Pie Fight

Left: House of Pies’ Bayou Goo; Right: The Chocolate Bar’s Bayou City Mud Pie
Image: Audra Oden
Left: House of Pies’ Bayou Goo; Right: The Chocolate Bar’s Bayou City Mud Pie

Two pies named for the Bayou City. Only one can claim the title. Things could get messy.

 Bayou Goo, House of PiesBayou City Mud Pie, The Chocolate Bar
Crust: crushed pecans fudge brownie
Filling: sweet cream cheese, vanilla custard, chocolate chunks chocolate mousse
Topping: whipped cream, chocolate shavings whipped cream, chopped pecans
Price (slice): $4.11 $5.95
Price (whole pie): $13 $45

Edge: Bayou Goo, House of Pies, for the rock-bottom whole-pie price and 24/7 availability.