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).

Friday, September 12, 2008

Saltgrass Steak House - Houston, TX

“Texas to the Bone” is what their napkins say about Saltgrass Steakhouse. Well, any place that serves chicken fried steak is at least a little bit Texas. The “…to the bone” label should be a limited classification for places were Sam Houston drank whiskey from a jug or where Lyndon Johnson stuffed a ballot box.

Saltgrass has done a fine job of approximating what people thing a Texas restaurant is like, but they have done so a bit like a casino in Las Vegas. You know what I mean: huge hotels created to look like Venice, New York or Camelot. In truth, it’s a bit of a sham – a sort of Bennigan’s with Texas-themed junk instead of stuff you might find in your garage. This thing might sell well in California, Wisconsin or Florida, where Texas is more myth than reality, but IN Texas, it’s just a little awkward.

To the food. The meals (even lunch) come with a very nice Shiner Bock beer bread (… this does border on “Texas to the Bone”) that was just what beer bread should be: creamy, sweet and nutty. A little butter made it a very nice start to the meal.

The CFS: It was tasty and rich. The meat was a nice, tender sirloin that had good give when bitten but enough resistance to make the texture of each bite interesting. The balance of flavors was strong (garlicy) but not overwhelming. The menu bragged it was “thicker than the rest” – it was not! Not that thickness equates to taste in CFS (so the boast didn’t make much sense to me).

The Breading: “Southern style.” Such chain restaurants (see review for the Black Eyed Pea) tend to go in this direction (which I personally like). I haven’t been to a commercial place where the style was more west or central Texas style. The breading was a bit thin and I couldn’t manage to keep the top and bottom crust for each bite. (weep not for me, I did manage to clean my plate).

The gravy: Rich, creamy and, if eaten in a blind tasting, was reminiscent of chicken soup. Full chicken, onion and garlic flavors were present. The flavor gravy really dominated the whole dish, but not in a bad way.

Knife size: The plate came with a larger steak knife, but it really wasn’t necessary. A smaller knife would have been fine.

Sides: Pick one (for lunch). I was in the mood for some mashed potatoes (and the other sides didn’t particularly appeal to me), so I ordered the “garlic mashed potatoes.” Like the gravy / CFS combo, the flavors were strong (garlic) but in proper balance. It was a nice compliment to the CFS.

Cost: $8.99 on the lunch menu.

Service: Quick. Very quick. Perhaps too quick. I had the kind of waitress who answers her own questions after asked (“How’s your steak? Good.” “More iced tea? No problem.”). Overall, things moved quickly and I was in and out in a hurry.

Music selection: new country.

It always troubles me when attempts to make something “authentic” go overboard. Such was the case here. Still, it was a good meal and worth a trip.

17275 Tomball Parkway; In the Willowbrook Plaza

Monday, September 1, 2008

Goodson's Cafe - Tomball, TX

Billboards all over Waller and north Harris County proclaim Goodson's Cafe as the "Best Chicken Fried Steak in Texas." It is certainly not the only place that makes such a claim, but here it comes close to being true.

Goodson's Cafe was a neat and eclectic little place. It was true to the “cafĂ©” name: a big menu with a range of standards (including appetizers, lunch, dinner and desserts). Tables were covered with that plastic tablecloths and there were baskets of toys around for recreation (for the tots, I suppose). The meal started with some warm biscuits with a nice gravy in a side dish.

The CFS: I was warned. She warned me. When I ordered the CFS, our waitress asked "Are you sure?" Teased and interested, I indicated I was sure (even though I wasn't sure). The CFS was amazing. Just amazing. True southern style, thick and juicy (surolin). It was a MAJOR piece of meat -- as big as I've seen. …or I thought it was a single: after eating a few bites, I discovered it was actually two pieces! Regardless, it was too much for me. Grilled onions were also offered to top the CFS (alas, but declined), something I hadn’t encountered before.

Breading: Thick and flaky. Very tasty. Clearly made with some buttermilk, it was double dipped, a nice amount of pepper and lumpy as all get out.

Gravy: Smooth, camel colored and creamy. A rich, caramel and flavorful bounty. It came on the side (our waitress didn't ask how we wanted the gravy served). Our waitress offered (without us asking) to bring an extra bowl of gravy and I'm glad she did. I actually didn't think I'd like spooning out gravy to my CFS per bite, but I really liked it. It allowed for portion control and let the CFS stay crispy.

Knife size: You need something major to attack this beast. The CFS came with a standard knife -- truly inadequate for the job. I thought about going next door to the pawn shop to buy something more substantial.

Sides: Dish came with two. I had the fried okra (no surprise) and the cole slaw. I'm easy with okra, so my standards are low. But these weren't so good: the okra was a little soggy and probably pre-packaged. The cole slaw was awful. Everything was chopped too small and the balance of creaminess, cabbage and carrots (the three c's) . There was an unpleasant hint of garlic in it too -- made it smell a little off and left an odd aftertaste. Mrs. Chicken Fried Texan had the mashed potato (which was nice but was a little dry, a nice potato flavor (with skins)) and corn (tasted canned).

Cost: Large (which I had) was $9.29 and the small is $7.99. An amazing bargain given the amount of food. If you’re interested, the grilled onions on top were an extra $0.79.

Service. This wasn't her first rodeo or her first CFS. She sized me up and knew she'd be taking that plate away nearly full (see picture). She was friendly, had an easy charm, got the food out fast and flirted with the tot (who returned in kind).

Music selection: adult contempo.

The "Best Chicken Fried Steak in Texas" can't be a self-given label. Indeed, Goodson's Cafe's "Best CFS" was proclaimed as such by the "Eyes of Texas," which were last recorded in the late 1990s. So, it's been a while since the label was affixed to their CFS. Best in Texas? I can't say. The biggest?: perhaps. Best bargain?: certainly the top 10. It’s worth a drive out to Tomball to see for yourself.
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