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High-Class Junk Food

This Washington Avenue restaurant uses junk food in ways you'd never imagine: A chef rebels

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Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 chef cook holding hamburger with Cheetos
Chef Jason Kerr offers his Dirty Burger, on the menu at Hollister on Washington. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 hamburger with Cheetos
The thick burger is served on a pretzel roll with mac-and-cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, garlic sauce, Cheetos and fries inside the bun. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 food
Roasted beets with goat cheese, roasted nuts and local honey. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 deconstructed fajitas with Cheetos
Shredded, Dr. Pepper-braised short rib with mac-and-cheese. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 parfait
The banana pudding pie is served inside a rustic mason jar. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 chef cook in kitchen
Jason Kerr in the kitchen at Hollister on Washington. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 restaurant interior
Although some remodeling was necessary, the locale retains a sip of the Cova feel. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 patio
Iron gates were added to the patio. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 exterior day
Part of the Cova sign is still up, which may confuse visitors of this BYOB establishment. Photo by Joel Luks
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 chef cook holding hamburger with Cheetos
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 hamburger with Cheetos
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 food
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 deconstructed fajitas with Cheetos
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 parfait
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 chef cook in kitchen
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 restaurant interior
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 patio
Hollister restaurant Houston July 2013 exterior day

Dining out was a rare occurrence, a luxury reserved only for special occasions — birthdays, anniversaries and family celebrations. That's not to say that home suppers weren't memorable. On the contrary, chef Jason Kerr fondly recalls his mother's creamy macaroni and cheese and her signature strawberry shortcake.

Hearty portions made for some comforting good eats. There weren't professional chefs in his military family, but skilled home cooks with a penchant for simplicity and unpretentiousness, the type of traits that fine "fare" sometimes lacks in favor of elaborate techniques devised in the name of innovation and inventiveness.

Pass the mashed potatoes and gravy?

Or the thick burger perched atop a Slow Dough Bread Co. pretzel roll, slathered with glistening (meaning rich) bacon mac-and-cheese, lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, garlic sauce and handful of Cheetos — and a helping of skin-on hand-cut fries inside the bun?

 "You know the saying, never trust a skinny chef? It should be changed to, never trust a chef without a beard." 

The latter is one of Kerr's whopping concoctions on the menu at Hollister on Washington, a restaurant that opened four months ago where Cova Hand-Selected Wines used to be.

Kerr's named his offering the Dirty Burger, a play on the Garbage Burger made popular during his 18-month stint as the owner/operator of Zilla Street Eats food truck. At Hollister, it can be capped with chili as the Dirty Sanchez upgrade — try ordering that with a straight face. And yes, the staff is acutely aware of the uncouth colloquialism.

The BYOB restaurant describes its food as "Gulf Coast regional cuisine with Southern accents," which isn't at all inaccurate, although it's best understood as down-home comfort food all dressed up for the ball. In couture. Nothing off the rack. Maybe some diamond earrings. Except this light sparkle of precious stones is sometimes junk food like Peanut Butter Combos, Butterfingers, Cap'n Crunch and Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Whimsical haute comfort? American pop culture cuisine?

Whatever you want to call it, Kerr's upbringing in Oklahoma and Southern California is all over his recipes for better or for worse (if you're counting calories).

A Mad Food Scientist

Kerr refined his traditional French techniques during his tenure at Café Rabelais. He wasn't quite as successful as Monica Pope's sous chef in her second restaurant, Boulevard Bistrot. He was canned after two years. The 39-year-old was working at Down House when an offer from Hollister Grill owner Chuck Pritchett, who also owns The Village Clothier on Rice Boulevard, was too tempting to pass up. The restaurateur was looking to expand to a second location, a more chic — but not highbrow — version of the original neighborhood-style Spring Branch eatery.

Although some remodeling was necessary to morph the former wine bar into Hollister on Washington, the locale retains a sip of the Cova feel. The bar area was expanded, the kitchen was opened, chandeliers from the failed Alto Pizzeria were installed and stately iron gates were added to the patio.

 Not every menu item incorporates lowbrow snacks, though. And don't expect to be able to tell which one does. 

The ambiance pairs kindly with Kerr's dishes, handsomely presented without being intimidating. Take the shredded, Dr. Pepper-braised short rib with mac-and-cheese, bacon, green onions, Cheetos and cheddar. The platting reimagines a sharable portion of fully loaded nachos that's kissed with colorful cherry tomatoes. The seasoning is humble — nothing lingers on the palate longer that it should — with a genteel aftertaste that encourages second helpings.

Kerr plays with texture in the roasted beets with goat cheese, roasted nuts and local honey that's sourced from a private, non-commercial beekeeper.

Served inside a rustic, oh-so-utilitarian mason jar, you have to reach deep into the banana pudding pie — through the whipped cream, through the Cinnamon Toast Crunch and the custard  — to arrive at a layer of Peanut Butter Combos. Reaching the crunchy, salty prize is akin to digging for the free toy tucked away at the bottom of a cereal box.

Not every menu item incorporates lowbrow snacks, though. And don't expect to be able to tell which one does from reading the carte du jour. Kerr keeps you guessing.

This chef knows he's tendering something uniquely his own, with all his distinctive idiosyncrasies. This from a rascal of a dude who once crashed a Jones Hall event in hopes of a tête-à-tête with Anthony Bourdain.

"You know the saying, never trust a skinny chef?" Kerr says. "It should be changed to, never trust a chef without a beard."

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