Monday, July 25, 2011
Greeting A New Day With Graffiti, Grease And Neck Tattoos
1915 Mangum Road
Diner. Hash house. Greasy spoon.
I just call this uniquely American roadside genre the “dive breakfast joint”.
Frank’s Grill up here in this decidedly blue collar corner of northwest Houston fits the genre to a tee.
The popularity of dive breakfast joints has always amused me.
Normally prissy folks who wouldn’t so much as drive by a redneck bar with their windows rolled down on Saturday night happily pile into the local hash house Sunday morning.
Waffle House and Huddle House have turned the concept into billion dollar national chains.
Hard as it is to believe, even lowly old Frank’s has managed to transform into a small constellation of four or five locations in and around Houston.
But fame and fortune aren’t about to go to old Frank’s head.
This particular Frank’s wears its divey credentials proudly.
It’s almost as if the management has decided that if they pick up the trash and empty cartons littering the parking lot, fix the broken front door and paint over the numerous scratches and graffiti, the good folks of Houston will stop flocking here for biscuits, gravy and nine buck New York strips.
I mean, as soon as you pull into the litter strewn driveway, you can’t help but notice this place gives about as much thought to ambiance as I do to Snooki, whatever the hell that is.
The rusted, wind battered sign teeters precariously over head. A half demolished, half rusted drive-through menu board betrays Frank’s prior life as some abandoned fast food joint.
But the real divey credentials can be found once you manage to get through the broken set of double front doors.
As I sat at the counter two feet behind the well-worn griddle, I couldn’t help but notice the decade old black clumps of grease that have settled under the grill and caked every nook and crevasse in the kitchen.
That grill hasn’t seen the business end of a scrub brush in years, let me tell you.
But that’s okay.
Most people think an egg is an egg is an egg. But there’s a reason they taste better in a dive like this. Health scores are overrated. It’s decade old grease that gives scrambled eggs their flavor.
As I looked around at the late breakfast crowd I began to wonder if I was the first guy in a suit to ever sit at this counter.
As if a sign from above, a jolly suit-clad local sat down two stools next to me.
“Man, I love this place,” he said as he grabbed a fistful of napkins and did his own sanitary cleansing of his corner of the counter.
“Look at that!”
Mesmerized by the sausage patties, rows of good thick bacon and mountain of shredded hash browns piled up in front of us on the griddle, we both agreed the skilled dude with the Mexican flag neck tattoo in front of us was the Michelangelo of cheap breakfast fare.
“I need to bring my kids here to see this,” he said. “Those guys are working hard!”
He said you can’t get more good food for less money anywhere else in Houston.
I certainly wasn’t going to doubt him.
My scrambled eggs came on a plate with enough hash browns to have staved off the entirety of the Irish potato famine and two giant biscuits I couldn’t even think of finishing.
I know what you’re thinking.
What about the meat?
While my view of the sausage and bacon sizzling on the griddle gave me a bit of meat envy, my meat choice was decided for me before I even sat down.
I’m in Texas. At a dive breakfast joint.
Is there any question?
Chicken. Fried. Steak.
The cool kids call it CFS.
CFS. Absolutely buried in an avalanche of white cream gravy.
For you naive Yankees -- no, chicken fried steak has nothing to do with poultry. It is a tender piece of steak (this is cattle country, after all), breaded and deep fried like a piece of Southern fried chicken.
Chicken fried steak is one of those dishes you have to be careful with. Unlike scrambled eggs, CFS can have a lot a variation in style and quality depending on where you get it.
First of all, I wouldn’t recommend ordering chicken fried steak outside of the great Nation of Texas. (Unless you are in Virginia Beach at Mary’s, where it is called “Country Fried Steak”.)
The meat itself can be tender or tough. The crust thick and well seasoned or thin and bland. The gravy can be white or brown, creamy or clumpy, studded with sausage or not.
Great or godawful.
See what I mean?
You can’t be too careful with CFS.
But I was confident Frank wouldn’t let me down.
Don’t get me wrong, my breakfast was good. And a downright steal for seven bucks.
But not great.
The hash browns had that nice crispy brown texture on top thanks to Frank’s special griddle grease. But with no seasoning, onions or other accompaniment, the bite after bite of shredded potato got a bit monotonous.
The biscuits also were huge, but tedious. These are the dry, yeasty, roll-type biscuits, not the soft, buttermilk with much higher grease-to-carb ratio varieties I prefer.
The chicken fried steak was tender and tasty, but the crust was emasculated by the overflowing river of gravy. And with no seasoning or sausage to liven it up, even the cream gravy was a bit of a let down.
Look. I realize no one comes to a place like Frank’s for culinary experimentation.
But the claim to fame here is decidedly about the quantity, not the quality. You know what they say about big and Texas?
My neighboring suit certainly wasn’t disappointed. Polishing off a mountain of a breakfast in nine minutes, he pushed back from the counter and exclaimed, “Wow. That’s takes care of breakfast AND lunch. I won’t have to eat again for another four hours.”
Geez. I won’t be able to even think about food again for another 24 hours, I thought to myself.
But therein lies the popularity of the dive breakfast joint.
Whether a suit facing a long day of meetings, a third shifter recovering from a night at the refinery or some hung over “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirt wearing hippy, everyone can appreciate a decent hearty breakfast consisting of decade-old grease.
Rating: Would Wear A Free Shirt.