12 places we’re drawn to in spite of ourselves. And sometimes in spite of themselves.
Day 9: The Hoffbrau
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday-Monday.
When the Hoffbrau turned 75 in 2009, I interviewed owners Ruben Ray and Mary Gail Hamby Ray (see the text of that story below). He was worried about the economy, about selling 150 steaks a day when he used to do 350 or even 400. "You've got to keep up with the dynamics of the economy or you die. And we don't plan on doing that," he said at the time. And now almost three years later, T-bones and strips still sizzle on the flat-top in back. Their son Zach works the front counter, and there’s still a picture of their daughter from when she was a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
One big change: There are menus on the table, whereas the waitresses used to recite it from memory, all five or six main courses, all of them variations on steaks cut thin and wide, except for the chicken, which Ruben Ray will tell you is what he eats when nobody’s looking. This is the kind of place men take their buddies when they come back from the service, and I’ll tell you that it’s a place I take my kids so they can see what a country steak place is like in the heart of a gentrified entertainment district.
What you’re eating: The 17-ounce T-bone with fries and salad for $18.95, $17.95 at lunch. I like my strips, sirloins and ribeyes on the thick side, but the Hoffbrau plays them thin, a better cut both for speed and the flat-top grill. That works just fine for the T-bone, though, especially the loin side and its tender mercies. This is not a trimmed-for-show steak from a cabernet-and-leather showplace. If it were, this cut would run better than twice as much. Instead, it’s jacketed in a bulletproof cowl neck of fat three-quarters of inch thick in places. And the short cook time at modest heat means the fat melts only at the rim. The rest is almost as God made it, an inntertube of protection against cold, injury and the hungrier times, a lesson in plate-top butchery skills armed only with a civilian’s serrated knife.
The steak’s rough-country look is matched by its high-gloss overindulgence. The secret behind the quarter-inch of shimmering amber that pools on the plate like an oil spill is simple: margarine and lemon, and it’s a close match to what your sense memory says is the taste of steak. They go together like host and humours, parts of the same living experience.
The Hoffbrau experience is finished with a salad of iceberg lettuce and green olives with garlic dressing so strong you’ll wear it home like stripper’s glitter. It’s maddeningly simple and addictive like the salad at the Olive Garden, that big bowl of escape from the chagrin at being trapped without irony at your in-laws’ table there. Playing the role of your breadsticks tonight will be potatoes cut into long quarters, fried to a turtle shell outside and a heart of soft, starchy velour inside. For steak as free from guile as the Hoffbrau’s, these unassuming sides make the best sense.
What you’re drinking: A little screwtop bottle of Woodbridge cabernet? No? Well, it’s there if you change your mind. I’m having a green bottle of lager from that one-f Hofbrau in Germany ($4), but there’s Shiner Bock and domestic lights in longnecks, too.
Other options: I’ve already spoiled the surprise about the chicken ($7.95 lunch/$8.95 dinner). You can also get onion rings, jalapeño poppers and fried zucchini. But here’s the beef: 6-ounce New York strip ($8.95/$9.95), 10-ounce sirloin ($12.95), 14-ounce sirloin ($14.95/$15.95) and 10-ounce ribeye ($15.95/$16.95).
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
My story from the American-Statesman in August 2009. The Hoffbrau celebrated its 80th year in August 2014:
The Original Hoffbrau Steaks celebrated 75 years in business on Tuesday by not changing a thing. "I'm just grateful we're still here," said Ruben Ray, who has owned the West Sixth Street steakhouse since the early '80s with his wife, Mary Gail Hamby Ray, the granddaughter of Robert "Coleman" Hamby, who opened the Hoffbrau in 1934.
Like the neighborhood around it, which has seen modest retail growth with restaurant newcomers such as Sandra Bullock's Walton's Fancy and Staple and Bess Bistro but a slowdown in residential development, the Hoffbrau is at the mercy of the economy. Ruben Ray said he's working with his vendors to bring prices down. "You've got to keep up with the dynamics of the economy or you die. And we don't plan on doing that," he said.
At the Hoffbrau, a T-bone steak with sides costs less than an appetizer at some high-end steakhouses. But the special this week merits a double-take: $7.50 for a 7-ounce strip steak, a salad and two big wedges of fried potato.
Looking around the room at lunch on Tuesday, Ruben Ray made eye contact with August "Uce" Gruetzner of Elgin, whose father was among the Hoffbrau's first customers. Gruetzner was there with his wife, Jeri, and son Mike. Jeri Gruetzner said she first came to the restaurant with her husband's family while her husband was serving in the Korean War.
Customers have included President Lyndon B. Johnson, University of Texas football legends Darrell Royal and Earl Campbell, the late Gov. Ann Richards and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Mary Gail Ray said that when business was at its peak, the Hoffbrau might have gone through 350 or 400 steaks a day. Now, a good day is 150. Even so, the Rays have resisted some lucrative offers to buy their land, she said.
Whatever his business challenges, Ruben Ray is upbeat and fit at 53, especially for running a steakhouse. His secret? A salad, with a little grilled chicken on top. But don't tell anybody.