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The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Cracker Barrel Restaurant on San Antonio

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.

Nostalgic treats abound at the Cracker Barrel Store

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.

The main dining room at the Cracker Barrel

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.

A plateful of corn muffins and biscuits

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.

Spicy Grilled Catfish Two farm raised Catfish fillets served with your choice of three sides. (0 net carbs – plus carbs in side items)

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.

Country Fried Steak: USDA Choice Steak breaded and deep fried then topped with Sawmill Gravy.

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.

Turkey n' Dressing with cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes (two portions for my friend Henry).

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.

Cracker Barrel
5200 San Antonio, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
821-8777
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 13
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stewart’s Orange Cream Soda

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store on Urbanspoon

  • Jim Leon says:

    I always have and love the Uncle Hershels Breakfast. When I first ate at their Opryland location, they served the grits with red-eye gravy; so I always ask for it at the Coors location where I go. I don’t especially care for the sawmill gravy, although it is tasty. Their pancakes have a nice mildly crusty surface which I love.

    April 8, 2009 at 8:50 PM
  • Lorenzo says:

    allways get the country fried steak can nt go wrong with that get hash brown casorole always to the best cracker barrel is a good place to eat tried other item buy nt as good a the country fried steak

    May 5, 2009 at 7:59 AM
  • Jim Millington says:

    I am almost ashamed to admit that I ate (or would “et” be the proper term in the stereotype south) here once about 10-years ago. Almost ashamed because I was with a group from the office and didn’t ask where we were going. The stench of the potpourri upon entering just about drove me away but I had no independent transportation. Usually when the Child Bride enters a small town store with that stench I run outside and park at least 50-feet from the door until she comes out. I remember the food as awful but the only deeply embedded memory is that stench.

    April 16, 2011 at 2:58 PM
  • Morgain says:

    Poor Gil! Quick! Get yourself to the 66 Diner for some chicken-fried steak before all hope is sapped from your soul!

    April 16, 2011 at 4:32 PM
  • Anthony says:

    If the only decent offering is a bottle of soda, then why didn’t you rate this place lower?

    April 16, 2011 at 9:30 PM
    • Gil Garduno says:

      My ratings aren’t solely based on food. From an experiential perspective, the Cracker Barrel does many things well. The ambiance is unique (for Albuquerque) and fun. Service is friendly and accommodating. Coffee cups are refilled faithfully. The Cracker Barrel tries hard to please its guests and if the parking lots are any indication, they’re being successful in doing so.

      April 18, 2011 at 9:05 AM
  • Barbara says:

    Ugh. On the few times I have eaten here, my body has had an explosive reaction to whatever greasy substance they cook their food with.

    April 17, 2011 at 7:18 AM
  • Ruben says:

    How do you really feel about the Cracker Barrel, Gil? Don’t pull any punches.

    April 17, 2011 at 8:17 PM
  • Larry McGoldrick says:

    Predictable and comfortable. A friendly beacon when traveling the interstate. Several cuts above the fast-food chains. And much better than any TA I’ve ever been in (I was desperate)

    But why in the world would any sane person from Albuquerque want to go to the Albuquerque Crusty Barrel?

    April 18, 2011 at 7:28 AM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    Aha….LOL….problem was you didn’t stay on track and have what your Amigos took you there for…..The Thursday Especial of turkey n’ dressing (obviously with gravy on the side however) which is tempered or virtually seasoned by being greeted by that inviting, roaring fireplace after hustling in on one of our frigid winter eves after spending a moment in the parking lot looking over the mesa with angry grey clouds hanging above the splendiferous, red sunset which paints our purple majesty as you then walk toward the Barrel.

