The Austin Chronicle

Hoover's Cooking

April 16, 1999, Food

2002 Manor Rd., 479-5006
Mon-Fri, 11am-10pm;
Sat &Sun, 9am-10pm

Once upon a time, I couldn't fathom ordering chicken-fried steak. My Yankee folks raised me on oatmeal, not migas. I never knew okra, and I grew timid around refried beans. My mom never fried chicken; she breaded it. We ate Canadian bacon, not Cajun ham. So when I chose to move south, a host of Southern foods challenged me. With diligence, I ate them all.

Still, I could never get past the shoe-leather commonly cloaked as chicken-fried steak, let alone the white glue masked as gravy. I never "got" what was supposedly so good about overcooked, under-seasoned vegetables; surely, there was nothing comfortable about bad comfort food. But I knew that genuinely good homestyle Southern cooking existed, and now I know where to get it. Go to Hoover's Cooking; you'll find some for yourself.

Even Hoover's simple dishes seem mysteriously, intrinsically right. The difference between a Hoover pinto bean that tastes rich and full and others that taste like pellets of paste is astounding. But an attempt to discern just why Hoover's beans are so good is lost on just one taste. So you eat a whole spoonful. And another. Pretty soon, you'll have consumed a small bowl in an investigation which leaves you humbled and well-nourished. To say that Hoover Alexander's mother-inspired cooking is "nicely seasoned," as his menu does, grossly understates the food's deeply endowed taste.

Hoover's is about straight-ahead meat loaf, buttered carrots, blue cheese dressing, and more. The menu favors Cajun spices and hard-hitting barbecue and boasts diner-style sides (creamed spinach and cole slaw) and desserts (pecan and coconut cream pie). At Hoover's, there is a place for meat in virtually everything, and you'll be glad to see it there. A few salad and sandwich choices offer lunchers lighter fare, but there are no small portions here, except to offer to your "Hoover's Juniors," who undertake a more manageable share of the menu.

At Hoover's, if it's meat, it's perfectly cooked, oozing with juices, emboldened with spices, and falling off the bone. The "pepper-fire soaked" Smoked Aus-Tex Wings ($4.99) hardly require a tug of the teeth -- the meat is so tender. They have crispy, wiry tips for dipping into a smoky, sweet, deep-red barbecue sauce, good enough to spoon-feed. The spices on the Jamaican Jerk Chicken ($8.99) coat the skin as tightly as the grass on a putting green. The rub is so fantastic, it

photograph by John Anderson

isn't possible to push the skin aside to eat just the chicken meat. The meat, however, is rapturous on its own. You'll find that it is as natural to tear with a fork as pasta is to twirl. Then there's the telltale Chicken Fried Steak ($6.99). It is plump and flavorful and dressed with smooth, heavily peppered gravy that possesses laudable depth. It clings to the rough, breaded terrain of a thick cut of certified angus beef -- and what wouldn't? But of all the meat entrees, Hoover's Pork Ribs ($9.79) are, in my opinion, his trophy food. I don't know any other barbecue in town so tender that you can pull it apart with your fingers. The meat waits to jump off the bone. And, like Hoover's other meats, the ribs don't just carry flavor, they become the flavor in a different form. Hoover must have made some deal with the devil for this special touch; the man can cook meat.

Hoover's vegetables are preciously seasoned, liberally greased, incredibly fresh, hot, and included in the price of an entree. The pinto and refried beans aren't shy of pork, and the grits don't skimp on cheese. Macaroni and cheese is as I prefer: sturdy elbow noodles clumped with thick cheddar. No bread crumbs, no bechamel. On a good day, it's a beautiful thing. On an off day -- and there aren't many of those here -- the table condiments hold a quick fix. I've tasted most things on the menu by now, and I've only had to reach for the table toolbox once. Still, I'd pass next time on the buttered carrots and green beans, which fall flat in the mouth. Also, I'd skip the fried okra (it was bland) and the potato salad, which wasn't worth eating extra mayonnaise.

Hoover's serves breakfast on the weekends, and it's better than most places in town. Here, the chips, onions, tomatoes, and eggs meld together as a huge portion of Migas ($5.69), accompanied by I-want-a-second-serving refried beans. The Cajun Ham Breakfast Tacos ($4.99 for two) and an unspeakably huge Breakfast Muffaleta ($6.49) are more than your morning stomach may be ready for, and exactly what it probably wants. Hoover's salsa is fresh and piquant with tomatoes, herbs, and mild chipotle. The cheddar-garlic grits are worth a trip themselves.

Hoover's service is occasionally sluggish, but always warm. The employees seem to love the whole idea of this place, and they'll recommend dishes as heartily as if they were to share in your meal.

Hoover Alexander is an unmistakable figure in his casual East Austin restaurant. If he isn't behind the bar (Hoover's is also a happy hour spot with half-priced appetizers), he's serving you food or making the rounds with a friendly nod in your direction. The setting, as you'd expect, is as unpretentious as the food. The restaurant's expansive space, filled with rows of oversized booths and wooden tables, feels like a bingo hall, but perhaps more congenial. Hoover's attracts an incredibly diverse crowd, the most interesting mix of folks I've seen since renewing my car registration. Small families, local musicians, young couples, churchgoers, former Luby's lunchers, and professors of every ethnic origin share in Hoover's warm hospitality. They all come in for one of two things: food that tastes as good as they can remember, or possibly even as good as they had ever hoped.
-- Ronna N. Welsh

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