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Carlos Rodriguez of Vic & Anthony's on the New Menu, the Competition and Downtown's Revival

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Downtown steakhouse Vic & Anthony's rolled out a new menu this week that's the biggest change to the restaurant's offerings in its 10 year history. Concept chef Carlos Rodriguez has been pondering the changes for almost two years and set his team of chefs on the research and development at the beginning of this year.

One change that diners are likely to notice is that both the fried oysters and fried shrimp have been 86'ed in favor of a new, Asiantown inspired salt and pepper calamari. There are also now bone-in and boneless versions of each steak on the menu, including a 22oz bone-in ribeye. To combat the rising price of beef, V&A added two composed meat dishes: an akahushi skirt steak and a prime pork porterhouse. Finally, the menu even employs a couple of modern preparations with a bone marrow custard and a foie gras torchon topped with pop rocks.

Rodriguez sat down with Eater to discuss the various changes, why he decided now was the time to make them, the current downtown revival and what he thinks about Pappas Bros. rumored expansion into downtown.

How long ago did you decide to change the menu? And why are you doing it now when the restaurant's still so successful?

We've always made adjustments to it. Every year a tweak here, a tweak there, a couple dishes change. But for a massive, wholesale change, it first started occurring to me two years ago. There's a lot of reasons behind it, but I think the short version is: you talk about the restaurant's full every night. My goal is to keep it that way. Times evolve. Tastes change. People's experiences at other restaurants change. There comes a point where you've gotta stay fresh, you've gotta stay current. We always say here that if you're not going forwards you're going backwards

Around September we had a long conversation with Tilman (Fertitta, Landry's CEO) about a change in the idea of what we do here at the restaurant. The goal being to reinvent the Houston store and reinvent the New York store and then take that to Atlantic City and Vegas. He was all for it. "Thumbs up. Let's do it. Make it happen. What's your timeframe?"

After we got through the holidays, I had a meeting with my three chefs here. I'd been penciling ideas down for a long time. Here's the goal. You guys add to it. Let's get started. Had another meeting in February with specific ideas.

We never really touched the main menu, because, honestly, it's an ordeal to reprint them. It has to come through the corporate office, through the print shop. There's a considerable cost involved to make a change. We're talking thousands of dollars to reprint the menu, so we don't want to do it very often. We're getting a printer in the house now that prints on card stock. We'll be able to make changes on our own whenever we want.

Ten years ago, steakhouses were great big massive plates of food. We're not really taking that element away. It may be perceived that way, but there's higher quality ingredients involved. Not so much we'll get one of these and share it for four people. It'll be a more individual kind of thing. That's really the big goal to stay fresh and stay current.

In making these changes, did you benchmark other steakhouses around the country?

I don't really look at other steakhouses that much. We're all so similar in so many ways. When we went out to New York, we made the rounds of all the steakhouses, but I was always more intrigued with other restaurants. My thoughts on other steakhouses has always been, as long as I'm doing what I gotta do, I don't have to worry about anybody else.

I think the only steakhouse that I went to that really seemed different was a Michael Mina steakhouse in Vegas, Stripsteak. They were doing things very differently from what I've done and seen in steakhouses. There was a lot more emphasis on really high end ingredients executed very, very well. That was my first foray into being able to taste true Japanese Kobe beef. They had a very different vibe and a very different approach to the plates themselves in terms of what the appetizers and salads could be. That always kind of roamed in my head. So much so that every trip to Vegas became what's the new Michael Mina spot out here just to get a taste of what they're doing.

In New York, Colicchio's Craft is on the same street we are (19th and Park). Went over there for dinner. That's not a steakhouse, but there's definitely elements that I like to see that gave me new thoughts and new ideas. It's really just keeping up with trends and trying to keep up with what we do here.

How would you describe this menu to people?

The mainstays are still here. They're not changing: the quail, the crabcake, the steaks. But we're going to offer every cut boneless or bone-in: a bone-in filet, strip, we already have the bone-in ribeye. When we opened this restaurant, there was nothing on the menu over $30. You know, the prime market was very different then.

One of the things I wanted to do was get some dishes on there that are composed plates with side dishes that were meat oriented somehow. Before, it was either you bought an a la carte steak or whatever else we had on the menu, which was usually seafood or chicken. We're adding a prime pork porterhouse to the menu that's going to be brined and cold-smoked. We're doing some sunchokes with it. Then the skirt steak that I've been working on for five or six months: chimichurri marinated, pan roasted, fried egg with it, and a duck fat poached potato. It's a way to offer a lesser cut of beef entree, but not have it in the $40-45 range. I really don't want us to become that steakhouse where everything's in the $50-55 range.

Houston is so eclectic with the ethnic foods that are around. That's the beauty of a steakhouse. Any of those styles of cuisine you can format into a steakhouse some way or another. Whether it's Asian, whether it's Latin, Fusion dishes, whatever.

That foie gras with pop rocks sounds kind of different.

Yeah, and it's got foie gras flavored pop rocks that are going to go with it. You're eating this torchon and getting this popping effect. That's not new either, but it's new for us. We might be a couple years late to the party on that whole thing, but, for us and our clientele, it'll be a cool effect.

