Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Houlihorn, or maybe Longhans

A week ago, my friend Rick and I were drifting around the Death Loop, hoping for an interesting place for lunch. Unable to find one, we pulled into Houlihan's, a chain restaurant out of Kansas that's been around, oh, I don't know, maybe thirty or forty years. Okay, so it had been at least a decade since I'd been to a Houlihan's, & Rick wasn't feeling particular, so we decided to try it. 

The place has changed substantially since the last time I'd been to one, not that it was ever particularly memorable. They used to be a sort of glamourized bar that also served food. They still have a bar, but now the restaurant is the focus of the place. The room is large and nicely decorated, very much in the current fashion of minimalism and postmodern lines, with a few interesting touches not worth really describing. The partial old-fashioned acoustic-tile ceiling seemed to have been left behind by a prior occupant, not least because it was the only thing in the room that wasn't sparkling-clean. A little shiny steel and teak (or teak-coloured) wood, some glass and fake leather, and voilà: the modern Houlihan's. Nice. Comfortable. 

The hostess left us with menus, lunch-special cards, and a timer. This last is their gimmick: the lunchtime guarantee that your food will be with you in 20 minutes or less. The fine print on the menu reveals some limitations, of the obvious sort: if you order something unusual, for example, it doesn't apply. No one cares about such things, of course, until your food is delayed and you have to get back to the office without having eaten. That probably never happens at this restaurant, which I'm sure is a good thing that will interest some people doing drudge jobs in Überloopland.

Rick, on taking a seat, suddenly became oddly particular about what he was going to have; lucky for the waiter that the 20 minutes didn't start when we sat down, because Rick took at least 15 of those units to make a decision. It being a week ago, I no longer recall what he ordered, or what he thought of it; in any case, he didn't share it with me, so I wouldn't be reviewing it anyway. For my part, I went with the pot roast mac-and-cheese on the lunch specials menu, with a cup of baked potato soup. I'm sure the waiter, who had almost given up on us ordering, and who, I'm sure, was thinking about the turnover rate on his table, was relieved to finally start the little timer on the table and rush off to the kitchen.
What's that mean?
Last city inspection: August 2014
7 demerits

The food did indeed arrive within 20 minutes. I wouldn't call it particularly quick -- this isn't Burger King, after all. But it was prompt. The potato soup was not as hot as I think it should have been, but it was otherwise acceptable: a decent-sized cup, with decent quantities of potato and all the fixin's in a mild cream soup. 

The mac-and-cheese dish was, in some ways, quite good. Not in the same class as my late ex-mother-in-law's, whose version was enough to prompt me to marry her daughter*, but certainly better than what you would get at many restaurants, or out of a box. It had a crust of panko bread crumbs to give it a little crunch, and plenty of tender, moist beef, and of course the pasta and cheese that gives it its name. Though the cheese wasn't enough to give the serving the sort of cohesiveness I like to see in macaroni and cheese, it was flavourful, and enhanced the dish thereby.  The beef, though, detracted despite its exceptional tenderness: it had been prepared in a seasoning mix that I can ony describe as distracting and slightly unpleasant. The phrase that came to mind was that it got up my nose; I didn't like it, and would not order it again.

Houlihan's on Urbanspoon

Today, for reasons not pertinent here, we were again on the hunt for an interesting lunch experience, this time on the inner loop. Years ago, there was a little café down near the county court house called Longhorn Cafe, from which my office-mates and I would sometimes order sandwiches or plate lunches. It was never a particularly good place, just convenient and cheap. Some time after that, this place opened up in town, and for a long time I thought it was the same place, gone upscale.  

But no: this is Longhorn Steak House, an outlet of an east-coast chain originating in Georgia. It occupies a building on the grounds of the old Central Park Mall once home to a Bennigan's, if memory serves. By the time we got that far, we were ready to settle for the sort of pasteurized fare one gets at chain restaurants; and neither of us had ever been there. So in we went.

The room is very much changed since it was a Bennigan's (or whatever). It is oriented left-to-right now, with the dining room on one side and the bar on the other. (Before, the bar was in the middle with dining areas around it like a theater-in-the-round.) The décor is all macho fake western: cheap reproductions of mediocre western art such as one would buy at those traveling hotel room "Art Shows" ("Nothing over $200!"), a few vaguely Amerindian vessels made, probably, in China; and some iron cut-outs of cattle and cowboys. The only things that weren't in keeping with the suburban western theme were the ubiquitous television sets showing sports channels over the bar, and the sign over the restroom door, which looked incongruously like it came from Disneyland's Raiders of the Lost Ark ride.

What the ratings mean
Last city inspection: May 2014
3 insignificant demerits
But the thing that struck us both about this restaurant was the degree of similarities it had to Houlihan's. The two chains don't appear to be at all related, but both possess the same vein of committee-designed ambience and the same vein of committee-designed menu selections (except, of course, at Longhorn the mac and cheese is steak instead of pot roast). These two restaurants are, in many significant ways, interchangeable.

