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 continues to make its own pork-and-jalapeño sausage, grind its own chiles, smoke its own bacon, and bake buttermilk buns, bread, biscuits, tortillas, and pies from scratch.
Eight years after he started his first restaurant, a much wiser and wealthier Goode had recovered from the misery of that venture and was ready to create something new, this time drawing deeper on his heritage: a fourth-generation Texan, Goode is three-fourths Mexican. Goode Company Hamburgers and Taquería occupies a small white-brick building with a red-tile roof at 4902 Kirby. Out front are cacti and a large outdoor patio with ceiling fans, a wrought-iron fence, and signs that say things like “Come on in for a Goode Meal.” The predominantly Mexican American employees are like Goode’s extended family, and they select the music here—vivaciously loud norteño tunes.
The idiosyncratic menu is half all-American and half Mexican: burgers, fries, pork chops, hot dogs, and onion rings, as well as tacos, enchiladas, aguas frescas, and superior frozen marga-ritas. Mesquite-grilled border specials include quail, T-bone steak, chicken tacos, fajitas, and the incomparable catfish. Everything Goode does has some distinctive flavor inflection, such as the thick cinnamon-chocolate shakes and, of course, the world’s best pecan pie (his mother’s recipe: The secret is vinegar and a slow, three-hour bake in a convection oven), which is available at every Goode Company restaurant.
The taquería’s bountiful weekend breakfasts include so many choices it’s difficult to know where to start: eggs and venison sausage, steak and eggs, smoked bacon and eggs, catfish and eggs, quail and eggs, omelets, scrambled eggs with chorizo, huevos con nopalitos, huevos rancheros, migas, beans, rice, hashbrowns, biscuits and honey, and the noblest of pecan waffles—cinnamon-scented, fluffy and crisp, able to absorb excessive amounts of warm syrup without losing its character. There are also margaritas and pico de gallo Bloody Marys. For breakfast.
It took less than three years for Goode to work up to his next restaurant, which turned out to be a version of the bait camp he had originally planned. The full-service Goode Company Seafood (2621 Westpark) is really sort of a hybrid fifties-ish vision: a sea-gray railroad diner married to a sheet-metal shack stuck in a white oyster-shell parking lot and flanked by waving oleanders. (The man does not ignore details.) The only things missing are the sea gulls and the surf. Inside, the furnishings include antique fishing rods, a fish tank, sportfishing photographs and prints, and a daily fishing report. Jazz and blues from the forties and fifties complete the mood.
On the menu are fresh oysters, boiled shrimp, and crawfish in season, the campechana (a traditional Mexican seafood cocktail of salsa, crabmeat, and shrimp), a respectable seafood gumbo, fried green tomatoes, and salads with shrimp, crabmeat, and chilled mesquite-grilled catfish. All entrées come with an empanada, a tasty little pastry stuffed with seafood. But the comfortably chic restaurant is best known for its mesquite-grilled fish: catfish, rainbow trout, swordfish, tuna, salmon, and whatever else is fresh, excluding sport fish like redfish and speckled trout, which Goode, an ardent conservationist, has never served.
Goode in recent years has shed some forty pounds and trimmed up his wild black frontiersman’s beard. His more sedate look, complete with rimless glasses and pressed khaki pants and shirts, suggests a mature cattleman from half a century ago. But his claim on Texas culture is real.
His father’s family settled around Cuero in the 1850’s, and his great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. His grandfather moved to Tampico, Mexico, to work for American oil companies at the turn of the century and married a Mexican woman. Goode’s father, in turn, though he was born in Yoakum, worked around the refineries in Tampico and also married a local woman. The family moved to Freeport in 1943.
Jim was born in Velasco, near Freeport, a year later and grew up with an awareness of the region’s natural resources. He fished for redfish in the Gulf. He caught bass, catfish, and perch in the Brazos River and hunted in the Brazos bottom. His family—he’s the youngest of five—lived simply, although “food was a big deal,” Goode says. They raised their own chickens, rabbits, and calves and grew vegetables, cantaloupes, and strawberries. His mother pasteurized their milk. The whole family pulled a two-hundred-foot seine net, bringing in crabs, mullet, redfish, and other fresh seafood.
Goode’s mother was the chef. “My mother had to be pretty creative in how she prepared everything,” says Goode over a cup of coffee at the taquería. “We cooked a lot on the grill outside. Sometimes she did great things with leftovers. She made marinades for cheap cuts of meat to make ’em taste good.” All of those values and experiences went into the restaurants.
Goode, who also runs a lucrative catering concern and a pecan pie mail-order business, has plans for expanding his empire on Kirby. He already has drawings for a fifties-style Texas cafe to be opened in early 1993 next door to the Kirby barbecue place. Goode imagines Goode’s Texas Cafe as a full-service restaurant serving chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables, homemade ice cream and sodas, blue plate specials, and other Texas comfort foods on Goode-designed plates that have cattle brands around the rims. There may also be some changes in store for the taquería, such as eliminating the burgers, although Goode faces popular unrest if he tinkers too much with this landmark of Houston’s good life. He also dreams of putting a Mexican restaurant in between the seafood diner and the taquería.
With so many restaurants in one location, isn’t he worried about stealing customers from himself, or something like that? “Naaah,” he says, looking down at his boots. “I’d rather be in competition with myself than with somebody else.”