    My suggestion would be to have all waitstaff be matronly/bosomly grey haired ladies to complete the picture of going off to grandma’s house….albeit mine didn’t have a fireplace nor was grandma’s yum yums always the best….LOL

    April 18, 2011 at 10:55 AM
  • Suzie Queue says:

    I love fryed food and the Cracker Barral frys everything! There ckicken fryed chicken is to die-for. One of these days I’m gonna order some chicken fryed chicken duoble dipt in there batter and duoble fryed covered in butter and there gravy served with a couple fryed eggs on top and then that great cheese sauce. Two scoops of masshed potatos with butter and gravy. I wo’nt have to eat for a week!
    I’ts a great place to go if you drank to much the night before.
    Last time when I went there, I eat to much, my left arm and back started to hurt. That is probably because I lift the fork with my left hand and I like to eat big heavy bites. I get hard to breethe and I sweated alot. I’ts like a trip to the Gym! That’s how good the food there is! It is the best American style food in NM.

    April 18, 2011 at 11:09 AM
  • Michael says:

    I’ve been there a few times for breakfast and lunch. The eggs were cooked to order and the meats were good, but the hash brown casserole is really bad as is the sawmill gravy. I like catfish, battered or blackened but they dont do it well. I dont believe its a southern thing, the food isnt cooked very well.

    April 18, 2011 at 11:17 AM
  • Foodie Star says:

    Suzie – I pray that you are joking about the arm and back pain and the breathing and sweating. It sounds like you were having or were about to have a heart attack. If you were serious, please see a doctor – preferably a cardiologist as soon as possible. Better yet, go to an urgent care center or a hospital!

    April 18, 2011 at 2:26 PM
  • Schuyler says:

    Suzie Queue (aka Jethrine)

    Your comments are always enlightening and educational in a Ma and Pa Kettle sort of way. Not only do you know more about food than Gil does, you also know more about culture. After all, you have visited the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

    Suzie, you should start your own food blog so we can all know where NOT to eat.

    Schuyler

    April 18, 2011 at 2:35 PM
  • Suzie Queue says:

    Thanks you for the kind complements Schuyler! I was thinking about it.
    BTW – I found out it is the Leaning Tower of Piza, not pizza – my mistake! LOL!

    SQ

    April 18, 2011 at 2:44 PM
  • Jim Millington says:

    Gil, You have a hit on your hands. I can’t remember any review which generated so many comments so fast.
    Perhaps you should actually review a Denny’s. I haven’t eaten at one since 1994 in Seattle. It was on a pad on our hotel parking lot. I can’t remember the name of what I thought I was ordering but the only reasonable description was “APS Mystery Meat.” The only worse meal I ever had was also in Seattle at a KFC near the airport as we were stalling because we were early for our flight. The chicken was raw, the coffee was cold and the ice tea was hot. They would not answer my question as to whether they had ever had a repeat customer.
    The funniest semi serious review I ever read was in the Tribune about The Black Eyed Pea. “This is what gives American food a bad name to French tourists.

    April 18, 2011 at 5:18 PM
  • Bruce Schor says:

    Cracker Barrel is an I.E.D. (
    No, not an Improvised Explosive Devise but an Interstate Emergency Dining
    A place used by my wife and me only as a last chance, last choice place when we are on a road trip and very very hungry.
    I have always felt that the interstate highway system should list one (1) non chain eatery on every highway sign giving drivers one locally known and respected place to find a decent alternative to McDonald’s, Taco Bell etc.
    Cracker Barrel is an interesting novelty place but the food is generally awful.
    Toast a bagel at home and eat it in your car……
    I’m just saying……..

    April 19, 2011 at 7:34 AM
  • Glink Aboo says:

    My friends and I alternately refer to this place as the Crackhead Barrel and the Crapper Barrel.

