1915 Mangum Road
By Matt Norris
Diner. Hash house. Greasy spoon.
I like to call this uniquely American roadside phenomenon the “dive breakfast joint.”
Frank’s Grill, located in a decidedly blue collar part of northwest Houston fits that description perfectly.
The popularity of dive breakfast joints has always amused me.
Prissy uptown folks who wouldn’t so much as drive by a redneck bar with the windows rolled down on a Saturday night will happily pile into the local breakfast diner on Sunday morning.
Waffle House and Huddle House have turned that concept into billion dollar national chains.
Even lowly old Frank’s Grill has four or five locations around the Houston area.
But fame and fortune aren’t about to go to old Frank’s head.
This particular Frank’s Grill wears its divey credentials proudly.
It’s almost like the management is scared that if they were to pick up the trash and empty cartons all over the parking lot, fix the broken front door, and paint over the graffiti, the good folks of Houston would stop flocking here for biscuits and gravy and nine buck New York strips.
I mean, as soon as you pull into the litter strewn parking lot, you can’t help but wonder what the bathrooms must look like.
The rusted, wind-battered sign teeters precariously above. A half-demolished, half-rusted old drive-thru menu board portrays Frank’s previous life as some abandoned fast-food joint.
But the real divey credentials are found once you manage to get through the broken set of double front doors.
As I sat at the counter two feet away from a well-worn griddle, I couldn’t help but notice the decades-old layer of grease that had built up under the grill and in every crevice in the kitchen.
Let me tell you, that grill hasn’t seen the business end of a scrub brush in years.
But that’s okay. Health department scores are overrated anyways.
There’s a reason why the steak and eggs taste better in a dive like this. It’s that really old grease that gives diner fare its flavor.
As I perused over the late breakfast crowd I began to wonder if I was the first guy in a suit to ever sit at this counter.
Then, as if a sign from above, a jolly suit-wearing local sits down two stools next to me.
“Man, I love this place,” he says as he grabs a fistful of napkins and wipes down his corner of the counter. “Look at that!”
We sat there mesmerized by the sausage patties, rows of thick-cut bacon, and mountains of shredded hash browns piled high on the griddle, and we both agreed that the cook with the Mexican flag tattoo on his neck was the Michelangelo of cheap breakfast food.
“I need to bring my kids here to see this,” he said. “Those guys are working hard!” He also says I won’t find a place with this much good food for less money anywhere else in Houston.
I certainly wasn’t going to doubt him.
My scrambled eggs came on a plate with enough hash browns to have staved off the entire Irish potato famine and two giant biscuits I couldn’t even imagine finishing.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the meat?
While the smell of sausage and bacon sizzling on the griddle did give me a bit of envy, my meat choice had been decided for me before I even sat down.
I am in Texas. At a dive breakfast joint.
Is there any question?
Chicken. Fried. Steak.
The cool kids call it “CFS.”
So I got the CFS. And it was absolutely smothered in an avalanche of white, creamy breakfast gravy.
For you naive Yankees—no, chicken fried steak has nothing to do with chicken, at least not in Texas. It is a tender piece of steak (this is cattle country after all), breaded and deep fried like a piece of Southern fried chicken.
But chicken fried steak is one of those things you want to be careful about ordering. Unlike scrambled eggs, CFS can have a lot of variation in taste and seasoning, as well as in the quality of the steak depending on where you order it.
First of all, I wouldn’t recommend ordering chicken fried steak outside of the great Nation of Texas. (Unless you are in Virginia Beach at Mary’s, where it’s called “Country Fried Steak.”)
The cut of steak used may be tender, or tough, or highly processed. The breading thick, well-seasoned, and well-fried. Or thin, soggy, and bland. The gravy can be white or brown, creamy or clumpy, studded with sausage or not.
Great or simply awful.
See what I mean?
You have to be careful where you enjoy CFS.
But I was confident Frank wouldn’t let me down. Although, maybe I was over-confident.
Don’t get me wrong, my breakfast was good. And a downright steal for seven bucks.
But it was not great.
Sure, the hash browns came with that crispy, golden layer thanks to Frank’s special griddle grease. But with no seasoning, onions, or other toppings, bite after bite of shredded potato got a bit monotonous.
The biscuits were huge, but tedious. They were the dry, yeasty, roll-like biscuits—not the soft, buttermilk biscuits with a much higher lard-to-flour ratio like I was expecting.
And while my chicken fried steak was tender and tasty, the breading was emasculated by the overflowing river of gravy. And with no seasoning or sausage to liven the gravy up, even that was a bit of a letdown.
Look. I realize no one comes to a place like Frank’s for a culinary experience.
So I remember that the claim to fame here is quantity, not quality. That everything is bigger in Texas. And this breakfast was big.
My neighboring breakfast companion certainly wasn’t disappointed. Polishing off a mountain of a breakfast in nine minutes, he pushed back from the counter and exclaimed, “Wow! That takes care of breakfast AND lunch. I won’t have to eat again for another four hours!”
Geez. I won’t even be able to think about food for another 24 hours.
But therein lies the popularity of the dive breakfast joint.
Whether you’ve had a tiring day of travel on the highway, or you’re a local recovering from the night before, or you’re just looking for a quick bite to eat, everyone can appreciate a hearty breakfast served up with decades-old grease.
Rating: Would Wear A Free T-Shirt.