A few weeks back Chron.com celebrated Chicken-Fried Steak Day, that most Texan of foodie holidays, by listing the best places to get the belly-busting dish in the Houston area.
One of the most popular places on the list and among Facebook commenters was Houston institution Hickory Hollow, which has two locations – one off Washington Avenue (101 Heights) and another off of Fallbrook (8038 Fallbrook) – for your Texas comfort food needs.
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“I bought the original Hickory Hollow from a family in 1979. They had opened it on a lark and it was driving the couple slowly to divorce,” owner Tony Riedel said one morning while getting prep work done for the Heights location.
That couple – a nuclear physicist and his nurse wife – had opened the Fallbrook location in 1977. By the time Ohio-born, Florida-bred Riedel came along after stints in the restaurant management industry around the country, they were on the ropes and ready to hand over the reins.
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With the original Hickory Hollow came that famous chicken-fried steak and gravy recipe, which keeps bringing customers around all these years later. According to Reidel the dish we all know and love was a copy of one served at the long-running Goodson’s Café.
He’s tweaked it here and there since the early 1980s. The “Texas River Bottom Gravy” still comes from a chicken-based roux made each morning.
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Around August 1987 Riedel opened up the location at the corner of Heights Boulevard and Washington Avenue, then a sleepy, industrial area that came to life during the evenings when the area rock clubs began throbbing with music.
Rockefeller’s, just across Heights, brought touring acts and their handlers into Hickory Hollow for pre-show dinners or carry-out. Riedel said that the likes of B.B. King, Joe Ely, an early incarnation of the Dixie Chicks, Bo Diddley, Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris all visited at one point in time. Some of their photos are on the wall of Hickory Hollow for all to see.
“If they didn’t come in themselves, they would send someone over for food,” Riedel said.
Somewhere along the line they started hosting live music in the back corner where picking parties still pop up. Wednesdays are for bluegrass, first Thursdays the ukuleles come out, and Fridays and Saturdays could be western swing or acoustic folk. Check the schedule to get your music and food fix.
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People can’t get enough of his restaurant’s chicken-fried steak, but according to Riedel that isn’t even the best-selling item on the menu. That would be barbecue.
“When we started serving barbecue alongside chicken-fried steak it was nearly unheard of. It was one or the other. I’d like to think we kicked down that door,” Riedel said. “Jim Goode was the only barbecue guy in town.”
He’s seen more decadent foods like chicken-fried steak trending down with changing health trends. Of course, he said, nothing will ever endanger the Large Rancher, the Medium Hired Hand or the Small Plowman, the three sizes they offer.
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“Most people think chicken-fried steak is unhealthy for some reason,” he joked.
There is also a somewhat-secret Wagon Master – two of the Large Ranchers put together – available. That comes with salad and your choice of four sides. It’s not meant for one person but hey, it’s your cholesterol.
A few years back Riedel was featured on an episode of Food Network’s “Outrageous Food” showing off the Large Rancher. Riedel is about to burst some bubbles.
“I can’t cook a chicken-fried steak really well so I had a stunt double,” he laughed. “We had an employee who is much better at it than me wear an identical denim shirt to cheat it out.”
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While the Fallbrook location – the one with the helicopter landing area – holds fast on the northwest side, the Heights spot is the busiest Hickory Hollow, due in part to the prime location.
“It’s grown with the Heights,” Riedel said. “We survived the sleepy doldrums of the Heights so to speak.”
Time was, Riedel told Chron.com, the Heights location was empty at night but slammed during the lunch hour. Now they’re less busy in the afternoons and packed after sundown.
“The clientele changed with the neighborhood,” Riedel explained. “We used to be just a lunch place.”
During the day, lawyers, bankers and blue collar workers chowed down next to each other. Now at night its large parties and families sharing baskets of Hot Tots, Hickory Hollow’s popular deep-fried baked potato puffs.
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Riedel said that as the years have gone by the brand has embraced the quirkier, funkier side of the Heights. A recent revival of the area with Pi Pizza a few blocks north and new management at Rockefeller’s bringing back live music has only brought more eyes on Hickory Hollow.
“What we want to create at the Heights location is a sort of funky cowboy hangout, more in line with the neighborhood,” Riedel said. “The younger demographic enjoys the art on the walls and the fact that we haven’t changed too much over the years.”
In other words, they don’t fall for foodie trends. In a city that becomes enamored with a new food fad every few months, Riedel’s is reliably old-school.
Hickory Hollow in most respects is the same as when Houstonians first had it in the ’80s, a rare thing in the Houston area.
What’s the key to Hickory Hollow’s success all these years on?
“Keep your eye on the guest and not on the money,” Riedel said.