Renewal, reinvention, repurpose. Specifically, the chains of the seventies and eighties are now becoming gentrified. People know exactly what to expect, and that can be a problem. If you're a fiercely independant Texas BBQ entrepreneur, like say Coopers, you have no problem staying exactly where you are, serving exactly what you serve, keeping the quality standards high. Maybe you open a little offshoot in a nearby town, once every ten years or so, but that's about it. Not so the chains, most of which are owned by major corporations, where profit margins and growing the brand are key to survival and thrival. So, when an old-fashioned chain attempts a significant rebirth, attention must be paid, as any nationwide improvement in quality helps us in our ongoing battle against creeping mediocrity. Thus, it was with high hopes and eagar palates that my lovely wife the Rock Star, her sister the Wild Thing, their parental unit The Momma, and myself journeyed to Houlihans one hot Friday noontide.
For their new look, Houlihans picked up their restaurant and dropped it into the new millenium lock, stock and barrel. Prominent bar near the front door. Open kitchen. Asian-inspired minimalist interior with tall ceilings. Warm and inviting, yet still trendy. We four were quickly seated where Dennie took charge of us and gave us careful attention throughout our visit.
Chips and salsa are a good way to start any communal dining experience. Houlihans chips were thin and fresh and the salsa was thick and zesty. My bride decided on the Tillamook burger. Two slices of the aged cheddar (nine months), red onion, a cup of lettuce, smoked bacon, and fresh beef added up to one very nice burger. Usually, my spouse prefers her cheese to be without sharpness, but she was very pleased in this case. The Momma went Midwestern with her choice of the Heartland chicken salad. Fresh chopped greens, bacon, jalapeno jack cheese, and toasted pecans in a garlic ranch dressing. She was delighted and even gave me one of her pecans. (If you were born in Texas, you love pecans. Period.) The Wild Thing chose a not-so-wild entree, the Down Home Pot Roast. Slow-cooked and very tasty, it was the most successful entree of the afternoon, served with Red Bliss mashed potatoes, homestyle veggies, and red wine mushroom sauce. Old-school heaven!!! My own selection was Chipotle Smoked Chicken Enchiladas, tomatillo-marinated with garlic, onions, queso fresco, atop a chipotle mozzarella sauce, served with black beans, rice, and sweet chipotle sauce. Quite fresh, but a little bland, so a side of salsa was needed to pull the whole thing together.
Mini Desserts were truly something special. Like 95% of Houlihans food, they are made in-house from scratch, and come three or five to an order. We chose the latter and were glad we did. All were excellent, particularly the tirimasu, rich and creamy, the Snickers ice-cream ball, a cold delight on a hot day, and the bourbon pecan pie, classic Southern with more of those toasty pecans. We happily boxed up leftovers for everything but the desserts, as we had decimated them.
SERVICE & WEBSITE
Dennie proved quite excellent, sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm for her favorite menu selections when asked. Her laid-back enthusiasm was infectuous, and she revealed the source of her rather unusual name quite readily: She was named for her grandfather and not (as I had supected) for Denny Doherty, famed tenor for the classic rock band the Mamas and the Papas.
Website is http://www.houlihans.com/ and there are locations currently in 21 states, although only two in Texas as of this writing.
It's good to see an old chain gain new identity and purpose, and Houlihans certainly has done so. Investigate yourself soon, and remember:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!