Three decades of high standards keep Houston’s a fixture on Rosecrans [RESTAURANT REVIEW]
Every once in a while I have to dig through my archives to help historians and researchers, and when I do it’s a trip down memory lane.
by Richard Foss
Every once in a while I have to dig through my archives to help historians and researchers, and when I do it’s a trip down memory lane. Whatever my original goal was, I find myself lingering over reviews of places from decades gone by, remembering meals when arugula in salad, Asian fusion, and housemade pasta were cutting edge stuff.
I was flipping through those dusty files while trying to help a local historical society when I came to a review of a restaurant that is still thriving, the Houston’s on Rosecrans in Manhattan Beach. As I read through it I smiled at some of the things I found novel, starting with the joy of watching their open kitchen, which was then a novelty. I glanced at the date and was startled – I wrote the piece in 1991 and hadn’t done an update since despite eating there regularly.
A few things about the experience haven’t changed: the exterior is unchanged and curiously formal, it’s still fairly dark inside even at midday, and there is nearly always a line to get in. It usually moves pretty fast, and if you let the greeter know you are willing to eat at the bar, you are often seated immediately. The bar here is nicely appointed and has better lighting than many of the tables, and that’s where we ended up on a recent visit.
The menu has shifted a bit over the years, and the cheese soup and thin crust oval pizzas that used to be the most popular appetizers are a distant memory. Others have had staying power, like the hot spinach and artichoke dip, grilled artichokes, and house salad with hardboiled egg and bacon. There are also new items like an expanding selection of sushi rolls and an emerald kale salad (and they probably couldn’t have given away a kale salad in 1991, when kale was regarded as a garnish rather than food).
At lunch the mainstay at Houston’s is a burger that is among the best in the South Bay, the meat freshly ground and given a hint of smokiness and char from the grill. The rest all fit together with it, the bun baked in-house and the fries on the side skinny, crisp, and lightly salted. If you’re not in the mood for red meat then you might try one of their newer items, a crispy chicken sandwich that is piled high with veggies and cheese and served on a sesame roll. Either sandwich demands a healthy appetite or a to-go box, because portions here are substantial. There are lighter items, including a popular Thai-style noodle salad with either steak or chicken, but you should expect big portions because that’s how they roll here.
Another option for lunch or a starter is their “eggless” Caesar, romaine and giant croutons topped with a very flavorful dressing that has robust garlic and anchovy flavors, and can be topped with more anchovy if you like it that way. The dressing is a bit oily as eggless Caesars usually are, but the flavor is true to the classic style.
One of the original entrees that is still on the menu is their “knife and fork” ribs, which are literally so tender that they sometimes fall off the bone when you pick them up. I usually prefer ribs with a little more chew and a spicier sauce but enjoy these once in a while.
On our most recent visit my wife and I enjoyed two other Houston’s classics, the Scottish salmon and Hawaiian ribeye. The salmon is coated with a white wine and herb glaze and broiled, and it’s an excellent preparation. Scottish salmon has paler meat and a milder flavor than its Pacific Northwest cousin, and the slightly caramelized sauce on the delicate fish is a winner. That salmon comes with mashed potatoes and vegetable, which on the day we visited was Swiss chard cooked with raisins and topped with parmesan cheese. That slightly bitter vegetable with raisins was a nice contrast with the fish.
As for the steak, the Hawaiian ribeye is a big piece of meat marinated overnight in pineapple, soy, and ginger. The citric acid in the pineapple helps break down the meat fibers and makes it very tender, as well as adding flavor and sugars that caramelize on the grill. This gives the steak a disconcerting appearance because it looks black and overcooked even when rare, and rare to medium rare is how this steak is best. More time on the fire and those sugars actually will burn, and you don’t want that happening. If you like a steak with a hint of teriyaki-style flavor then by all means get this, and if not they make a good dry rubbed ribeye with housemade sauces on the side. The Hawaiian ribeye comes with a giant loaded baked potato, the plain steak with thick sliced tomato and blue cheese, and that’s the right decision because the fruity tomato would be too much alongside the sweet glaze on the Hawaiian version.
Desserts are offered at Houston’s, but most of the time I’m too full from dinner to even consider them. If I have anything it’s likely to be an after-dinner cocktail. The bar here has a decent selection and uses fresh ingredients, and they make the classics with style. One of their innovations is a weird version of a Jackrabbit, a cocktail usually made with gin, apricot, vermouth, and Cointreau — theirs has mezcal, Campari, grapefruit, and mint. Despite having no common ingredient with the original there is a similarity, and it’s a good finish to a meal if you savor slightly bitter and smoky drinks.
The location of this Houston’s in an area surrounded by office buildings cues you in to the fact that it’s going to be a bit pricey – dinner for two with one salad, two entrees, two cocktails, and one glass of Frank Family Cabernet ran $136, and a typical lunch with a soft drink or iced tea will set you back $25 or more. On balance, the service here is usually very good, the portions large, and the environment inviting and relaxing. The fact that they have that line midweek and weekend, lunch and dinner, tells you they have been doing something right. They were a fixture in the neighborhood when I wrote about them in ’91, and they’re still keeping up standards.
Houston’s is at 1550-A Rosecrans Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Open 11 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Mo-Fr, 11:30 a.m. – 9:30 p.m. Sa-Su. Parking lot, wheelchair access OK to most areas, full bar, No corkage on 1st bottle, $15 thereafter, some vegetarian items. Menu at houstons.com, phone 310-643-7211. ER
by Richard Foss