"There are plenty of bad restaurants in the world. But it's rare to find an establishment this highly acclaimed by the media that is this consistently awful."
Fearless Critic, Houston Restaurant Guide, review of Cleburne Cafeteria
I am sick this week. So yesterday I visited the one restaurant I always visit when I am sick -- Cleburne Cafeteria.
I first tried Cleburne in 1987. I was a college student living two doors away in a $195/month efficiency apartment with a bed that folded out of the wall. Usually, I ate cheaply at home -- mac 'n cheese, huevos rancheros. But sometimes, as a splurge, I walked less than 50 feet to the best cafeteria in Houston.
I ordered crab casserole and mashed potatoes and tried to sit near the restaurant's family patriarch, dear Nick Mickelis, whose starving-artist-style paintings adorn the walls. Nick, with his Greek accent, would hold court, talking about subjects such as how smart Greeks were -- like Plato.
Cleburne changed a little in the 1990s. Nick died. The restaurant expanded after a devastating fire. Yet the food has changed little in those 20 years.
Yesterday, as I slowly ate my baked haddock almondine and syrupy sweet potatoes, I asked:
1 - Why did I love Cleburne in college, but agree with the Fearless Critic that the food is, by most standards, awful?
2 - If the food is awful, why is it one of the most popular restaurants in Houston?
3 - And if the food is awful, why do I now feel compelled to visit Cleburne whenever I'm sick?
A lost heritage
The Houston Press in 2005 voted Cleburne "Best Comfort Food." Comfort food has different meanings, but usually refers to a high-carbohydrate, home-cooking style of food. Although Cleburne has plenty of carbs, the real comfort here is the cooking style -- a style that represents a food culture that is fading, if not lost.
The ethnic mix of customers tells the story. Although Cleburne is near Rice and West U, and inside the Loop, you don't see a rainbow of cultures among the customers. There are few Asian-Americans, few Latinos. Instead, the crowd is almost entirely white and black. And I would guess that it is at least 90% southern.
The food reflects the style cooked by southern grandmothers and great-grandmothers in the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, Cleburne serves a lot of vegetable casseroles -- spinach mixed with cream (or cream cheese) and topped with cheese; eggplant casserole topped with little fried onions; "old fashioned" baked corn casserole. The vegetables that are not casserolized are cooked beyond recognition so that they begin to disintegrate.
Meat dishes, such as prime rib, are also cooked for so long that every bit of red disappears. Many of the meat dishes are fried and left to lose their crispness on the steam table.
The deserts - many with a four-inch high mound of meringue on top - are just as heavy and old fashioned.
From the standpoint of any chef trained in the last 40 years, or anyone who follows food trends, Cleburne does everything wrong.
Sure, dishes like casseroles and meringue are out of fashion. But what I really mean is that Cleburne's whole philosophy of cooking goes against everything we have learned. Vegetables should be treated with respect, not cooked beyond recognition or buried under mounds of cream or cheese. Deep frying is wrong, not just for health reasons, but because it disguises the flavor of food. And prime rib should never, never, never be cooked extra-well done.
Perhaps I loved Cleburne in college because I was homesick. With the many changes in life at that time, I needed an anchor.
Perhaps now, as I eat my haddock almondine and my overly sweet, overly cooked sweet potatoes, I still need Cleburne. When I feel so sick that I just want to curl up in a ball and be comforted, there is something wonderful about eating food cooked the way my grandmother used to cook -- a way that I would never even cook at home, because I know it is so very wrong.
Cleburne is now over 60 years old for a reason. Yes, the food is "consistently awful." But if your grandmothers were from the same culture as mine, it also is wonderful.