Back in February I got a little taste of Ronnie Killen's titular comfort food restaurant at a pop-up in its parking lot. I picked up a three-piece fried chicken meal with creamed corn and macaroni and cheese, and for the rest of the day I was happy. Though unexpected permitting issues were delaying the restaurant's opening, anticipation remained high for this diner.
Then Covid-19 changed everyone's timelines. Killen's wouldn't be ready quite yet; moreover, Ronnie Killen himself battled the virus over the spring. Eating chicken fried steak, smothered pork chops, and fried catfish—the food Killen grew up with at his grandmother's house—would have to wait a little longer.
But over the summer the former Hickory Hollow space came together quickly. Renovations ended and a fresh coat of white paint was applied to the exterior. Within weeks signage appeared, finishing touches were made, and on August 19 the doors opened at Heights Boulevard and Center Street.
Based on one meal at Killen's—where Ronnie Killen acts as executive chef alongside longtime kitchen pro Teddy Lopez—the anticipation for me was worth it. All it took was a forkful of the all-beef meatloaf topped by not-too-sweet tomato gravy, which I'll call heavyweight ketchup. But the butter-rich mashed potatoes and the soft, creamy grits, flooded with jalapeño chive oil, sent me over the edge. Those grits have no right being that good.
Entrées include Texas staples like chicken fried steak, fried catfish and fried shrimp, and a pork chop smothered in brown onion gravy you'd think came out of a Knorr packet. Other sides are what you'd expect: fried okra, black eyed peas, creamed corn, and a not-too-salty batch of collard greens with ham chunks. Starters feature pork belly with cherry habanero glaze, deviled eggs with pulled pork, and fried green tomatoes with pickled shrimp and buttermilk sauce. I had the latter, whose flavors were well executed, though the tomatoes themselves were too firm and undercooked.
One would expect that from a new restaurant, and surely Killen will be tweaking things over the course of these first few months. Lighting will shift and a patio might go in, and hopefully something will be done about the noise, since chatter carries well in the open room. But the surroundings are befitting what I might call a heightened-casual comfort food restaurant: Exposed white brick (from Hickory Hollow) juxtaposes nicely with shiplap, while family photos decorate the bar wall, and fresh-cut flowers adorn every table. Thoughtful touches, absolutely, but the food ultimately stars at Killen's.
Two additional tips: First, get that German chocolate cake, based on a recipe from Killen's aunt. Second, give DeeDee Killen's cocktails a try—my Killen's single-barrel old fashioned, which included WhistlePig whiskey, was exactly what I wanted.
I guarantee plenty of expectations will be met and exceeded at Killen's.