Your eyes aren’t deceiving you. This really is Gil’s Thrilling (and Filling) Blog and you really are reading a review of a (gasp) chain restaurant. It would be easy (a cop-out) to say my visit to the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store was the result of brow-beating, cajoling, bribery or even torture, but the truth is I wanted to spend time with my friends Esther Ferguson and Henry Gabaldon who swear by Cracker Barrel’s Thursday special of turkey n’ dressing with your choice of two vegetables. Esther and Henry are quite aware of my chain-averse attitude, but were hoping the Cracker Barrel would win me over. With my every reference to the “Chancre Barrel” on the drive to the restaurant, they quickly realized it was a hopeless cause.
After eight years of living in the Deep South, the Cracker Barrel didn’t stand a chance. For the most part, Southern cooking in the Land of Enchantment (or frankly, anywhere outside of Dixie) is about as good as New Mexican food being interpreted in Mississippi. It just doesn’t pass muster. We’ve learned if we want Southern food as we enjoyed it in Dixie, we have to visit The Hollar in Madrid where chef-owner Josh Novak has elevated Southern food to the level of cuisine. The Hollar, by the way, was one of three restaurants showcased in the May, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine’s breakfast, lunch and dinner feature.
My friend Bill “Roasmaster” Resnik, who also coined the “Chancre Barrel” term likes to joke that the wait staff at Cracker Barrel can’t figure out your bill if you don’t have a senior citizen discount. Though we didn’t see any hay wagons or tractors in the parking lot as Bill predicted we would, a quick scan of the parking lot revealed a cavalcade of Cadillacs, a bounty of Buicks and a lot of Lincolns, all of the super-sized variety preferred by some seasoned citizens (yeah, that’s a stereotype, but so is everything about the Cracker Barrel). The truth is, the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is as popular with young families as it is with geriatric generations. Portions are bountiful and the environment shouts fun in a subdued Disney Country Bear Jamboree sort of way.
The Cracker Barrel’s template does bespeak (rather loudly) of Southern stereotypes. The facade resembles that of an old country store with a corrugated tin roof and a porch extending the entire length of the restaurant’s frontage. As at some country stores (which tend to be the cultural and social hub of small communities) in the Deep South the porch is the center of hospitality with dozens of sturdy oaken rocking chairs of all sizes lined up for neighborly visits. Veterans will appreciate the rocking chairs in which the seals of the different branches of the armed forces are embedded onto the top slat. The porch, by the way, provides a perfect western-facing vantage point for one of our amazing New Mexico sunsets.
It’s the Old Country Store portion of the sprawling edifice that even cynics like me will enjoy most. Though the store is capacious, it seems quite crowded because from floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall there is just so much to see. You’ll have plenty of time to check out the racks of tee-shirts, shelves brimming with kitchen towels, tables crowded with crafts, rag-stuffed animals, gaggles of greeting cards, kitchen accouterments, old photographs, vintage advertising signs and even farming equipment. That’s because waits are almost invariable.
Nostalgia abounds for those of us beset by our own advancing geriatric progression. For foodies, the area pulling most gently at the heart strings is the area showcasing the sweets of our youth, especially the candy we ate as kids. Shelves are replete with Mallo Cups, Goo Goo Clusters, Moon Pies, Zero Bars and even Nik-L-Nips, the tiny wax bottles filled with flavored syrup. About the only things missing were the little candy cigarettes (which are surprisingly still made and sold) and the wax orange harmonicas sold around Halloween time.
The country theme continues onto the Cracker Barrel’s dining rooms where walls abound in sundry brick-a-brac. Vintage sepia-toned photographs of mostly unsmiling (perhaps the photos were taken after a meal) countenances survey the room. A large brick fireplace with a heavy oaken mantle is the cynosure of one dining room. The handiwork of a taxidermist is on display on some walls with the deer smiling more broadly than the stoic faces on the vintage photographs. The dining rooms are expansive though some seating is of personal space proximity.
Cracker Barrel purports to offer “homestyle meals, prepared from scratch in our kitchens.” Breakfast, described on the menu as providing “stick-to-the-ribs satisfaction” is served all day long and features such traditional country cooking favorites as hickory smoked country ham, grits, homemade buttermilk biscuits and sawmill gravy. The lunch and dinner menu touts such old favorites as meatloaf, chicken n’ dumplins, roast beef and country vegetables. It’s a veritable compendium of what many would consider a Southern menu.
Most lunch and dinner entrees are served with your choice of one, two or three “country vegetables.” In the Cracker Barrel’s vision of the south, that means turnip greens, coleslaw, steak fries, mashed potatoes, breaded fried okra, hashbrown casserole, dumplins, whole kernel corn, country green beans, sweet whole baby carrots, fried apples, macaroni n’ cheese, apple sauce and pinto beans. There is absolutely NO green or red chile anywhere on the menu nor are the “country vegetables” strictly vegetarian. Meals are also accompanied by made from scratch buttermilk biscuits or corn muffins and real butter (in those real annoying little tubs).
Deciding on what to order at a chain restaurant is an arduous process for me and no matter what I ultimately end up with, my very low expectations about liking what I order invariably wind up ending in a self-fulfilling prophecy. With few exceptions, I order the “lesser of all evils,” generally something out of Home Economics 101, a dish any beginning cook can make edible (if lucky, made to taste good). For my first visit to the Cracker Barrel since a team-building activity nearly a decade ago, the lesser of all evils would be spicy grilled catfish.
Our years in Mississippi were bereft of red and green chile, but we did have the best catfish in America everywhere we turned. With few exceptions, catfish in New Mexico tastes as if the restaurants serving it want to remind diners that catfish are a bottom-feeding, mud-dwelling fish. The fact that the Cracker Barrel’s spicy catfish entree is featured on the “Low Carb” section of the menu gave me hope that it wouldn’t be coated in batter the consistency of sawdust (which might taste better) as most catfish served in New Mexico restaurants tend to be.
Arriving at our table with a prominent char, the catfish had the blackened sheen of New Orleans style blackened fish. Alas, it had none of the personality of blackened fish. In fact, it wasn’t “spicy” in the least until I doused it liberally with Louisiana hot sauce. The hot sauce wouldn’t have been necessary had the catfish been tasty. It not only lacked spiciness, it lacked flavor. My two country vegetables–whole kernel corn and mashed potatoes with gravy–were a bigger disappointment. The mashed potatoes lacked any creaminess whatsoever. These mashed potatoes weren’t lumpy; they were clumpy. They weren’t of the stick-to-your-ribs variety; they stuck to the spoon. The gravy was even worse–thick and tasteless. The whole kernel corn, though fresh and tasty, was unseasoned and would have benefited from some butter.
The Country Fried Steak, a USDA choice steak breaded and deep-fried then topped with sawmill gravy was as much a let-down as the catfish. Country fried steak is popular throughout Dixie because country cooks know the secrets to country fried steak is pound the cut of beef until it’s tender and juicy then bread it lightly so that when done, the exterior is crispy but the inside is still tender. Cracker Barrel’s version is desiccated and tough. The sawmill gravy is gloppy and flavorless. Try feeding this dish to a Southerner and you just might reignite the Civil War.
Cracker Barrel one-ups a lot of restaurants by not only offering Stewart’s sodas, but cranberry, grapefruit and orange juices and not just for breakfast. The coffee is replenished faithfully and the wait staff is friendly and accommodating.
5200 San Antonio, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Stewart’s Orange Cream Soda