Scott McClelland, the H-E-B Houston division president who plays J.J. Watt's foil on TV, wants people to understand something very important about the restaurant located inside the company's new grocery store at San Felipe and Fountain View that will open Wednesday. The days of a grocery store restaurant as a take-out-only affair serving so so fried chicken and lumpy mashed potatoes are over.
"Our customers want food that tastes good — not just food that's fast," McClelland says. "The idea was to have people come in, eat our food and say ‘That’s not what we expected out of a grocery store.' We’re trying to raise the level of expectations.
"Frankly, we think the restaurant can set a halo for what some of our capabilities are in the rest of the store."
Dubbed Table 57 Dining & Drinks after the zip code the store resides in, the restaurant features a menu created by former Haven chef Randy Evans and executed by Allen Duhon, who served as Evans's sous chef at Haven. McClelland takes credit for the decision to bring Evans in, which is the type of move H-E-B did not made when it opened restaurants in stores in Austin and San Antonio.
If all this sounds designed to compete with Whole Foods, that's not a coincidence.
"We didn’t have the internal talent to do it. What I knew based on what I’d seen at our other restaurants and the standard that I felt we needed to set was we needed somebody who was more of an expert in food and somebody who understood the Houston customer. Luckily, Randy was in between gigs," McClelland says.
According to Evans, Table 57 has a simple approach for the role it wants to fulfill in its customers' lives.
"We wanted this restaurant to be a place you could come for lunch with friends, have a drink, maybe a date night on a Tuesday or Saturday after soccer game you could come in with the whole family," Evans explains. "There’s a competitive market right now. We’re looking to offer great service, great food at reasonable prices and have an ease of service.
"You can come in and order all this to go. You can order your barbecue by the pound. Or you can dine in, listen to live music, have a nice draft beer or a glass of wine."
Draft beer come courtesy of eight taps located in a bar in the dining room. Diners can have a pint with their meal or take a growler to go. The 80-seat patio features a stage that will host live music on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. If all this sounds designed to compete with Whole Foods, which opened a new store near the Galleria in November and is about to expand its store on Woodway, that's not a coincidence.
"We saw your piece you did on the Whole Foods down the street . . . We looked at everything we do and said we’ve got to be not just as good, but better," McClelland says. "I think the one thing we’ll have to give them is they brew beer. We aren’t going to brew beer. If you look at the dining experience, I think what we’re going to offer is more atypical of what you’d find in a grocery store."
For example, the store won't just sell sushi but also hot, Asian-inspired dishes like bulgogi, bibimbap and teriyaki chicken.
The H-E-B is also different from Whole Foods in one other very important aspect. "Of course, we’ll offer the Cheerios and Doritos and Budweiser that they won’t," McClelland says with a smile.
Grocery Store Buzz
Turning to the food, Table 57 aims to set a new standard for grocery store restaurants. After all, what good is a big name chef if the product isn't satisfying?
All of the food at Table 57 is prepared in a glassed-in, aquarium style kitchen. Evans developed specifications for all the breads that are baked in house and even the desserts are made separately from the store's bakery. While the menu features extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner options, two dishes suffice to show the new direction.
"The idea was to have people come in, eat our food and say ‘That’s not what we expected out of a grocery store.' We’re trying to raise the level of expectations."
The first is an in-house dry aged New York strip that's poached in thyme butter and served with portobello mushrooms, grilled bok choy and a Steen's cane vinaigrette. It's a restaurant-quality offering that wouldn't be out of place at a restaurant like Houston's. Similarly, Evans has developed a version of Korean fried chicken that will be served with kimchi mashed potatoes and collard greens seasoned with sriracha and fish sauce.
"Everyone asked if I was going to do fried chicken on the menu," Evans says. "What can we do that’s not the fried chicken that I’ve been doing that’s kind of been beat to death all of a sudden. In six months, everyone came out with Southern fried chicken. It’s the trend of the day. That’s how the Korean thing (happened).
"We didn’t go crazy heat like you would see at H-Mart where people get hiccups. I’m not sure how many people are ready for that. I think it’s a great introduction to Korean chicken. There’s some nice heat. The crunch is there."
At $15 for a half bird that's made with all natural meat, it might be the best fried chicken value in the city. Other prices are similarly affordable: A Korean fried chicken wing on a small waffle is $3. A generous seared tuna salad served with kale and cannellini beans is $10.50.
Similarly, the store's barbecue offerings are a pleasant surprise that compare favorably to neighborhood options like Brisket House and Roegels Barbecue Co. Brisket, pork ribs, chicken, turkey and sausage all get their turn in a smoker that's fed with post oak. Moist brisket glistens with fat and even lean meat comes out juicy. Prices are in line, too, at $16 per pound for both brisket and ribs.
In addition to making barbecue, the restaurant also utilizes its smoker for the pork belly in a BLT, pork shoulder in a Cuban sandwich and for salmon that's available either as a sandwich or on top of salads.
"We’ve got three people working our pit 24/7," Evans says. "We have an overnight shift just to maintain our wood and the smoke. We’re not overloading it with smoke and having heat spikes. We’re not just running it with pure fire like you see some of these places and there’s really not any smoke component. We’re getting really good product out of it: Thick cut and tender."
Grocery store openings can be frantic. How Duhon and his team respond to the initial crush of curious diners remains to be seen. Still, it's clear that Evans has left him with a solid base of recipes and ideas to work from, and Evans will be monitoring the restaurant during its first six months or so while he works with H-E-B on other projects.
It's good news for Tanglewood and beyond — a high-quality, neighborhood destination that helps set a new standard for food at grocery stores.