Annie Bulloch is a freelance writer who has lived in Houston most of her life. Her main obsessions are food--both cooking and eating--and pop culture, especially comics, movies and TV.
feed the beast
Houston’s Enduring Eats: Classic Texas Cooking at Hickory Hollow Restaurant & Catering
In our Enduring Eats series, Annie Bulloch explores Houston-area restaurants that have been in business for 30 years or more.
The first Hickory Hollow Restaurant & Catering opened on Fallbrook in northwest Houston in 1977. Ten years later, the Heights location followed. A third location in Magnolia came and went, but the other locations have survived and thrived. The Heights location even hosts live music three nights a week, primarily bluegrass or country and western acts. (A schedule is available on their website.)
Hickory Hollow — properly pronounced “Holler,” according to owner Tony Riedel — has a large menu loaded with Texas country favorites. All the standard barbecue items are there: brisket, ribs, sausage, smoked turkey and chicken. They offer the usual sides like potato salad, coleslaw, mac and cheese, and beans, plus others like fried onion rings, zucchini and mushrooms, which are made from fresh veggies, not frozen.
If you order a side salad, you get it yourself from a salad bar. At one time, salad bars were everywhere (Wendy’s used to have a salad bar, for crying out loud. Wendy’s!) but they aren’t that common anymore. It’s one of a few touches that give away the true age of the restaurant, since most barbecue joints affect a rustic look, even the ones that opened five minutes ago.
The menu also includes baked potatoes, steaks, grilled chicken, burgers, and a variety of the available meats in sandwich and po-boy form. There are also chicken fried steak in several sizes ranging from reasonable to wholly unreasonable, catfish (either grilled or chicken fried), and chicken fried chicken. If you have room for desert, a selection of pies and cakes are available. I recommend the pecan pie!
Among the fried foods are the Hot Tots, a side item simply described as “spicy potato puffs.” I like potatoes, puffs, and spicy things, so I had to try them. I was excited to see that chicken fried chicken was one of the meats I could choose from for a barbecue plate, and I wanted to sample a few types of barbecue, so I ordered a three-meat platter with Hot Tots and green beans as my two sides.
The small portion of chicken fried chicken (probably the size that goes on the sandwich, and just right for a combo plate) was delicious — not quite at Barbecue Inn level, but I’m not sure anything else ever will be. I would definitely order it again. The brisket was fine and had a nice smoke ring. Hickory Hollow doesn’t use a rub on their brisket like most barbecue restaurants do, preferring to let the hickory smoke do all the work while it smokes for 18-24 hours. The smoked turkey was a standout, moist and savory. It may be my favorite of all the smoked turkey I’ve ever tried from barbecue joints across the state.
As for the sides, the green beans had no frills. I believe they may be vegetarian-friendly, a rarity among most Texas country-style restaurants, where green beans are usually cooked with bacon. But their relative plainness was balanced out by the Hot Tots. With that name, I expected something like a tater tot with a hint of spice, but the reality was so much better.
Hot Tots are essentially spicy balls of twice-baked potato filling — mashed potatoes, sour cream, cheese, bacon, green onions and chopped jalapeños —that have been battered and deep-fried using the same method used to fry the various chicken-fried meats. The coating is crisp and the filling is creamy, providing a very nice texture contrast when you take a bite. They also have a good kick from the jalapeno. I was pleasantly surprised that they were spicier than I had anticipated. Hot Tots are a perfect comfort food.
Out of everything on Hickory Hollow’s menu, the chicken fried steak may be the most widely beloved. The legendary chicken fried steak has won awards, and been featured on television many times over the years. It comes in three sizes (four, if you count the 6-ounce portion that goes in sandwiches and kid’s meals): the Small Plowman, Texas Size, and the 22-ounce Large Rancher, aka “the Saddle Blanket.”
Plenty of Texas restaurants boast huge chicken fried steaks, but many of those sacrifice flavor for scale. Hickory Hollow does not have that problem. The steak is dredged in a mixture of flour, seasoning salt, black pepper, garlic salt, then dipped in buttermilk, then given another coating of the flour mixture. The meat is tenderized to a point where it is so delicate, it’s tricky for the chef to lift it in and out of the coating mixture and fryer without tearing it. But into the fryer it goes until it’s perfectly golden brown and delicious.
The coating is crisp, not oily. It’s not easy to cook something that size properly, but the cooks at Hickory Hollow have had nearly four decades to perfect the process. And they aren’t secretive about their process. Riedel demonstrated every step on a 2011 segment of Food Network’s Outrageous Eats a few years ago. (The video also shows how they make Hot Tots.)
Just like at Barbecue Inn, Hickory Hollow is technically a barbecue restaurant, but the fried foods are the main attraction. It’s easy to see how they have kept a lot of hungry people happy since 1977.
Hickory Hollow Restaurant & Catering – Fallbrook
8038 Fallbrook Drive
Houston, TX 77064
Monday-Thursday 11:00 AM-9:00 PM
Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM-9:30 PM
Sunday 11:00 AM-8:30 PM (8pm closing in winter)
Hickory Hollow Restaurant & Catering – Heights
101 Heights Blvd.
Houston, TX 77007
Monday-Thursday 11:00 AM-9:00 PM
Friday 11:00 AM-9:30 PM
Saturday 11:00 AM-9:00 PM
Sunday 11:00 AM-8:30 PM