Hoover’s Cooking Serves Up Soul Food & Comfort Classics in East Austin
Don’t forget to eat your vegetables. There’s a dizzying array of more than 20 tasty options, writes Tribeza’s Restaurant Critic
By Karen O. Spezia
Photographs by Holly Cowart
Last year, normal went out the window. Our familiar routines and rituals were squashed, abandoned or outright forbidden. So when the calendar finally flipped to a new year, I didn’t usher it in like before. New Year’s resolutions? Nope. Annual detox cleanse? Pass. Dry January? Hell no. Healthier eating? Well, maybe. After emotionally eating my way through the bizarre, socially distanced holiday season, I felt like a bloated tick ready to burst. My body was craving nutrition, but my weary soul wanted comfort food. Hoover’s was the answer.
Hoover’s Cooking offers the perfect compromise when you’re teetering on the health-conscious fence: There are dozens of virtuous farm-fresh veggie options, plus plenty of indulgent comfort classics. The menu is a bountiful assortment of naughty and nice, nutritious and not so much. And an ideal way to reward yourself for enduring 2020 while easing into the new year with a healthier, optimistic resolve.
For over two decades, Hoover’s Cooking has been satisfying Austin’s down-home cravings like a warm hug from grandma. Except it ain’t no granny behind the stove: It’s chef-owner Hoover Alexander, a bighearted teddy bear of a man who knows his way around the kitchen. As a 45-year veteran of Austin’s dining scene, Alexander has seen a lot. His career began back in the ’70s at the legendary Night Hawk diner, an Austin pioneer in restaurant racial integration. Hoover was a young Black UT student just looking to make a little spending money as a busboy, but he moved up the ranks—to dishwasher, line cook, bartender, manager—and stuck around. After honing his skills at other noteworthy Austin restaurants, he opened his namesake spot on Manor Road in 1998.
Hoover’s menu is a reflection of Alexander’s background. A native Austinite and a fifth-generation Texan, he naturally offers lots of Lone Star classics, but other nearby regions have influenced him, too. There’s Louisiana Cajun-Creole, Gulf coast seafood and Tex-Mex. Whatever the inspiration, it’s all rustic home cooking served in generous portions.
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The chicken-fried chicken is a dish I order over and over. A poultry twist on the beef classic, the boneless chicken breast is battered, fried and served with silky cream gravy. It’s crunchy, savory and absolutely delicious. Other Southern comforts include traditional chicken-fried steak, meatloaf, fried chicken, glazed ham steak, fried or broiled catfish, and pork chops. Barbecue runs the gamut from Texas pork ribs to Jamaican jerk chicken, and my favorite is Hoover’s Hot Sausage, a robust link with the desired snap and a zippy black pepper finish.
Hearty sandwiches include po’boys and muffulettas, plus chipotle chicken salad and a variety of burgers. For daily specials, don’t miss Wednesday’s chicken and dumplings, Friday’s catfish étouffée and Saturday’s smothered pork chops. For lighter fare, there are entrée salads that don’t skimp on flavor or ingredients, like the rosemary chicken Greek salad and the garlic shrimp Caesar.
And then there are the sides: a dizzying array of over 20 vegetables. They’re all tasty, but Alexander is a genius with beans, and nothing you choose will disappoint. The butter beans are creamy and bursting with flavor, green beans are studded with diced bacon and garlic, cowboy baked beans come loaded with meat and spices, and the pinto beans and black- eyed peas are exceptional. Other down-home options include mustard greens, candied yams, fried okra, mashed potatoes and—oh my lord—the macaroni and cheese.
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Desserts are homemade and satisfying, like seasonal-fruit cobblers, homemade pies, banana pudding and cheesecake. Hoover’s stocks a full bar and is known for its signature frozen cocktail called the Beet-A-Rita, a hot-pink beet-infused margarita. The restaurant remained open for dine-in service in 2020, but also opened an adjacent market called Hoover’s in a Hurry, offering grab-and-go items and takeout from the full-service menu.
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When the new year arrived in January, Hoover’s helped me ease into it. I greeted 2021 with a renewed commitment to wellness, but with baby steps. I’m ready to eat my vegetables again—as long as they’re served with a side of fried chicken.
Scenes From the Night Hawk
Hoover Alexander’s first restaurant job was with Harry Akin, founder of the iconic Night Hawk diners and a pioneer of racial integration in Austin restaurants. Founded in 1932, the Night Hawk family of restaurants eventually operated seven locations around Texas, including four in Austin. Along with photos and mementos from the Night Hawk diners, Alexander displays a quote from Akin, who later served as mayor of Austin from 1967 to 1969, on the walls at Hoover’s Cooking. When the Frisco closed in 2018, it was the last remaining Night Hawk restaurant—but Akin’s legacy of quality and community lives on.