Houston’s Wannabee

Written by Mary Ann Fitzmorris August 06, 2022 11:00 in Dining Diary

Who doesn’t love Houston’s? Even the most gourmet of gourmets drop in at Houston’s now and then. Even New Orleans, famous for excellent food in free-standing restaurants, even New Orleans loves Houston’s.

So it was a bit of a shock a few years ago to learn of the closing of the Metairie location of Houston’s. What was even more of a shock was how little it changed after the sale. The new owners, Creole Cuisine Concepts, pounced on the opportunity to launch yet another concept, this one a casual celebration of American food, as Houston’s was.

In fact, it was hard to tell where Houston’s ended and Boulevard began. The Boulevard menu was a doppelganger for Houston’s, and the dishes themselves hardly changed. They were a second-tier level, always just a step or two below their inspiration. Here is a hamburger that looks almost exactly like the Houston’s burger. Grilled artichokes with a tart herbal dipping sauce, which are almost as good as Houston’s, but not. The same is true of the ribs, grilled fish, and everything else on the menu.

The first time I went to Boulevard I was puzzled that they had moved into a place that had been there for so many years, another concept even, and changed nothing. It still looked exactly like Houston’s. The menu looked exactly like Houston’s in size and offerings. The food looked exactly like Houston’s, except not as good. I half-expected Houston’s to go after them.

It wasn’t until they added another location that the real concept of Boulevard began to emerge. It’s a stylish American bistro, exactly as the name suggests. Ralph Lauren for mortals. It is very well-done, no expense spared, and this concept is a winner.

One of the most exciting events on the Northshore this year was the opening of their third location. It is a great place to hang out and eat good, wholesome, unchallenging American food. We go often. It is the one we prefer for obvious reasons, but we have been to all three.

Another distinctive thing about Boulevard in the COVID era is how many people work there. They do not seem to be plagued by the woes of other restaurants. Wait staff and managers appear to be tripping over each other. Gives me hope for the industry.

The very first thing I had at Boulevard was of course a hamburger. I went to the old Houston’s location with a friend who loved it. She works nearby and ate there all the time. On this visit she got her usual grilled chicken salad, which looked exactly like the one she got when we were there at Houston’s. She loved it just as well. 

I did not feel the same about the hamburger, which also was an exact replica of the Houston burger. I wonder if I would have been able to even tell which was which if I didn’t know. Maybe it was the idea of such a faithful copy that annoyed me, or if it just wasn’t up to its counterpart, but I missed the Houston burger. I still feel that way when I order it.

For a long time, this wistfulness for Houston’s kept me from ordering the grilled artichokes, a signature and much-beloved dish at Houston’s. When I finally succumbed to my curiosity on a recent visit, it was definitely not my imagination. The Houston chokes were much better, though these weren’t bad. They were served with a really terrific dipping sauce, but the artichokes themselves weren’t as tender.

One time we sat at the bar for Happy Hour, which offers a number of appetizers at half price, including oysters. We got Ahi tuna salad, the spin dip that started the craze, oysters, and a mini steak sandwich.

Tom loved the Ahi tuna salad and of course his oysters, and the spinach dip, served exactly like Houston’s, was also very good. (Never could figure out why it is served with salsa and sour cream.) The mini steak sandwich was served with fries and it was also good enough.

The bar is an exceptionally handsome part of the restaurant that beckons when you enter the space. It is always full of people, many of whom appear to be regulars based on their familiarity with the bartenders.

At some visit Tom discovered the Cuban sandwich. He is on a Cuban sandwich roll now, and gets them anywhere he sees them. He loves this one, which is properly filled with meat, including roast pork that is served debris style and is not really smoky. The first time he had this we discovered Boulevard’s unique coleslaw. It is special, creamy with long slivers of cabbage, and a dressing with a hint of cinnamon. It stands out among the field of coleslaws. We love it.

The next time Tom got their Cuban we tried the kale salad with peanut dressing as a side. Tom ravaged that salad, and he hates kale.

On this same visit I got the Club salad which is also different. Fried chicken here is tempura battered, something I generally dislike. My daughter warned me against this salad because she complained that the batter separated from the chicken and made a mess. I did not have that experience, but I still prefer regular fried chicken in or out of a salad. I also saw some fried tenders going to a table on a plate with Houston’s-like fries. I wondered. Never did understand tempura anywhere but in a Japanese restaurant.

On our last visit Tom got the Happy Hour oysters, which were much smaller in size and number than the last Happy Hour oyster plate. He loved them just as well.

I got the club sandwich, which gets talked about on the show from time to time, since the audience is aware of my passion for this menu item. Porter & Luke’s is the club sandwich benchmark to which all clubs are compared. This Boulevard club was very nice, though the appearance of any yellow cheese sticking out alarms me. This was thankfully not American cheese, but a good sliced Cheddar, though I prefer white cheese in any club. There wasn’t anywhere near the meat component of the Porter & Luke’s stellar club, but it was certainly adequate. What was most distinctive about this Boulevard club was the bread. Definitely not for the faint of teeth. It was studded everywhere with bits of grains and perhaps too toasted, giving the diner a real workout. It was so unusual I asked the manager if it was Wildflower, the local Susan Spicer bread company with superior breads. Indeed it was. I felt after eating it that I had gotten my whole grains supply for the foreseeable future. I would get this again and ask for a less vigorous toast of it.

I wanted to finally order something from the entree section of the menu, so on the last visit I got a crab cake. I was assured by the waiter it was jumbo lump upper-tier crabcake. Since it had a commensurate price of $24, I expected it to be in the league of the A-list restaurants. 

It was wider, shorter, and had no jumbo lumps, though it was solid crabmeat. It was very good, sitting in a white remoulade sauce. I liked that there was very little done to the crabmeat, allowing for the delicate flavor to assert itself.

We chose one side with this crabcake and I got a baked potato. This is a very good baked potato, loaded properly and is a meal in itself. The sides at Boulevard have certainly been chosen after careful thought. They are quite good. We’ve also had the black beans and rice. I expected and was not surprised to find them exceptionally spicy with a hint of sweetness and maybe cinnamon, too.

We are not big dessert eaters if there is no bread pudding, creme brulee, or chocolate on the menu. The desserts at Boulevard tend to be more pedestrian: cheesecake, Key Lime Pie, brownie, cobbler.

When we went for Happy Hour the bartender talked Tom into the cheesecake, which was good in a generic sense. Had the creamy goodness of cheesecake but was nothing special. But cheesecake doesn’t have to be special to satisfy. It was quite nice. On the last visit Tom had the Walnut cobbler a la mode. The a la mode was huge! It was a thing of beauty in a sizzling STAUB cast iron dish. Butter bubbling up from the sides of the walnuts crammed into the dish. The gigantic scoop of vanilla ice cream starting to melt from the heat below. This was definitely enough for two people to eat, and it was as tasty as it was beautiful. Next time I may break down and try that brownie.

The Boulevard is expensive. Too expensive for what is being served. But the environment is so lovely and welcoming, and the staff so gracious and solicitous, it is hard not to love this place, and to be thrilled it is there for you to visit.