In an act of fun and flavorful double entendre, gray-bearded restaurant visionary Lee Ellis has joined forces with clean-shaven restaurant chef Jim Mills to give Houston a casual, comfortable gourmet eatery in Memorial devoted to the dishes that made Texas famous. The fact that their State Fare serves some items worthy of an actual state fair, such as the chili and cheese fries or the smoky chicken wings with both blue cheese dressing and barbecue sauce, only adds to the fun. It’s country cooking that’s fallen in love with the big city.
Filling the space in the Gateway Memorial vacated by Pour Society, State Fare is the flagship of Ellis’ new restaurant group. After splitting with the Feed TX restaurant group that made Liberty Kitchen a household name, Ellis founded Cherry Pie Hospitality earlier this year. When the dust settled from that divorce, Ellis and new business partner Mills had the quirky Lee’s Chicken and Donuts in the Heights, Petite Sweets and the just-opened Pi Pizza. Capitalizing on years of talent between them, they quickly set about making State Fare the main show for the new group.
“When you’re a young chef, you want to use technique to exert your power over the product,” chef Mills says pensively. “When you reach a certain age, you let the product have the power and try not to screw it up.”
Though maintaining the come-as-you-are feel of Pour Society, State Fare strives to be so much more than your average resto. In recent months, working late nights and Sundays, crews have been transforming the old space into a decidedly new one. The fresh colors are navy and red, with accents provided around banquette tables by brass buttons. Caribbean-style shutters now cover the large glass windows that made the place hard to keep cool in summer, and the booths are getting partitions for greater privacy.
The menu has become a welcome playground for Mills. The food is especially welcomed by his fan club from the old days back at the Houstonian—they missed him after he traded chef’s whites for the business suit of the hotel general manager. He has even found ways to weave his own family’s history with Texas foods into the narrative and recipes.
In one sense, State Fare is a delicious contradiction. Many of the best menu items draw on Texas home cooking, while others brazenly borrow from longtime favorites at state fairs, rodeos and carnival midways. Yet each and every item is driven to reach its maximum flavor, its maximum quality, through the careful application of superior cooking skills and, especially, superior—often local—ingredients. In short, State Fare serves a caliber of cuisine you’d never actually find at a state fair.
In lieu of anything official like appetizers, the lighthearted menu printed on white in red and blue begins simply with Snacks. In addition to those chili cheese fries, these showcase a number of dips—the creamy jalapeno-onion is a big winner, as is the dill pickle, both with housemade potato chips. I especially like the roasted Gulf oysters on the half shell, with sweet pepper, provolone and spicy bourbon butter. Like the oysters, the two soups tend to straddle the Sabine River, borrowing from our Cajun neighbors, from the awesome, dark-rouxed seafood-andouille gumbo to the oyster stew with a quick crumble of bacon. All four of the salads come with a choice of seven dressings, including poblano ranch and a nifty spin on Americana’s Green Goddess.
Plates wander through any number of Southern and Texas traditions. We enjoy the fried catfish named after Mills’ late father, Ray, with coleslaw, jalapeno hush puppies and handcut fries, almost as much as the New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp with creamy grits and the smoked double pork chop with root-beer glaze. The latter turns up with mashed potatoes and green beans cooked, of course, with bacon. Though all main dishes at State Fare come with built-in sides, there is a quartet of mac and cheese for those interested in overkill. No version captures this objective more perfectly than the Mac Daddy, with tender beef short ribs and roasted shallots.
Sandwiches and burgers are excellent and also play in this menu. The Hicksburger pairs its oversize patty with hot pastrami, grilled onion and Gruyere. Or go lighter with a yellowfin tuna salad.
The most notable desserts are the chocolate pecan pie and salted caramel cake. Other early favorites include the red velvet cheesecake and the day’s special bread pudding. The flavors change, but not the fluffy goodness associated with any bread pudding worth its calories.
“I want State Fare to be the first place people think of because the service is great, friendly and goes out of its way to be accommodating,” Ellis says, clearly pleased with his latest creation. “I think the food and cocktails will keep evolving because of our love and excitement for what we cook and serve. We always want to keep our customers excited about dining with us.”