Photos by K2 Images
There is only one Taste of Texas. Celebrating the flavor, history, and ambience of Texas, the Taste of Texas Restaurant is known throughout the world. The now-famous steakhouse, however, had humble beginnings. Edd and Nina Hendee founded the Taste of Texas on a shoestring in 1977 to avoid being transferred to Kansas City with Steak and Ale. The early years were rocky, and Edd and Nina both had to moonlight at other jobs to keep their restaurant open. “Sixteen years after we opened, we broke even,” Nina says.
Along the way, Edd and Nina changed their concept. Instead of offering a varied menu, they began to specialize. “We narrowed our menu to two pages of excellence,” Nina says. The Taste of Texas insists on using ingredients of the highest quality and serves only Certified Angus Beef. Breads and desserts are made from scratch daily.
Another turning point was in 1991, when Edd and Nina lost their lease at the restaurant’s original location on Memorial Drive in Houston. They soon began construction of a new building at the Katy Freeway near Beltway 8, just a few miles away, selling a car to pay for the kitchen equipment. Edd and Nina decorated the new restaurant themselves; in keeping with the Texas theme, they decided to display Nina’s extensive, growing collection of Texas memorabilia on the walls.
A Tribute to Texas History
Nina’s fascination with Texas history began when she was a fourth grader at Victor Hexter Elementary School in Dallas. Her social studies teacher, Suzanne Gillison, so captivated Nina’s interest and imagination, she has been studying Texas history ever since. Meanwhile, she has collected some rare and interesting artifacts.
One Mother’s Day many years ago, Nina opened an envelope from her family and, almost speechless, asked Edd, “Is this—?” He nodded. The envelope contained an authentic signature of David (“Davy”) Crockett. “All I could do was cry,” Nina says. “Our daughter was about 10. She turned around and told my husband, ‘I told you she wanted perfume.’” Nina still laughs in remembrance. “My husband is so tolerant of my obsession.”
Nina tries to add one artifact or work of art to her collection each year, and the walls of the Taste of Texas have become a veritable museum. As she meanders through the restaurant, Nina can’t resist sharing the stories behind the artifacts displayed there. Her enthusiasm is infectious.
Nina has her collection of Republic of Texas currency displayed near the front of the restaurant. (Bills, she reports, were called “redbacks,” because red ink was used on the backs to discourage counterfeiters.) In another room is Nina’s extensive collection of unusual, antique corkscrews. Another display includes rare, first-edition books about Texas, such as the first cookbook published in the state. (It was published in Houston in 1856.) One of Nina’s favorites is a biography of Gail Borden, who developed the process of canning condensed milk in response to the sickness and eventual death of children who drank spoiled milk on sea voyages. Nina reports that he was also a surveyor, who, with considerable foresight, plotted downtown Houston streets 80 feet wide because he believed Houston would one day become a magnificent city. “He is my favorite character in all of Texas history,” Nina says.
Nina has displayed several replicas of Texas artifacts in the restaurant, including the famous “Come and Take It” cannon, which sparked the battle of Gonzales in 1835. Also on display is an exact replica of the “Come and Take It” flag. The original, Nina says, was made from the wedding dress of Mrs. Green Dewitt.
Most items, however, are authentic, such as the many documents that bear the signatures of Texas heroes. Nina’s collection includes documents signed by Sam Houston and Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, whom she calls “the most brutal dictator who probably ever lived.” She has signatures of two Texas heroes—David G. Burnet, the first president of the Republic of Texas, and William Barret Travis, the commander of Texian forces at the Alamo—on one document. Other figures from the Republic of Texas whose signatures are displayed on the walls of Taste of Texas include Stephen F. Austin, Branch T. Archer, and William H. Wharton. Nina is particularly happy to have found a signature of Moses Austin, the father of Stephen F. Austin. Because he was never an elected official, she says, he didn’t sign his name on many documents. It took Nina 10 years to find his signature.
Nina has also, of course, displayed her cherished signature of David Crockett on a wall of the restaurant. She never calls him “Davy Crockett,” explaining that the legendary Texan called himself “David.” Nina even owns the town charter of Victoria, Texas, which she says she will one day donate to the City of Victoria. “This is the reason Victoria exists,” she says, “and it hangs in the Taste of Texas.”
Nina admires the Texas Rangers (the legendary law enforcement organization, not the baseball team), so she has dedicated a wall in the restaurant to Texas Ranger memorabilia. Among the items are a bone-handled pistol carried by a Texas Ranger and a book signed by every Texas Ranger who was alive at the time of publication.
Some rooms in the 500-seat restaurant display Texas artwork. One of Nina’s favorites is a painting of the original Texas Capitol, which was painted on the walls of a farmhouse in Cat Spring. The house was being bulldozed when Nina purchased the painting from the owner of the property. It is the earliest example of German itinerant painting in Texas, she says, and it will one day be displayed at the Texas Capitol. Another of Nina’s favorites is a painting of Sam Houston on the way to the Battle of San Jacinto. The painting depicts a crossroads: one fork in the road led to safety in the United States, while the other led to a face-to-face battle with the brutal dictator Santa Anna.
Although proud Texans enjoy Nina’s tribute to Texas history, they are not alone. The Taste of Texas has become a destination for those who appreciate the mystique of Texas, and menus have been translated into 13 languages to accommodate patrons from around the world. (The menu translated into Mandarin Chinese is requested most frequently.) “Our foreign guests love Texas,” Nina says. “During the Offshore Technology Conference in late April, we have lots of guests who come from all over the world,” she says. “They always tell us that they only come to the conference to eat at the Taste of Texas.” Edd and Nina bring longhorn cattle from a ranch in Hempstead during this time so their guests can have their photos taken with them.
Nina well remembers that her fascination with Texas history began when she was in the fourth grade, so she hosts hundreds of fourth graders at the Taste of Texas every year. When the students arrive each morning, 125 at a time, Nina tells them interesting facts about Texas history, often dressing the children in costumes. “We have more than 10,000 kids every year,” she says.
Edd and Nina also have a heart for the college students who work at the Taste of Texas. Each year, the Hendees award fifty $1,000 scholarships, as well as six fully-paid scholarships that cover tuition and books. These scholarships are funded through special events at the restaurant, including adult Texas history presentations, wine dinners, and steak schools. Edd and Nina also reward good students with $25 per credit hour for every A or B earned. “We do not pay for Cs,” Nina says with a smile.
The Hendees are thankful for the Taste of Texas. Their entire family, including children, in-laws, and grandchildren are involved in some way at the restaurant. “To God be the glory for this business,” Nina says, noting that she and Edd think of their restaurant as a mission field. Before opening its doors each morning, Nina walks to each of the four corners of the restaurant and prays for the staff members and guests who will be there that day. “Let them see kindness, gentleness, self-control,” she says. “Let them see your face.”
10505 Katy Fwy
Houston, TX 77024