An icon of the barbeque world here in Houston is closing.
The uninitiated quickly learn what eating, Bush-plate style, is all about. A poster on the wall of the barbecue joint explains that the presidential feed consists of beef ribs, links, potato salad and beans — all for $9.79. No substitutions.
A veritable stampede of cattle has been served up as burgers and brisket at Otto’s since the restaurant’s founder, Otto Sofka, grilled that first burger at his family’s grocery 56 years ago. Otto’s wife, Annie, their son, Marcus, Marcus’s wife, June, and three of their seven children all have pulled duty at the business.
Otto’s may seem like a timeless place. The hands of a Schlitz beer clock never budge from 10 minutes till 2. The restaurants exude an authenticity that competitors can only covet. But time does move forward, and Sofka admitted that her business has been eroded by a growing public acceptance of the virtues of healthy eating.
Amid the Bush memorabilia and religious and patriotic artifacts on the walls are signs advertising new items on the menu: grilled chicken breast sandwiches and turkey burgers. Also displayed is a plug for HeartBrand beef, which is touted as “good for your body, heart and waistline.”
“As you see, we’ve enhanced the menu,” Sofka said. But, she added, business has been slack.
“It’s been a great ride, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But now it’s time to go.”
Otto’s is one of the first places that I can remember eating barbeque with my father, who is a true barbeque connoisseur. It was rare that we actually went out to eat barbeque, since so few restaurants could meet his exacting expectations or turn out a rack of ribs or a pork butt quite as well as he could at home. But Otto’s was always a favorite of his, especially the Bush plate as described above.
In a recent article in Conde Nast’s Portfolio.com, Otto’s was listed as one of the “legendary dealmaking entities” across the country. A place where “…business is discussed, ideas are hatched, and deals are often sealed over a meal rather than in an office.” Otto’s is consistently listed as one of the best barbeque joints around, at low-key websites like Roadfood.com and at high-end review houses like Zagat. But sometimes, accolades just aren’t enough.
Otto’s was always one of those restaurants that seems trapped in an indeterminate time period, somewhere between 1965 and 1972, similar to another old favorite, Bellaire Broiler Burger. It’s become quite unfashionable as of late to be “old” in Houston, though. Houston seems to be purging itself of all buildings and memories prior to 2000, tearing down beautiful old houses and replacing them with shoddily-built, stucco McMansions and replacing wonderful old structures like Otto’s with faux-stone strip malls that, inevitably, only reach about 50% occupancy and sit there looking pretty but dead, even more of an eyesore than what they replaced. This particular corridor of Memorial Drive is particularly susceptible to gentrification, having already lost the classic “One’s-a-Meal” diner years earlier only to see the 5,782nd Starbucks and 30th Texadelphia take its place a few months later.
And it’s just as sad to me that people are becoming so “health-conscious” (actually, “image conscious” — I fear that Houston is rapidly becoming the new Dallas sometimes…) that they can’t appreciate good comfort food in moderation. Sure, you don’t need to be eating burgers and barbeque for every meal. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t go enjoy a plate of brisket on the weekend or grab a good, oozy burger with some friends over lunch.
The whole thing just makes me sad. But the only thing to do now is to go grab a good Bush plate at Otto’s while I still can. I recommend you do the same if you have the chance.