Food served Sunday through Thursday 11:15 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11:15 a.m. to 1 a.m. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Full bar. Prices: Hamburgers and salads $4.25 to $4.95; platters $5.25 to $9.75. Full meal with drinks, tax and tip about $15 a person.
No longer is it enough to decorate the dining room with brick and plants and install a blender. Canned chili and frozen french fries are now beyond consideration. When you open a flashy big-city pub these days, you gotta serve good stuff.
Just look at Houston's.
We have grown jaded by beauty, so Houston's is no surprise. The old-brick arches and jungle of greenery, the silk-shaded little brass lamps over the oiled wood booths, the gleaming brass and the filigree of wrought iron. We down our hamburgers in California lushness these days.
But those burgers have changed, nowadays thick patties of ground-in-the-house chuck grilled over hickory and oak. Houston's are big and flavored with earthy smoke, but a bit soft and damp inside and not as rare as one could hope. Not the greatest burgers, but knockouts by yesterday's standards. And the french fries are far from the old crinkle cuts. These are long, dark crusty ones cut from potatoes that are not only fresh, but of the proper mealy and faintly sweet variety, cooked in good oil and at the right temperature. One day they were oversalted, but otherwise they are among the french-fry greats.
Remember when coleslaw was bought in tubs with a month of shelf life? Well, it still is, but not at Houston's, where the slaw tastes made that day, coarsely chopped and lightly creamy. Good slaw, and not oversweetened.
Unfortunately nearly everything else at Houston's is oversweetened: the salad dressings, the cinnamon apples, the baked beans, even the chili. This is a generous kitchen, but it could benefit from a hand less generous with the sugar.
The tossed salad is generous with fresh bacon, the dinner salads are party-size. And appetizer portion of quiche -- a high and creamy quiche but one with a soggy crust -- would make a substantial dinner. Drinks are poured with a two-ounce measure, and the bloody mary spiked with horseradish is sensational. Sangr,ia is served in the biggest liter you ever saw, though it tastes like winy pink lemonade.
Besides the lavishness and despite the supersweetening, there are things you gotta love about Houston's. The $9.75 roast beef dinner is a good value, the roast beef thick, juicy, tender and meaty tasting, well trimmed and far better than most roast beef in town. It comes with a real, foil-free baked potato or those terrific french fries, and that big bacony salad with a gummy slice of cheese toast. It also comes with a small cup of salty bouillon ("au jus") that you can ignore.
In addition to the usual burgers, spinach or avocado salads and chili (in a bowl or gunked up with salad greens and bland guacamole as a "Tortilla Flats Special"), Houston's serves a few grilled dishes: a decent rib eye steak plain or pineapple- and-soy marinated, nicely seasoned and, in a reversal of what one expects, undercooked. There are barbecued chicken and ribs -- very good ribs, so tender they are falling off the bone, but also crusty and chewy on the surface, with a fine smoky flavor. They'd be great ribs if the sauce weren't so sweet.
So you're in luck at Houston's with the roast beef and ribs, might risk a steak or a burger, especially with the french fries, slaw or salad; even the baked beans are good if you can overlook the sugariness.
And you're in luck if you like rich and gooey desserts, either the gargantuan saut,eed banana with ice cream, whipped cream and saut,eed pecans or the apple-walnut cobbler with a scoop of ice cream, or a real milkshake.
But good fortune runs out with the likes of "baked potato soup," a sort of thinned potato glue, or the big and bland chili- topped salad, or the soggy-crusted quiche, or the burgers when they are too compacted or damp or paired with a burned whole wheat bun and a sweet dressing. Straightforward is best at Houston's.
No matter what you eat, you're in luck with the waiters. They not only know their job well, they act as if they greatly enjoy it. They offer to take back anything that doesn't please you. They check whether it is pleasing you. They urge you to sample salad dressings. They keep a watchful eye on the temperature of your coffee. Houston's recipe for service has been foolproof.
In all, Houston's is a pub as friendly as you'd expect a Texan to be, and as efficient as the best of America's chain restaurants. Its food is no major addition to Washington's larder, but it is good enough to show that pub food has come a long way. And few roast-beef-and-potatoes dinners could improve on what Houston's offers, at any price, much less at under $10.