I lived in the Asiatown area for the past year. Got into Pho Binh by Night. Salt and pepper crab was something we kept getting over there. We've got a calarmari dish and a lobster dish that are an homage to those techniques. It's not crab. It's a little easier to eat, but the flavor profiles are there. Maybe a little bit of a nod to that part of town.

We're doing more work with PJ Stoops than we have in the past. Basically dedicating a line item to him with the fresh fish of the day. Or to whoever else we come across who has something great.

We're by no means done with this. This is the last time we'll have to do a wholesale change. We're adding 12 dishes and revising 10 others. From now on, because we'll be able to print, it'll be easier for us to add a dish or drop a dish and stay current.

Now I'm in the midst of figuring out what stores can do what. How much of it do we roll?

Salt and pepper lobster may not play in Atlantic City.

May not play in Atlantic City, but it will definitely play in Vegas. I think New York you can get away with it. There's a couple sous vide applications, although you'll never see it on the menu or hear me talk about it to guests, because to me it's a means to an end. There's issues with some of the Health Departments: Atlantic City and New York are much more stringent. I know in Atlantic City vacuum packing is strictly forbidden.

Our dining scene has gotten a lot more national attention in the past couple years. Do you feel like this restaurant is a part of that? Do you want to be part of that?

It's not the biggest deal to me, the national stuff. If we get it, cool. I've got 40 employees in the kitchen here. And probably 500 Vic & Anthony's employees across the country. I'm kind of responsible for them. If we come up with something that doesn't work or we lose focus on what do and the business starts to drop, people start to lose their jobs. It's a big deal.

I've heard it for years. Every time a new steakhouse comes downtown, am I worried about them? No, they're gonna do what they do, and we're gonna do what we do. As long as I take care of that, we'll be fine.

So I shouldn't even ask you about Pappas?

You can. I guess they're still coming downtown.

Everyone from the concierge at the Four Seasons to every other publication in town says they're coming, but they haven't officially said it's happening.

I've heard some things here and there. I was the chef at Pappas Bros. in Dallas. Helped open that restaurant in 1998. I learned an awful lot from them. A lot of the systems we use here as far as training and ordering came from there. If they come downtown, cool. It's going to bring more people here overall. They do a great job. If they come down here, we'll see what happens.

I've always said there's 5 million people in Houston. I just need 300 of them every night. There's plenty to go around.

All of a sudden downtown's the new hotspot.

It's good. That was the goal years ago. When I first got pitched this place, it was still a parking lot. It wasn't a really good part of town. The vision that was expressed from the VPs involved at the time and from Tilman himself was, this was in 2002, it's not about this year or next year, it's two years from now. This hotel's going to be done, the convention center's being redone, they'll be a new arena for the Rockets. This whole vision of what downtown can be. And the line was always "We're going to be there first." I think by and large they've been right. We opened April 21, 2003. A lot of places have come and gone.

It's nice to see these other guys come in with a bar scene and build a nighttime crowd. I hope it lasts. I think it will. Downtown's changed a lot. It's becoming more residential. There is that need for it. There were some great places here before that didn't work out. I think it's time for that evolution.

What are the systems in place to handle crowds? It's not like a food truck where it's ok to run out of something.

It happens, but it's really rare. We're a different entity from most of those guys. The amount of money behind us and the amount of money we generate. The fact that we're packed day and night. You can't run out of steaks. In a mom and pop joint, you can shut something down for the night, and I get it. It's a smaller thing. That's today. For better or for worse, we're technically a chain restaurant now. I want to keep the seats filled. We have a system where it's not like we have endless warehouses and stores. We bring things in everyday.

In some ways I long for when I worked for the independents when it was, "hey, man, this is really cool. Let's put it on the menu." I can't really do that here. Although we're getting to that point.

I hate for the 10:00 p.m. guy who comes in after the game not to get something that's on the menu that we had plenty of before. I despise baked potatoes. I hate them on the menu, but it's a steakhouse. You've got to have them. My big thing is that the late night baked potato has got to be as fresh as the 5:00 p.m. one. There's a system for that. There's a check and a balance so that no matter when you come in there's the same quality.

We run so late here. Our closing hour is irrelevant.

You're consistently open to, what, 10:30, 11:00 p.m.?

Pretty much. Then, the Astros games, this group of 40 called at 5:00 p.m. and said "hey, we're coming after the game. Will you hang out for us?" Of course we will. They came in, and they spent a bunch of money. We ran until 11, 11:30. It doesn't matter to us. If there are people coming, take them. It built good will with the Rockets. Doesn't matter who the Rockets players are. Their people start calling as soon as the game is winding down. "Hey, he's hungry, can we still make it?" Sure.

Now you've got to introduce yourself to a whole new group of American League teams.

I was one of the few people excited about the change from a business aspect. New teams, New York and Boston are going to be big draws, whereas maybe some other teams weren't. I think the new league will help keep the attendance attracted for a little while. I think they're on track to be good.

· Vic & Anthony's [Official Site]
· All Eater Interviews on Eater Houston [-EHOU-]
· All Vic & Anthony's Coverage on Eater Houston [-EHOU-]

Carlos Rodriguez [Photo courtesy of Landry's, Inc.]

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