    April 19, 2011 at 9:58 PM
  • Edward Sung says:

    I’m not automatically against chain restaurants, per se — for instance, I think Fuddrucker’s makes a better burger than most foodies will admit to — but Cracker Barrel more than earns the contempt of anyone who appreciates good food. I’ve been there several times — always out of desperation or being taken there by relatives — and the food is nothing if not consistent in its mediocrity. It’s really on the level of Swanson frozen dinners (and I’m not convinced that the food isn’t actually just defrosted and heated). I have yet to walk away from a Cracker Barrel without some form of gastrointestinal upset. I’d sooner eat at Burger King than a Cracker Barrel. Okay, not really.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:04 AM
  • Rose says:

    I agree cracker barrel dining is more for the nostalgia of simple old times and families gathering around for a meal. But there are two dishes that I love from there. The chicken fried chicken is really good, I get the green beans and the mashed potatos, the potatoes lack seasoning for my taste but are decent. The other meal I enjoy is the greenchile chicken tenderloins, the greenchile is delicious, the chicken is juicy and flavorful. And the tea is pretty good too, thats about it all tho I did find a good use for their grits, I mix them with the baked apples, not bad at all

    April 22, 2011 at 8:10 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    T’was Cinco de Mayo and I had tix for a Popejoy perfomance depicting the events so where better to go to avoid lines than to the CB and double check my previous experience in light of negations by others and especially as it was Turkey/Stuffing Thursday Especial! My tastebuds confirm: it tastes like turkey! albeit I warded off gravy to-the-side. Admittedly, it’s not one of Martha’s 27 concoctions of stuffing, but it is on par with Stove-Top at least. Oh my the Cranberry sauce was tasty AND with a tang! albeit I usually have a hankering for the slice form from the can, per my youth. One of my “sides” was slaw which was on the sweet, but delicately so, side. The other was the ‘sweet potato(e)’ casserole which was ‘right-on’ per tasting like yams!
    Bottom line, while we have a plethora of choices, those of us who may “batch” it every night, this is a non-budget busting alternative for a stick to your ribs meal as I made it through the 2 1/2 hour performance “unscathed”.
    The performance? T’was their “off-Rt 66″ debut as a group of energetic corps of dancers and 13 mariachi players who should be well polished by next year if they return in terms of depicting the ‘events’ of CdM. Great music and traditional dancing….they must’ve had at least a semi to haul their change of costumes up from El Paso. Too bad their promos didn’t get more of the community in to enjoy.
    BTW, a splendiferous (a la mode the acting style and special effects of 1939) depiction of Cinco de Mayo will be shown on Aug 3rd at 2:15 on TCM (Turner Classic Movie) channel starring, amongst others, Paul Muni as El Prezidente Juarez (as the movie is titled!) and Bette Davis (eh, from my hometown!) See a trailer http://tinyurl.com/3kw8zoh
    “Chow”

    May 8, 2011 at 2:11 PM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    Alas, I must join those who zing Cracker Barrel !!! to where I returned for their Thursday Night Especial. Yes, I went for the Turkey & Stuffin(sic) con cranberry sauce, two sides, and 2 biscuits for a budget busting $8.99! As previously, my meal was great ‘down home’. However, as I passed through their Country Store…which Gil aptly described per its many confectionery temptations from years of yore, albeit I didn’t see any flat, pink bubble gum packs with baseball cards of e.g. Spahn, Mantle, Williams, DiMaggio etc. nor a pack of Beechnut gum I’d give a premium bounty for a stick of (Eh! I occasionally splash with Old Spice! to soothe my skin after using a moderne 5 bladed razor in contrast to a one-blade olde Gillette), I espied freekin Halloween costumes and related paraphernalia along with a ‘large’ niche of Christmas decorations!!!!! Geesh.

    (From the Shame-on-Me/Supercilious File: If I’m not mistaken, I think things like the Iowa, New Hampshire/etc. Primaries are described by some as taking the pulse of “Middle America”, the majority of the US populace. Seems to me, “they” could put ‘voting buttons’ on the tables of CBs ‘acrost’ the country (in contrast to being in Chilis/Applebee’s/etc) to accomplish the same thing for The Great Cracker Barrel Primary!!!)

    “Chow”

    August 12, 2011 at 9:09 AM

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