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A Full Plate

Always-in-demand Hoover Alexander dishes up simple, savory food that tastes like home

Hoover Alexander is the kind of home-grown treasure who keeps Southern food real by offering unpretentious dishes that Mom served to start or end the day: vittles that are simple, tasty, fresh, filling and plentiful. And the ground rules don’t change much, whether he’s cooking food at one of his two Austin restaurants, catering a church picnic, feeding dancers at the Governor’s Ball, appearing at the Texas Food & Wine Festival, doing a cooking demonstration for the Food Network or serving up his signature smothered pork chops in the nation’s capital. Here or there, his food still tastes like home.

Last year, Alexander took his cooking beyond Texas when he accepted an invitation to strut his stuff at the Smithsonian Institution’s annual Folklife Festival. The midsummer 10-day festival in Washington, D.C., spotlighted Texas in 2008.

For the festival, instead of dishing out smoked ribs, catfish, greens and cobbler, Alexander introduced festivalgoers to those smothered pork chops; his ever-popular banana pudding cheesecake; and a special creation, his tribute to author Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Alexander called his oven-roasted chicken marinated in tequila and Shiner Bock beer “Tequila Bock ’n’ Bird.” All three were hits.

“I did a series of cooking demonstrations that also featured breakfast foods from my days growing up on the family ranch in Pilot Knob, mainly old-fashioned (cornmeal) hoecakes with my mother’s tomato preserves,” he says.

“When people worked farms or ranches, they had to have a hearty breakfast at the start of the day to sustain them through lunch. They didn’t have time to go back to the house for lunch, so they brought food that would tide them over to supper.”

The 42-year-old festival keeps America’s heritage alive through historical presentations, from music, arts and food. Alexander made his case through what he characterizes as “po’ folks’ food”—the multiethnic, multinational evolution of now-popular dishes that originated from a need to make every bit of everything stretch, from green chilies and salsa to making full use of the whole pig. They call it “home cooking” and “soul food” now, but it all evolved from a need to avoid wasting anything edible.

“I talked about how I serve Elgin sausages in my restaurant, which descended from German traditions; chicken smothered in green chile sauces came from Mexican culture,” Alexander says. “People seemed really interested to know what we take for granted. Then there were the people from Texas who stopped by and were really excited to taste food from home.”

Zigzag to a career

A fifth-generation Texan, Alexander entered the University of Texas as a communications major, then zigzagged through a series of disciplines before realizing that what he really wanted to do was cook.

An equally circuitous route brought him to where he is. “At one point I even worked three jobs, waiting tables at Steak and Ale, working banquets and bartending at the old Sheraton (hotel) and cooking at the Night Hawk,” Alexander says. “That’s when I realized I might as well admit the fact that I wanted a career in food.”

The career choice tested him severely. Moving through a series of stops at Austin restaurants—including the New Orleans-themed Toulouse in 1982, through Chez Fred and, more recently, Good Eats—Alexander had his share of missteps and bad decisions, but each, good and bad, provided the kind of education not available through classroom lectures.

The combination of practical and academic experience has paid off in his Austin restaurants, Hoover’s Cooking. Alexander is a blur moving around the outer edges of the room, then heading for his office to do inventory, sign paychecks, check e-mail, return calls. Then he’s sweeping through the room, clearing tables, pouring more iced tea and, oh, wait, new arrivals need a table; the hostess is already seating a party of six. Alexander slips into “host” mode, meeting and greeting, stopping from time to time to chat with regulars or wish someone a happy birthday.

When the place is packed, he appreciates the importance of tending to details. Folks who own successful restaurants know that attention to detail is the heart of their success. It’s also the sort of thing that attracts the attention of, oh, say, a major mention on the Food Network’s “Best Of” series featuring those smothered pork chops.

On any given day at Alexander’s restaurants, servers sweep through the kitchen bearing trays laden with plates of fried catfish, greens, smoked ribs and sausage, and peach, cherry or mango cobbler. Such specials as short ribs, brisket or baked chicken are posted on a blackboard for those wanting to go off-menu. Mostly, though, his followers want what’s on the menu.

When Alexander catered the Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church’s annual picnic last summer, members chowed down on 350 pounds of smoked beef shoulder; 300 chickens; 300 pounds of smoked sausage; 38 gallons of barbecued beans; 150 pounds of cole slaw; 300 pounds of potato salad; and 500 ears of roasted corn on the cob.

The iced tea held out. The lemonade didn’t. 

This feeding of 1,200 hungry souls was accomplished with the help of nine staffers instead of the scheduled 11. For an event like this, the absence of four hands made a difference. Alexander did what good chefs do in situations that call for an instant management decision: Do now, freak out later.

Always good food

“I’ve always been around good food and loved it,” Alexander says in his unmistakable resonant bass voice. “Both of my grandfathers were excellent cooks, as were my mother and my father. He was an over-the-road truck driver, but he loved being in the kitchen.”

His mother, Dorothy, was a dietitian at Holy Cross Hospital in Austin, while his father, the late Hoover Sr., cooked for various University of Texas fraternity houses between driving gigs.

All of life’s fits and starts prepared Hoover Jr. for a deeper understanding of how not to run a business, as well as how to run one. Alexander’s career has been risk-taking tempered by rewards. His second restaurant in North Austin is taking off, but the one in San Antonio lasted only 2 1/2 years.

Asked whether he has plans for any more restaurants, Alexander shakes his head and answers wearily.

Then, after a brief hesitation, he adds, “But you never know.”

Ellen Sweets recently retired from the Denver Post.