We were given a bread basket while we waited, containing three thick slices of crusty bread that looked better than it was. It was baked slightly too long, rendering it crumbly and dry, and the butter was straight from the freezer and rock-hard.

This time, Rick was quicker to order, presumably as he had reviewed the menu the week before, at Houlihan's. He got the baked potato soup. It could have been from the same pot as what I'd had at Houlihan's, and it too was served not quite hot enough. He also ordered the "BPT special," a sandwich of bacon with pimento cheese and one thin slice of fried green tomato -- disappointing, given that the ingredient was touted as a significant component of the dish. It was served on Texas Toast, which constituted, he estimates, 80% of the food. He was served only a half-sandwich as part of a soup-and-sandwich combo, though he did not order that. The waiter offered to have the sandwich re-made whole, but Rick declined.

I toyed with the idea of ordering the steak mac-and-cheese, for comparison with what I'd had the week before at Houlihan's, but decided instead on an old-fashioned burger with swiss cheese. This proved to be a good choice. For starters, it actually looked like the picture on the menu: lots of meat -- almost too much, if you can believe that -- with fresh lettuce and a big thick slice of tomato. It had no mustard or mayo on it but was moist enough not to need it. The meat was cooked through, and the red onion used was crisp, and pungent enough to give flavour without overwhelming. All in all, a better than average burger.

I chose a baked potato as my side; this, like the bread, was slightly overbaked, but not so much as to warrant serious complaint; like the bread, it was just a little drier than it should have been. It was served with adequate condiments, though the butter was again too hard to use. Luckily, by this time the butter that had come with the bread basket had thawed enough to be cut with a knife.

Longhorn Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

* I did have other reasons, too; she also made a mean brisket.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Good Food, but No

Jerusalem Grill
3259 Wurzbach
(by Ingram Park Mall)

I had been wanting to try this place for more than a couple of years, having heard so many good things about it. But it's a little out of my normal stomping grounds, so it took me until last month to get over there. I took a friend that I don't get to see as much as I used to, since she moved to a more distant part of town. So you know how it is: once you cross Durango you may as well just keep going.*

Middle-Eastern food has been a cuisine of decreasing exoticness since the 1970s. These days, there seems to be a hummus-and-falafel stand on every third corner. This is not good news for people who don't like chickpeas (like me) but is great news for people who like the blend of spices, the lamb, the beef and the soft breads (again, like me) that are the hallmark of kitchens across that part of the world.

This restaurant inhabits an unprepossessing back corner of an undistinguished strip center just across the road from the back of Ingram Mall. There are a few tables outside (empty, of course, during summer noontimes); inside the space is in an L-shape, with the shorter end occupied by what looked like a buffet line, the larger end by the dining room. We were seated at a table by a glass wall and brought water, napkins, utensils and menus immediately. Naturally, there was a television set on a nearby wall, and equally naturally, it was showing a World Cup match that had been played earlier. Within a very few minutes, we had settled on the mixed grill kebab plate (chicken, lamb, beef) for my friend, the lamb gyro plate for me. The waiter returned to take our order.

I don't know if he had as much trouble understanding me as I had understanding him; his accent was pronounced but I don't think it was impenetrable, except that he seemed to mumble, allowing me to only catch one word in four. Reminded me of the Low-Talker episode of Seinfeld. We placed our order and he went away, apparently satisfied. A minute later another waiter appeared and asked to take our order. He said something I didn't catch and gestured toward the buffet area, where the first waiter was busiy being busy, and then asked again what we would like. So we ordered again. At least the second waiter was generally much easier to understand, but while we were eating he seemed to look around the dining room and glower, not just at us, but at other tables as well. It was a little uncomfortable.

Last city inspection: February 2014
two perfect ratings in a row!

What does that mean?
The food came not as quickly as we would have expected. It took long enough for several other tables to order and get their food ahead of us, and for the conversation at our table to run down to a trickle; but not long enough that we began to worry about it.  Both plates were piled high with rice and meat, some seasoned onions and other veggies on the side, and a nice serving of delicious soft bread. The seasonings of the meats (I tried her beef as well as my lamb), the creamy tzatziki sauce (I know, there are Arabic and Turkish and Persian names for yoghurt-and-cucumber sauce too, but it's close enough to the same stuff) and the vegetables were delicious, and everything was cooked well. But I couldn't say that it was better than I'd have gotten at any of the other decent Middle-Eastern restaurants in town. Maybe it's that expectations were inflated after all the glowing raves on the restaurant's Urbanspoon page. Still, I give it an extra half-chili rating just because everything was of that quality. (Usually there is something not quite up to standard.)

So to sum up: yeah, if I'm in that part of town I might go back. But I doubt it.
Jerusalem Grill on Urbanspoon

*For this attitude I should thank, or at least acknowledge, Steve, who lives in New York. Years ago he showed up at my apartment in Austin (on moving day, as it happened) and said that he had been to visit a cousin in Cleveland, and, well, as long as he was in the neighbourhood....