Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Cleburne Caffeteria quandry

"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

The questions

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.

The problem

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.

Sick food

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.

9 comments:

robingoldstein said...

Really enjoyed your thought-provoking post. One comment: for me, what turns Cleburne from a bad restaurant into a terrible one is the rudeness of the staff, their unwillingness even to do things as simple as tell you, without rolling their eyes or treating you like an idiot, what meat is in a particular dish. My grandmother might have cooked meat to gray, tasteless obilivion, but at least she was nice to me. -Robin

anonymouseater said...

Hi Robin.

I agree; service is awful. For decades, I have been annoyed at how the cashier spits out your change from the register before you even turn over your bills to her. The message is clear: don't dare try to pay me with change. Most of the staff seem to dislike working there.

Plus, I don't want to suggest that Cleburne's food is as good as my grandmother's. It is nowhere close. It is just that, for that style of food, Cleburne has no competition in Houston.

Sadly, Houston lacks a high quality restaurant that reflects East Texas traditions. Yes, we have soul food, Tex Mex, and Gulf seafood restaurants. Plus local cuisine may have a slight influence on a few dishes as Shade, Ouisie's, and Daily Review. Otherwise, I know of no quality restaurants that even attempt to preserve or reflect the region's food heritage.

Anonymous said...

This review smells a bit like food snobbery to me. I love the food at Cleburne's, particularly the fresh salads, Turkey, and fish dishes. Their green beans, brocholli, spinach, and mustard greens are steamed, not overcooked. Yes, they do have meat and vegetable casserole offerings, but there are plenty of choices. The mango salsa which they keep behind the serving line but give out free on request is something to try if you ever return.

As an aside, they do have competition for their style of food, Luby's. They used to have a lot more competition in the days of Furr's and Albritton's which have gone out of business. I've never once met a person who has eaten at Luby's and Cleburne's who did not conclude that Cleburne's was far superior. Not that Luby's is the gold standard for cafeterias, but still.. honestly, you are the first person I've encountered who did not absolutely love Cleburne's. I do agree with your comment about how they always have the change ready, no doubt in an attempt to keep the long lines moving fast. But it is annoying. If you try and pay your $10.61 bill with three fives + 11 cents, the staff can't handle the math.. it doesn't help that the registers are 100 years old. Oh well, small inconvenience imo.

If there's a better cafeteria in the Houston area than Cleburne's, please tell me where it is.

John C (clutj) said...

Anyonw know anything about Alfreda's Cafeteria on Almeda (near Spanish Village)?

John C (clutj) said...

Houston Press likes Alfreda's:

http://restaurants.houstonpress.com/search/restaurants.php?oid=5573

anonymouseater said...

Hi John. I wrote a post about Alfreda's a while ago. It's a good place. Here is the link:

http://foodinhouston.blogspot.com/2007/06/sweet-soul-food-at-alfredas-cafeteria.html

Anonymous said...

Wow, hard to believe all the bad things written here. I come from a family of foodies, and while this isn't fine continental cuisine, they serve excellent, high quality food. I've been going to Cleburne's for years and have always had excellent service, from the servers, cashier (who admittedly is rushed) to the tea ladies. I have never had an employee not return a smile and kind word. In an era of impersonal haute cuisine, Cleburne's is a refreshing change - simple quality food served with a smile for a reasonable cost.

anonymouseater said...

@Anonymous I don't think anyone is looking for "fine continental cuisine" at Cleburnes. I probably give more good reviews to cheap restaurants than expensive ones.

With Cleburne, I hoped to convey both sides of the argument. I can see why a lot of people like it, including myself when I am in a certain mood.

But I also know that the style of cooking gives very little respect to the ingredient. In my view, most dishes are not simple preparations. Instead, the preparations are too much -- too much overcooking, too much sauce, too much merengue. I wish the kitchen would use less of a heavy hand.

www.vizcaya-3d.com said...

Of course, the writer is completely fair.