A long about seven o’clock any night of the week, Houston’s Kirby Drive is jammed with luxury sedans and four-wheel-drive vehicles headed toward the realm of restaurateur Jim Goode. The busy street connects elite River Oaks with the affluent, baby-booming Village area, and midway between the two neighborhoods—like apparitions from another time and place—sit three of Goode’s four Texas-style roadside cafes, all within a block of each other. There’s a barbecue joint in an ersatz barn filled with memorabilia of the Old West. His seafood diner looks as if it drifted in on a wave from the fifties. And the stylishly funky taquería stand is furnished with colorful neon lights and a splashy oversized Mexican fountain.
Plenty of others have tried similar formulas. Few have had Goode’s dramatic success. The difference is that Goode instills in his quirky, family-style eating establishments a soulful authenticity that draws loyal hordes. Casual (all but the seafood place are self-serve), relatively quick, reasonably priced, noisy, crowded, Goode Company offers something rare: consistent genuine regional cooking or, as Jim puts it, “simple, really good Texas Mexican-flavored food.” Goode’s barbecue has been selected over and again by newspapers such as the New York Times and USA Today as among the best in America. Dishes ranging from pecan pie to grilled catfish are regularly chosen the best in Houston.
Surrounded by puffing clouds of fragrant mesquite smoke (Goode claims to have been one of the first in Texas to use mesquite for grilling), with gentle breezes wafting through porchlike outdoor dining areas, Jim Goode’s urban cafes conjure up a stylized imaginary South Texas from the thirties through the fifties. And they feel right while other restaurants seem phony, because they all reflect some true, heartfelt aspect of Jim Goode himself. Goode is re-creating the past, in his case the Saturday morning television past of cowboy heroes, the past of his childhood, the past as filtered through his parents’ generation, all of it revived through the pleasures of dining out.
Goode’s genius is a peculiar blend of city sophisticate and country boy, mixed with an imaginative flair for setting a scene and a practical approach to running a restaurant. “I think Jim Goode is the best restaurant marketing man in the city, one of the best anywhere,” says friend and fellow restaurateur Tony Mandola. “He really puts a lot of soul into everything that he does.”
The 48-year-old Goode is a black-browed, taciturn, nostalgic schemer who stares at his boots a lot and says, “Yes, ma’am,” and “ ’Preciate it.” But he is not a man to be underestimated. Goode creates his own recipes and develops his restaurants from the decor to the music to the folksy hand-lettered signs. The dishes don’t change much—Goode is mostly concerned with keeping them the same. He doesn’t have to work so hard now, so he spends most of his time planning new ventures, including two new restaurants in his Kirby domain. But he says the road to riches was not easy.
In 1977 Goode was a successful freelance commercial artist who was fed up with the advertising business and the big city. He decided to open either a bait camp or a barbecue place somewhere out in the country. “I could fish and I could barbecue pretty good,” he says. “I enjoyed both. I’d never be rich. But I could make it and get away from deadlines.”
It didn’t exactly happen that way. His friends, probably because they craved his barbecue, persuaded him to stay in Houston. Oddly enough, there weren’t many barbecue restaurants in the city then. A failing Barbecue Barn at 5109 Kirby was run by a woman whose husband had up and died, leaving her the business, which she hated. “You want it?” she said to Goode one day. “I got four thousand dollars,” he said. “Okay, that’s good enough. Send the payments to Tyler,” she said and left town that very day.
Goode knew nothing about commercial pit barbecue. The beginning was a nightmare. “There were these big stoves, giant spoons, forks, and knives,” he recalls with visible discomfort. He burned up a lot of meat at first. But things began to change slowly. He and his uncle Joe, a cook in the Air Force, took turns sleeping in the kitchen with a shotgun for protection—Kirby was not so chic a mere fifteen years ago—and they kept a record of the fire and the meat. Jim began to get the hang of it. On Sundays he drove out to Burnet to load up on mesquite, which he stacked around the outside of the building to show people he used real wood. To find the best sausage, he traveled all over South Texas until he settled on a Czech sausagemaker in Weimar.
Goode fixed up the tacky decor, ripping out the plastic and stainless steel, adding wooden tables, old cowboy photographs, signs, deer heads, cow horns, and “old-timey antiques” he had been collecting for some time. He brought in his collection of western swing records to play. He did some designing too. The Goode Company logo was adapted from an old Pearl beer design. In big letters, he painted the company motto on the side of the barn: “You Might Give Some Serious Thought to Thanking Your Lucky Stars You’re in Texas.”
Although the beginning may have seemed like a never-ending hell to Goode, it really took only about a year for the lines to start forming, and Goode was well on his way to becoming a cult figure in the eating-out world. The second Goode Company Barbeque opened in a fanciful two-story Victorian palace at 8911 Katy Freeway in 1989, and both places now serve smoky, succulent brisket, ribs, sausage, chicken, ham, and duck, along with thick slices of bread spiked with jalapeño and cheese, jambalaya Texana with sausage and ham, and generous ladles of a profound sweet-tart sauce that customers cart away in buckets. Goode uses Texas products whenever possible—like Navasota honey in the spicy tomato-based barbecue sauce. And at all the restaurants, Goode Company