Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cracker Barrel

1193 Scenic Drive
Herculaneum, Mo.

We were going to Chipotle Mexican Grill, but Angel looked at their online menu and said it looked like fast food, just with fresher ingredients and that she wanted something a little more substantial. I'd mentioned earlier in the week that CB had added a low impact section to their menu and that some of it looked interesting.
So off we went.
The conversation topic was, of course, the impending winter storm and deep freeze predicted to follow it. It was estimated that the real ugliness would start around midnight. By the time we left, around 5:00 P.M. though it was still somewhat pleasant, temps in the low forties, though the clouds had started to move in.
We got to the place and it appeared not too busy.
We had to walk through the country-folk-kitsch storefront to get to the dining area. A stack of metal chickens caught my eye, I don't know why.

The Place:
The dining area walls were lined with more old, useless junk than my mother's attic. Pictures, ads, old sports equipment, tools, and firearms. Too much if you ask me, it was like saturation decorating, far more quaint junk than necessary to make the point. I did appreciate the fire in the large fireplace though. It made the place smell hickory smoked, like the tobacco barns of my youth.
We were led to a table and offered menus. Erica stopped by and asked about drinks. She was a young, tall, rail thin girl with an easy smile and a sweet voice. Tea, sweet tea with no ice and Coke. She left us alone with our enormous and flimsy paper menus. Adam played the silly little golf tee game, solved it first try.
The Food:
I hadn't firmly decided on the lighter fare. There was pecan crusted catfish, Corn Flake oven baked chicken, a nice looking pork chop and a pepper grilled sirloin. The thing that made these items qualify as lighter fare was the lack of grain products. The offered sides were things like a cucumber, onion and tomato salad, green beans, broccoli, a baked sweet potato and mixed veggies. The light meals didn't even come with the customary corn bread or biscuits, and there was no gravy anywhere in sight. This is the kind of stuff I eat during the week. Lots of veggies, very little bread, breading, pasta or potatoes. I'm not saying it works for everyone, I'm not a diet snob, but it works for me and I can stick with it.
The drinks arrived and I have to say that appearance-wise the tea looked fresh and bright. the taste wasn't bad, I'll give it a score later.
Erica returned in good time and we ordered.
Me: Catfish, the cucumber salad and green beans. Angel surprised me and ordered from the lite side as well, the oven baked chicken, the baked sweet potato and the salad. Adam scoffed at us and stuck with the more traditional chicken fried chicken, broccoli. mashed potatoes and cornbread.
Once Erica left, out came the smart phones and tablet. Angel complained about no signal, I'd already scanned for wifi and found none, at all. Adam played a game.
They have smart phones, I have the tablet. A heavily researched 7" Asus ME173x, in case you are interested.  It was my Christmas present. I've been using it to take notes and pictures for these outings since I got it. I've created a simple little database entry form for critique notes, and the rear camera (it has one on the front side as well, for my vast and rapidly growing collection of selfies) is a 5MP device that takes excellent low light photos. All the pictures in this post came from the thing, no flash required. Adam hates the flash part of our outings, so this helps soothe family tensions.
The food arrived pretty quickly. I noticed a problem with my plate right away. More on that later, as well. The little salad was gorgeous. Bright green and red, fresh looking. The catfish filet looked crispy-breaded, the green beans were cooked southern-style. By that I mean way overcooked, to the  point of complete flaccidity. I don't know why we southerners do this to a perfectly good vegetable, but we do. My mother did it, her mother did it, and my two other grandmothers cooked this way as well.*  At least CB, like my grandmothers, cooked them in bacon fat. Sort of a country risotto, infuse the timid tasting article with slow cooked  flavor. Still, the beans were as limp and lifeless as the skin on a drowned person.
The salad indeed was crisp and fresh, as tasty as it was pretty. My catfish however, though it originally looked crispy, was not. Huge mistake, huge rookie mistake. The green beans were wet, duh. So wet that they could not hold their own juices. The juice bled all over the plate, turning the crust on the bottom of the fish into an unappetizing mush. The fish itself tasted pretty good, surprisingly so, but the look and feel of that soaked bottom ruined it. It would not have mattered if the fish were traditionally battered or breaded then deep fried, the problem was the bean leakage. A simple ramekin would have solved this. Bottom line, for easily foreseeable and fixable reasons, catfish=fail.
Angel's chicken was pretty, golden brown. this appearance was highly misleading though. The brown was not a result of perfect oven toasting, it was because - Corn Flakes. The chicken itself was a little dry, and from the taste I got, nearly tasteless. It appeared that no other spices were added to the cereal breading. In other words, pretty bland. No discernible pepper, garlic powder, or even salt. The sweet potato was better, so Angel says. I tried a bit and found it positively disgusting, a squashy-sweet flavor and texture, yuck. She liked it though, said it was like pumpkin pie. My point exactly, I hate pumpkin pie. Adam took one bite of his broccoli (which was served in a ramekin) then pushed the little bowl aside. "No flavor." He uttered. He finished his chicken, though he said the gravy tasted like flour and milk. A  recurring theme was emerging. He didn't care for the cornbread either, though I tried a little and found it to be just fine. This was not a sweet cornbread muffin mix, this was cornmeal and flour, milk, eggs and fat. Pretty much just like the simple hoe cake, or skillet cornbread I grew up with. I liked it, he didn't. Oh well. The mashed potatoes were 'okay', he said, but could use something, maybe more butter (flavor).
I rescued my meal though. I was not full, that's what a low carb meal will often do, leave you not-bloated. Which is a good thing once you get used to it. I haven't had heartburn in several months. I had room for something decadent though, so without even polling the family I asked Erica for some apple pie and a cup of coffee.
This, CB can do quite well. I refused the ice cream, since what is the point of making apple pie and then boasting about the 'no added sugar' method of making it if you are just going to drop a hyper-sweet ice cream bomb on top of it. I did forget to tell them about the other part though. So it arrived hot. Call me an idiot, you wouldn't be the first, but I like apple pie a lot, but I like it cold. Refrigerator cold, especially with coffee. But hot wasn't too bad. The taste was good, not overly sweet, the crust was flaky and not dry or burnt on the edges. This pie saved the meal.
Summary:
My goal was to sample some of the 'healthy' choices. Mission accomplished. These are great ideas, catering to a rising number of health-conscious customers. I like seeing choices like this, especially at places that are traditionally breaded, deep fried and gravy-heavy. However, this meal overall, was not a success. I do not think it was because of any problem unique to the lite-fare menu items though. Even Adam's traditional meal was mostly bland and uninteresting.
That and simple serving issues, like having my fish swimming in bean juice, took a good idea, a potentially great idea and turned it into a completely lackluster affair.
The bill for our meal, including my pie, was a reasonable forty three dollars and change. No complaints there. The service, Erica especially, was quite good. Attentive, friendly, detail oriented, ready to please. At one point a manager of some kind stopped by every table to check up on the customers. In my book, this is always a good thing.
But the food was simply disappointing. Unimaginative, timid, bland.Comfort food does not need to be bland and lifeless. Maybe there's a customer base that likes their food this way. I know that CB was one of my father's favorite places to eat. I don't get it though. It's like a good idea being executed by someone that's never had the original, traditional foods they offer. It looks right, but it just isn't
Oh yeah, the tea. Somewhere between a + 2.5 and + 3. Not bad at all.

Epilogue:
The storm hit, you may have heard about it. We got a foot of snow followed by bone-cracking low temperatures. So this time the Henny Penny-like media-meteorologists got it right.



* Yes I did have three grandmothers. Ask me about that sometime.



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