Restaurants / Openings

The Heights’ Most Anticipated New Restaurant Aims to Make Comfort Food Cool

Ronnie Killen's Big Move Into the Loop is all About the Classics

BY // 03.31.19

Ronnie Killen, premium pitmaster, two-time James Beard Award semifinalist and reigning monarch of a certified restaurant empire, is, in short, killing it.

It wasn’t too long ago that Killen’s TMX opened its doors, and self-respectimg foodies know that the Killen’s Steakhouse in The Woodlands makes its debut next month.

Now, the chef-restaurateur is off to the races with his very first restaurant inside the Loop — in Houston’s hottest food neighborhood, The Heights, no less.

Killen is taking over the prime former Hickory Hollow space with the new Killen’s restaurant, which is set to open in four to five months.

He’s taking a deep dive into Southern-style comfort food, but peppering the menu with the top three or four hits from each of his existing restaurants — chicken fried steak, barbecue beef ribs, burgers, mac n cheese, greens, tamales, steak, enchiladas and more.

Ronnie Killen is as serious about his meats as ever, but barbecue will be done just weekly at Killen’s, and with three proteins instead of eight.

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The new food you’ll find at Killen’s is as old-school as it gets: meatloaf, cornbread, smothered pork chops.

It’s the kind of stuff the chef’s grandma used to make him, the kind of category you’d sooner call “food” or “eats” than “cuisine.” But for this chef, who’s anything but ritzy, it’s what he likes best.

You may notice that it’s a shorter name, no TMX or STQ or BBQ or any other three-letter culinary qualifier. But there was no need to define it.

“I’m a classically trained chef, but this food is just going to be good food that puts a smile on your face and makes you happy,” Ronnie Killen tells PaperCity.

“That’s just the food that I do. To me, I can just say the food is going to be the food that if you come to the house, it’s the food I’m going to be making. It’s comfort. Good Southern-style comfort food has always been something I’ve done all my life.’

 And, actually, it’s something he’s done at a restaurant before, if only for a short while.

“In 2001, 2002 I came back to my old steakhouse, which used to be my dad’s place. It was just called Killen’s, also. We did homestyle food. Green beans, mashed potatoes, carrots. Just comforting food,” Killen notes.

So you could say Killen’s is a long time coming. “This is one of my restaurants that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I just haven’t been able,” Killen says.

He’s passionate about everything, from the feel-good entrees all the way down to the rolls. And he wants to make the sides and small bits shine. The fluffy biscuits will be homemade, down to the butter, the vinegar, and even the honey.

On the veggie side, Killen wants major mashed potatoes.“A simple mashed potato done right is amazing. We want to make a really good mashed potato, really good, from scratch in a cast iron skillet, browning the roux the right way. It’s things like that that I cook at my own house that I can’t wait to bring to Killen’s,” he says.

The Comfort Food Obsession

To Killen, comfort food is about nurturing, about making your heart happy.

“For me, I love food. And I can talk about it, and I can cook it. For me, it’s just exciting to have an audience,” Killen says.

There’s a satisfying simplicity about this type of food. But make no mistake, this is elevated, refined, upscale — you get the drift — Americana fare.

It’s conscientious comfort food. Everything’s made with love, yes, but also from scratch. It’s the little things that’ll go into Killen’s that matter — but you can expect big flavor.

Killen said he can talk about food, and he wasn’t lying. The chef could teach a Southern-style cooking seminar, spanning everything from greens, to mashed potatoes, to biscuits, to gumbo.

“It’s going to be really good comfort food made with really good product. Our brand name stands for quality and good product,” Killen says.

And the good product is made great with layer upon layer of flavors, he adds.

“Greens — I love greens, and how greens are as Southern as you can get. We do greens at the barbecue place and people come in there and say: ‘There’s no way a white boy cooked these greens.’ And I’m going ‘Yes, yes we did,’ ” Killen laughs.

“There’s layers of flavor. We take all of our pork ribs, cut the breast bone off. Then we take the breast bone and actually cure it, put it on the barbecue to give it that ham taste. Then we pick all the meat off and put it on the baked beans and put them on the barbecue pit.

“And then we take the bones and make our pork stock out of it — we’re utilizing everything. You get so much good, smoky pork flavor, and that’s what we make our greens with. All these layers of flavor. That’s how we’ll be cooking — where we utilize everything.”

Like gumbo, which is essentially whatever you have on hand. He did one at the very first restaurant he ever had. Smoked pork and black-eyed pea gumbo, simple in a very Louisiana way.

That’s not to say there won’t be any surprises. Like, really surprising.

“I’m not going to say funnel cake’s not going to show up on Killen’s menu, because I love ‘em. I just can’t love ‘em too much, or I’ll be 500 pounds,” Ronnie Killen laughs.

“How many restaurants have you been to that serve funnel cakes? I’ve got all the tools, all the molds, I’ve got all that stuff. And I’ve been going ‘What restaurant can I put that in?’ ” he adds. “To me, a funnel cake is fair food, festive, texture, crunchy, soft, sweet, salty. Everything that goes perfect in one bite.”

He’s also bringing some topnotch cocktails to Killen’s, he says. While Hickory Hollow was strictly a beer and wine sort of place, Killen plans on a 10 or 12 seat bar that’ll serve liquor, as well.

It won’t be a bar that serves food, just a place for people to sip on a well-crafted cocktail while they wait.

Expect classic Southern cocktails like Mint Juleps and Whiskey Sours. Unsurprisingly, Killen might be most excited about making all the ingredients he can — bitters and sour, shaking egg whites into foam.

“Nobody really knows this, but from 1985 to 1991, I was a bartender. I bartended in Houston. I was one of the best in Houston,” Ronnie Killen says.

Ronnie killen
Ronnie Killen’s venturing inside the Loop.

The former football player started as a doorman before making the switch to behind the bar at places like 6400, Access and Bentley. “And I was good with people — I would always anticipate what they were going to be drinking, and I had the drinks on the bar as soon as they walked in,” Killen adds.

It’s that kind of approachability and accessibility that this meat guru wants for Killen’s, from the food on down to the venue, which he’s imagining will be kind of similar to Charleston’s famed Husk restaurant.

The Hickory Hollow just made sense. “It’s always been kind of my thing to take older buildings, not bulldoze them,” Killen says. There will be some updates, like an open kitchen and restrooms that are ADA-approved, but mostly the changes will be cosmetic.

“I went in there today and was there for three hours, just kind of bonding with my restaurant. I have to do that. I know it sounds silly, but it’s kind of like ‘OK, what is it telling me to do?’ ”

So far, that’s casual, with nice linens, nice tables, nice chairs. “To me, it’s very country, eye-pleasing, with white woods,” Ronnie Killen says.

It’s just another few months till the new Killen’s restaurant opens in The Heights. And hey, nowhere’s too close for comfort food.

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