Jason Hill and Matt Opaleski couldn't have picked a better time of year to open their temporary fried chicken restaurant, The Bird House. The food stand, which is essentially the restaurant version of an icehouse, is fronted by large garage doors that roll up during the day to reveal a small ordering counter; seating is entirely outside on long, wooden picnic tables. Even if there were indoor seating, I wouldn't want to waste any of Houston's gorgeous fall weather by eating inside—and there's just something about eating fried chicken outdoors, picnic-style, that's entirely appropriate.
The Bird House
606 E. 11th St.
It's not exactly appropriate, however, to call The Bird House a restaurant. It's really a temporary space for Hill and Opaleski—best-known for their food truck, H-Town StrEATs—to sell their fried chicken, biscuits, and a few other seasonal items while the pair work on opening their upcoming Hugs & Donuts project. "It's technically drive-thru and take-out only," says Hill. "But we encourage people to use the picnic tables and BYOB while they 'wait' to see what is left to bring home."
The duo's donut shop will eventually open next door to Fat Cat Creamery at 1901 N. Shepherd in the Heights, only a short distance away from The Bird House on 11th Street at Oxford. If that location—and The Bird House's set-up—seems familiar, it's because The Bird House goes by another name during crawfish season: The Boil House, whose owners began allowing H-Town StrEATs to do pop-ups earlier this summer, and who are now renting the space out to Hill and Opaleski along with new partner Matt Keller—who's also the catering and events chef at Saint Arnold Brewing Co.—until Louisiana crawfish season rolls around again next year.
On the day I visited last week, The Bird House was slammed with a huge order from a group of Saint Arnold guys visiting on their lunch break. I grinned as they walked away with boxes full of chicken; local businesses supporting other local businesses is part of what makes Houston so fantastic. The woman behind the counter apologized for the delay while the rest of the customers waited. "There's only one cook back there today," she said, and I imagined him banging out fried chicken like a man possessed. I also imagined the chicken would suffer a bit as a result, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn't the case.
The chicken here is fried in a chile powder–laced batter that renders it a deep, rich red—though I should note that the chicken only looks spicy. Although flavorful and well-seasoned, the batter is quite mild in fact, with a crunchy exterior that seals in a juicy, tender piece of chicken. Both the chicken and the buttery, flaky biscuit that accompanied it were very much worth the wait, which my girlfriend and I enjoyed sitting outside in a patch of cool sun with bottles of soft drinks.
Fans of the H-Town StrEATs food truck may notice that The Bird House's menu is much more straightforward and streamlined than Hill and Opaleski's typical offerings, which are deliciously over-the-top, i.e., short rib and macaroni and cheese sandwiches, Monte Cristo balls with jam, and potato chip–crusted chicken sandwiches with bacon-ranch dressing. Here, fried chicken is the main focus, with a couple of daily specials (today: lobster roll sliders and loaded baked potato balls) and a handful of sides rounding it all out.
Of the sides, I enjoyed the coleslaw—heavy on red cabbage—and the stewed okra with tomatoes, just like my East Texas family makes. The "fancy" mac and cheese was astonishgly dry, however, and the bread crumbs on top sucked out what little moisture remained. I wished I'd gone for the simpler mashed potatoes with gravy or collard greens. Still, I ate the fried chicken down to the bone, fought over the last bite of biscuit with my friend, and licked my fingers clean in the sunshine—and that's all that really mattered to me.
For the time being, The Bird House is the only place to catch the H-Town StrEATs guys, whose truck was damaged in a robbery on September 15. Hill promises that it won't be too long, however, until Hugs & Donuts is slinging dough. "The donut shop will be open by November," he says. "They are painting the front today or tomorrow." And should The Bird House be a success, Hill and Opaleski just may open a full-time location to get your fried chicken fix—even during crawfish season.
Says Hill: "I want to make it permanent, either there or somewhere else nearby."