Jenny Famewhore

Thursday in the Heights: Houston’s

Posted in Boston by Jenny Famewhore on October 22, 2009

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I had been meaning to go to Houston’s/Hillstone for a few weeks (for food, for career research, for writing), so I lured Larissa into being my partner in crime with promises of expensive wine and Frank Bruni (departing NYT critic) approved burgers, and it wasn’t until last Monday 5pm, did we go on our restauranting date. 40 minutes later, we were in downtown Boston, and two hours later, we were still noshing on sandwiches of the lard-laden beef variety, triple-dipping our thin-cut fries in wasabi dressing, drinking the sweet bounty of Napa Valley, schmoozing with the staff, and getting lectured on the psychology of men by a 40 year old antique (read: used) cars salesman.

(Thank you, Larissa, for being my pillar of strength!!!)

Admittedly, I was kind of nervous. Who knew there was as much prep-work and depth of thought involved in grilling other people as there is in being interviewed yourself.

I had read all the reviews on Houston’s on menupages, NY Mag, Citysearch, industry zines, hospitality student blogs– everything within the first 300 results on Google was under my radar. I went in with enormous expectations– a loftiness usually associated with NASA space experiments; it was almost unfair.

On that note, this is my first published restaurant review in the BC newspaper, The Heights! While I was back in New York City this weekend on fooding adventures with Eric, someone (in the industry?) playfully asked us, “so which one of you is a food writer?” Eric laughingly replied, “Well, we both are.”  Word.

Reviewed: Houston's, published on October 15th, 2009 in The Heights

Houston’s: an all-American Love Affair

My relationship with Houston’s Restaurant flowered unexpectedly; a most untraditional love story. We met at the Boston College Career Fair a few weeks ago—I spotted its table from across the room teeming with hundreds of students and recruiters in starched dress-shirts and smart blazers, incongruously next to the investment banking and insurance firms.  It went by its more corporate, professional name at the time: the Hillstone Restaurant Group, but I had come to know it more recently at its Stone Street location in the heart of Boston as simply Houston’s.

The Hillstone Restaurant Group, whose portfolio consists of 50 upscale casual-dining restaurants, is known for the Houston’s chain. However, in this case, I hesitate to use the word “chain” because “chain restaurants” usually conjure up sad images of dining establishments with overcooked steaks, gravy made from powder, and a mass-produced selection where the prices are irritatingly one cent away from a whole number. As Emily Jacobs-Vassar, a management recruiter for the company, explained it, “There’s this rule where if you have over a certain number of restaurants, it’s considered a chain. The Hillstone restaurants should not be viewed as a chain because we work really hard to keep things local and fresh, and try to take advantage of what is available in each location.”

So, armed with a blurry phone picture of Houston’s Boston location from Google map, I set off into the concrete jungle to sate my ravenous appetite with their menu of “diverse American classics.” Having only needed to walk the three minutes from Government Center MBTA station, nestled between the hustle and bustle of Faneuil Hall and the financial district, I had come navigationally over prepared– locating Houston’s was hardly a challenging task. What was more challenging was what to choose among the menu options, and for that, we had Chris, the bartender, to guide us into gastronomic enlightenment.

As for favorite food item at Houston’s, Chris didn’t need coaxing or bribes to immediately nominate the French Dip AuIMG_4723 Jus, which was not just any mere sandwich.  It was a heaping pile of slow-roasted prime rib thinly sliced between two toasted French rolls slathered in butter. If the mere fact of what it was didn’t sell it to me, he drove home the point by effusing, “You can’t go wrong with the French Dip. It melts in your mouth.” It was almost cruel how good it sounded. How good it tasted. If I concentrate hard enough, I can clearly remember the first bite: the tenderness of the prime rib, the light crispiness of the roll, and the fragrant, not-too salty jus, all coming together. I almost didn’t hear the lady standing by the bar a few feet away commenting jealously about my French Dip. The roar of angels singing in my head drowned everything out.

IMG_4722The other thing that Houston’s is well-known for are their burgers, made from fresh ground beef and can be topped with cheddar cheese, onions, lettuce, tomato, Canadian bacon or hickory barbeque sauce. They also have a popular veggie burger that is a formidable contender in a hypothetical food steel-cage competition. Unlike most veggie burgers, they have chunks of actual vegetables in it and topped off with a soy glaze—ironically rare to find.

Everything on the menu is made day-of, and a lot of attention is devoted to quality control at Houston’s. I think I even saw a purveyor sneaking in with a fresh crate of parsley. Grier Colella, service manager, said, “We make everything in-house, so we would have someone here baking the bread.” Sure enough, looking down from the entrance straight into the spacious, open-kitchen, is a fresh batch of bread, crispy and brown, cooling on a rack. The fish is shipped in daily from the North Atlantic, Nova Scotia, and the Houston’s menu also boasts a daily fish special, very bluntly named, “Today’s Very Fresh Fish,” as well as a range of unique sushi entrees with creative usage of ingredients like macadamia and mangoes.

Houston’s is not so much a cheap eats place as it is a special occasion splurge. Its jazzy music, honey-colored lighting, and warm-mahogany wood panels make it a classy affair. The entrees start at $13, but a sizable selection of the main courses and appetizers stay under $20.  Drinks run a bit higher, but the wine menu is carefully chosen by a wine manager, who at the time was seated across the bar from me, doing a tasting to add new blends to their Cabernet inventory. Houston’s is the best place to go for solid American food, and an exuberant staff that take pride in the food at the restaurant. For Houston’s, as the greeter, Erin, confirmed, “Hospitality comes first,” and it is more than apparent.


Houston’s:
60 State St
Boston, MA 02109-1922
(617) 573-9777
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2 Responses

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  1. your anonymous belgian stalker said, on October 23, 2009 at 3:12 PM

    god you make it sound so delicious


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