Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel
1193 Scenic Dr  
Herculaneum, MO

It was my week to choose, I procrastinated. Friday night we were watching TV and a commercial for Cracker Barrel came on. Angel let out one of those smoky, soft moans that she lets out when she sees something she likes or wants. I made note of it and on Saturday announced my decision.
It’s not wise to ignore Angel’s smoky moans, they don’t occur very often anymore.

The Place:
Some places ban firearms.
Here, they're considered art.
In Herculaneum, near the interstate. A large free-standing, porched, barn-like building. On the porch are dozens of wood rocking chairs. They are for sitting or for sale. The Barrel sells lots of stuff, in fact to get to the restaurant itself you have to wind through shelves and racks of vintage-brand candy, clothing, toys and kitschy country novelties. The ceiling of the store is heavily laden with stuff you’d expect to find at a yard sale in Mayberry, sturdy old bicycles, wash tubs, lanterns, farm implements. I would not want to be caught in that storefront during a tornado or earthquake, there’s a couple of tons of jagged metal-edged items up there.
Stupid golf tee game
We pushed our way trough the shoppers, gawkers and dawdlers to the hostess counter. A lady holding a tray and wearing black pants and white button down shirt approached and sat her tray down on the podium. “Your hostess will be here in a minute, I don’t know how to do her job.” She said, pulling a paper out from underneath, picking up her tray and wandering off. “Someday you will dreamer, someday!” I called to her, trying to lift her spirits. I don’t think she heard me over the sounds of my ribs cracking beneath Angel’s elbow.
We were seated near the huge, empty fireplace. In the winter they burn logs, lots of logs in that massive hole in the building. Not this summer though, thank goodness.
Menus were slapped down, drink orders taken (tea, tea, Coke) by our cute, short, round-faced young waitress. Not as trim and tanned as the Hooters ladies, but infinitely more approachable. The place was packed, it always is.
The Food:
The large, flimsy and thin brown paper menus were filled with country classics. Choosing was only difficult because almost everything looked good. Angel was in the mood for a simple steak, which sounded good to me as well. So when round-face came back we ordered sirloins, with baked potato and side salad. We were asked about salad dressing, Angel named one, I asked for a recitation of the options. Round-face struggled a little with this, especially when I asked after about the tenth one she could remember, “What was the fifth one?” My ribs cracked again, so I chose Thousand Island.
The lamp, bolted to the table.
Adam opted for the chicken fried chicken, a safe, comfortable choice. We asked for the complimentary bread basket to be split between cornbread and biscuits, we couldn't recall which of the two we preferred.
She skittered away, we settled in for a wait. Adam pulled out the stupid golf-tee-in-a-triangle game. I didn’t bother. I looked up the solution on the interwebs once so it’s no fun anymore. Looking around there was more old junk on the walls. It looked like they’d cleaned out the American Pickers’ store. Oil signs, moose heads, rusty tools, sleds, canoes, washboards, radios, food tins. Mike and Frank would go ape in this place, or at least politely pretend to. Danielle would just roll her eyes, like she always does when the boys find something cool. She’s no one to judge though, being a bawdy burlesque dancer and all. All those tattoos, it’s a crying shame, bad parenting no doubt.
I hear the salad is very good.
The salads showed up pretty quickly. They were gorgeous. Fresh, thinly sliced, skin-on cucumbers, a dozen or more cherry tomatoes, crisp lettuce. I peeled open the long, narrow, condiment-ized salad dressing tube and squeezed it all on. I then stirred it around, cut the cucumber slices in half, took the first two or three bites, all fresh all…
That’s as much as I can say about the salad. At this point things went seriously foul. Three or four bites into the big salad, our steaks arrived. Sizzling, the butter in the potato just starting to melt, there was barely enough room on the small table for the salads, the bread plate and the three main courses. Seriously, things were teetering over the edge of the table.
I was incensed.
I’ve often complained about too much time between courses. The Barrel struck out with the exact opposite problem. Neither of us had even dented our salads and we were now confronted with a dilemma.
Fresh from 'the Barrel?'
Grilled steak has a very short half-life, you can’t just set it aside like a sandwich or pile of green beans while you finish up a salad.  A fresh grilled steak requires immediate and focused attention since they do not get better from sitting long at room temperature.
