Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cracker Barrell - Houston, TX

The Cracker Barrel is as ubiquitous to road travelers as bluebonnets in spring, highway patrol in August along I-45, the winds of west Texas and humidity in Houston.

Most of you have been to a Cracker Barrel and most of them are basically the same. There is a little "general store" at the entrance full of knickknacks, clothes and candies (including something called a “nut roll”).

Mrs. CFS challenged me to a game of skill with one of those little “peg hop” games, but I declined (knowing when I was over matched).

As most of them are, the one we visited was filled with tin signs, old clocks, antique rifles and framed, old pictures of distant relatives (many of which appeared to be for sale since there were price tags on them). It felt a bit contrived, especially since we were in the middle of Houston, not in rural Missouri, but we went with it. It’s hard to successfully replicate that old timey look.

The CFS: It wasn't particularly good overall but oddly no piece by itself was particularly bad. The steak itself (ground round) was tender. But, the flavors didn't mesh particularly well together.

The Breading: "Southern style" in origin but it was a bit thin. It was a bit like fried chicken in its consistency, so it wasn’t really crispy enough to give the CFS that great difference in texture (or hold up to the heavy gravy). Perhaps a bit oversalted (complimenting the undersalted gravy!).

The Gravy: Heavy and a little bland. This was strange because there was a meaty taste as well as some of that meat (bacon?) in the gravy. It had an odd sweet taste that I couldn't quite place. Interestingly, they have a "brown" gravy which they offer on the mashed potatoes but only the "white" gravy was offered on the CFS. Frankly, the "brown" would have been preferred.

A side tasting of Mrs. CFS's chicken fried chicken was actually surprisingly good; much better than the CFS. For some reason the gravy which wasn't too good meshed much better with the sweetness of the chicken than the meatiness of the steak. She wasn't that happy that I ate most of her dinner, but, for the good of the blog, she acquiesced.

The Knife: standard knife fine here.

The Sides: Three are chosen with the dinner menu; I chose fried okra, mashed potatoes (having a bit of a hankering that evening) and green beans (a rare foray into a non-fried vegetable). The fried okra was awful! (and coming from me you know it must have been bad). It was cold when it reached the table and was clearly pre-frozen and refried (perhaps earlier that afternoon). The mashed potatoes were good (with "brown" gravy), skins on and were lumpy. The green beans were a bit soggy but I liked them. Sort of reminded me of how my grandmother makes them; rich, chicken and bacon tasting beans -- frankly, you can't really even taste the beans.

The tot (who accompanied) enjoyed the macaroni and cheese, but he, like me with okra, is not discriminating when it comes to the M&C.

The Cost: $8.99 (with three sides). A pretty good bargain.

The Service: Competent and helpful, if not a little distant. Perhaps our 4:30 dinner threw them. She flirted with the tot and checked on us regularly.

Music selection: Cracker Barrel’s own inspired tunes – mostly older bluegrass and older country (we heard some Hank Williams, a favorite of mine).

There is something that draws people to the Cracker Barrel – the fact that it was pretty crowded at 4:30 pm on a Sunday made that clear. May it is nostalgia, cheap knickknacks, a clean bathroom or a pre-assembled rocking chair for the road (see picture). Perhaps there is something deeper, where travelers are looking to recapture something lost from ages ago when most all roadhouses and restaurants were like the Cracker Barrel. But, times have changed (for the most part). There are plenty of good road places to amble into to find a nice heaping plate of CFS, bottomless iced tea and a waitress to call you “hon.” You may have to look a little harder but they are still around (and most are not incorporated).

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