Thursday, September 1, 2011

Used to Be Good

Lulu's Bakery & Café
918 North Main Avenue
(behind the Rodeway Inn, by I-35)

Lulu's menu opens with a little self-congratulatory pat on the back about the big-time publicity they got when a Food Network show called "Man vs Food" visited them. The host of that show, a man, it would seem, of unrestrained appetite, ate an entire giant cinnamon roll and a big ol' chicken fried steak dinner. And the menu makes prominent mention of the fact that Lulu's chicken fried steak was voted the best in town, not once but twice.

The most recent such win was in 2003. I don't eat chicken fried steak all that often — three times this year, and that's a lot, for me — but I do know something about it, after a lifetime spent gorging myself on this Lone Star delicacy. And now that I've had Lulu's (again, the last time being about eight years ago), I'd say there's a good reason why they haven't won for eight years.

We arrived at the peak of the lunch rush. Because of its location on the fringe of downtown, close to the medical offices clustered around Baptist and Metropolitan hospitals, and because it has a good-sized parking lot, it's a popular lunch venue. The parking lot was full, as were almost all the tables. We took a seat by the window and waited for someone to come bus the table. And waited. And waited. 

They seem to have plenty of help, with five or six 20-something women in black shirts going in and out of the work area, but it seemed an undue amount of time before one of them came to us with menus and noticed that the table needed wiping down. By the time she got back to take care of that, we'd had time to read the blurb on the menu attributing Lulu's success to a mix of home cooking and Southern Hospitality. We decided before we left, having had to ask first for napkins, then for utensils, that our waitress had not read up on that part. If I had to describe her, I'd say she was a little on the surly side, but maybe "distracted" would be equally accurate, and kinder. So let's say she was distracted, there being so many people for her to deal with. (By the end of our time there, she had even begun to display a sense of humour, saying that if I was too full to walk to the car they could rent me a wheelbarrow.)

We started with iced tea and an order of onion rings. The tea is served in those giant 40-ounce plastic glasses, and didn't that go down good in this hot weather we're getting so resignedly used to. The onion rings were plentiful, and large, and they had a good, seasoned wheat-flour batter laid on thickly. Surprisingly, the onion rings weren't at all greasy, but they were chewy rather than crispy. 

I mentioned to my friend that I was thinking of trying the tortilla soup, which the menu hypes as "the best you'll find," or some such nonsense; but I didn't want soup and onion rings and chicken fried steak and green beans and corn. I asked the waitress if I could have a cup of soup instead of the corn, but she made one of those faces that mean "no, I don't think I can do that." So I was kind of surprised when she brought us both a cup of soup (which, incidentally, we weren't charged for). 

It was definitely not the best tortilla soup around. It's not even in the top five. In fact, I'd say it's closer to the bottom five. The only good quality it had was that it was spicily seasoned. Other than that, the broth was thin and salty; the vegetables, cut in large chunks, had been cooked to death; the cheese was all in a lump at the bottom; and the tortilla strips, which are presented dry in a pile on the platter next to the soup, for you to add as you please, were stale enough to raise the question of how long it takes to petrify a tortilla.

Last city inspection: October 2010
37 demerits (that's a lot)
My friend chose the grilled chicken sandwich, with fries. The chicken breast was indeed grilled, and juicy, yet oddly lacking in flavour. It was served on a bun with too much mayonnaise, a large pile of wilted, aging lettuce leaves, an equally senescent slice of tomato, and some pickles. The plentiful fries would have been good if they'd been cooked a little longer. They were cut as steak-fries, and had a good potato flavour but not the least whisper of crispiness about them. They were too much like particle board after the glue dissolves.

My plate was the erstwhile award-winning chicken fried steak, served with corn and green beans and a large dinner roll. The chicken fried steak seemed admirably Texas-sized, until you cut away the inch and a half of empty batter on each side. After that, you're left with a respectable sized piece of meat, but definitely not Texas-sized. More Illinois-sized, and when's the last time somebody bragged about that? It reminded me of those "black hole awards" that Consumer Reports shows on its back page: large containers for small items. The meat is of the traditional toughness — chicken fried steak is po'-folk food, after all — but tenderized well, so it is eminently edible. The cream gravy was unusually thin but quite good otherwise.

The dinner roll was of the type that entices. It looks delicious, fluffy, with a little crust and lots and lots of soft, yeasty bread. Looks, as they say, can be deceiving. The dough has been kneaded too much, and then not been allowed to rise long enough; making the roll dense and chewy instead of light and fluffy. And it has the taste of those rolls you got in middle school (though it did taste better than that.)

The green beans were well-seasoned and well-drained; I always hate it when they're served in a little bowl full of liquid that always ends up splashing if a bean drops off the fork. Unfortunately — and this is a common problem with veggies like this — they sat too long in hot water to retain any crispiness of texture. They still taste good, but, like the green beans you got in middle school (with the roll), they don't feel good. Ironically, the corn I had not really wanted (but chose as the least bad option for a side dish) was ... well, I won't say it was good; let's just say it was the dish that most closely approximated its paradigmatic form: it was innately corn-like.
Lulu's Bakery and Cafe on Urbanspoon
Lulu's is open late — 24 hours a day, I believe — and it was one of the first places in town to offer Wi-Fi. But after all these years, it's lost a lot of the characteristics that once promised to make it a Place To Go. You can still get large servings of food pretty cheap, but you really are getting what you pay for.

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