We could have split the eating three ways, potato, steak, salad, had there been enough room on the table! But here wasn’t. I abandoned my salad, which was very good, after another bite or two. I had to prep the potato and dig in to that thick, rare steak. The salad went to the empty setting across the table, blocked from easy access by the kitschy, bolted down, oil lamp.
The steak was cooked as ordered, barely seasoned at all, which was fine. The potato was plump and steamy, creamy with all that butter and sour cream. Angel tossed me some warm (but only slightly warm) corn bread and a tiny sealed plastic tub of butter. I peeled back the top and dug out a stone-like pebble of hard-frozen butter. No way was the cornbread or the biscuits anywhere near hot enough to melt it. Which turned out to be moot since neither the cornbread or the biscuits were all that good. A little industrial tasting, not home made-like at all. I asked Angel about this. She agreed that the cornbread was dry and unlike more familiar cornbread, devoid of any hint of sweetness. She didn’t try the biscuits.
I tossed most of my cornbread into the abandoned salad bowl across the table. A mostly uneaten, hard, dry biscuit joined it a minute later.
We were about five or six bites into our main courses when the waitress returned and tossed the check onto the table. She asked how everything tasted, which was wise on her part since we weren’t displeased with the tastes. We grunted ‘fine’, ‘okay’, etc. though I was now even more riled up having the feeling, what with the much-too-soon arrival of the check that we were being rushed. She topped off our drinks, which didn’t add to the pleasure at all. She filled my glass by reaching over Angel and all the way across the cluttered table and tilted the pitcher sideways as some waitresses are prone to do. She filled my tumbler, or should I say overfilled it. The term for how full it was is ‘convex meniscus’ where the level of the fluid, due to viscosity/surface tension of the liquid, forms a cone higher than the edge of the container. In other words I couldn’t move the darn thing without spilling it. I found my straw, which I rarely use, and had to siphon-suck a little out to drop the level in the glass low enough to pick up and drink like an adult.  I don’t like using straws since I read somewhere that people, grown ups, who use straws suffer from latent nursing trauma. A Freudian mommy issue, perhaps weaned too early, or much too late. I don’t have any mommy issues, in spite of what several so-called professional counselors and therapists have said. Well, except for my hatred of poetry, which is a completely different issue that I won’t go into at this time. I don’t have mommy issues so I don’t drink through a straw. That’s the point I’m trying to make.
This of course bothered me. I can top off beverages for years in a row and never overfill one. It’s not exactly rocket surgery.
Steak, potato, bludgeoning tool.
Then we get to yet another serious issue. A repeat, the so-called 'knives'.
The Barrel distributes massive, Crocodile Dundee impressing steak knives. Serrated, heavy, large, and as dull as the side of a spoon. The potato was not so much carved or sliced, it was mashed. The steak became ground beef under the ridiculously dull edge of the big, scary-looking utensil. There’s no excuse for this, especially since I recall griping about this before. Thick meat needs a slightly sharp knife, these things were blunt objects. Even the lovely and sweet Angel griped about this.
Long-time fans will recall that Adam usually doesn’t say a whole lot about these meals. He’s not a big talker. But he said this about the Barrel. “They blew everything but the food.”
I agree. The steak was fine, even after being crushed by the bludgeoning tool I was given to dissect it. The potato was great, the salad was fresh, generous and crispy. The price wasn’t even that bad, all told, the prematurely dropped off bill came to just over forty dollars.
But everything else, the frozen butter, the knives, the unmistakable sense of being rushed, the overzealous refilling of the drinks, it was not a pleasant experience at all. Which is a terrible shame.
There is simply no excuse for rushing a customer by delivering the main course a mere two minutes after the salads, especially on a crowded table. Simply inexcusable.
As we left we stopped in the store area and paid too much for some vintage candies. Chick-O-Sticks for me, flat taffy for Angel, and a giant sucker for Adam. I had trouble enjoying the shopping, I was still miffed at the lousy service.
I do not blame the waitress, except maybe for the tea, the other stuff must be conscious management decisions. I hope they reconsider these choices.
There are several other country style dining places in the area, some, like ‘Off the Hook' in  Desoto are downright excellent. Unless Cracker Barrel gets its act together I just can’t see bothering with them much in the future.


Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Urbanspoon

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