J. Alexander’s

J. Alexander’s, Houston, TX
December 19, 2007

As with so many of my restaurant excursions, I did not intend to end up at J. Alexander’s for lunch yesterday.  It happened only because the other occupants of the car had suddenly decided that Thai food was too “different” and the accessibility and familar food of a chain restaurant beckoned to them from Westheimer (seriously, sometimes I really struggle with my very nice but very sheltered and timid coworkers).  And so it was that we wound up directly across the street from the restaurant I never wanted to leave the day before (Bistro Le Cep) and, sadly, in an entirely different culinary universe from the one that Bistro Le Cep inhabits.

If it’s not already been well-established, then let me get this out of the way right now:  I strongly dislike chain restaurants.  Thank God I live in a city like Houston where they can be deftly avoided in favor of locally-owned and operated establishments.  I’d be utterly screwed if I lived in Dallas.

dallas-bad.jpg

There are a few chain restaurants that I will go to, knowing full well that they serve microwaved Sysco products cooked by a person a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from an orangutan.  On those occasions, I’m doing what is fondly referred to as “giving up” because I’m exhausted or preoccupied with other matters and I’ll eat whatever is put in front of me.  However, I don’t often make a conscious choice to eat at chain restaurants.  Yesterday’s meal was a perfect example of why I maintain this practice.

J. Alexander’s was packed to the gills with the type of people you’d normally see frequenting the line at the local Golden Corral (hey, I was a poor college student at one point…), which surprised me given the more upscale touches inside the restaurant.  The entire interior was a carefully crafted simulacrum of an expensive steakhouse, all leather seats and mahogany booths and polished brass lamps, except that you get the nagging feeling that the leather is actually “man-made material” and the mahogany is MDF with a nice stain.  Regardless, it’s a nice attempt at classing up a joint and it’s definitely the kind of place that I’d happily go for a cocktail or glass of wine after work.

The service was quick and efficient, if not friendly, so I can’t fault them for that.  And the clean, simple menu gave me hope that this wasn’t your average chain restaurant.  There were clever little items like “MBC Coleslaw” (the “MBC” stands for Maytag blue cheese, three words which elicit a distinct Pavlovian response in my salivary glands) and “Not Your Ordinary Mac ‘n’ Cheese.”  They slyly brag that their desserts are made in-house.  And they list an “executive chef” on the reverse of the menu, all of which was leading me to believe that I might be in for a surprise here.

But there were also the warning signs: calling a Cobb salad sans the avocado a “Westchase Salad” in an awkward attempt to market an $11 salad to the immediate neighborhood, the aforementioned clientele who all appeared to be of the A-1 Steak Sauce persuasion, and the generally overpriced menu items.  Alas, we forged ahead.

My “Cilantro Shrimp” was described as “Black tiger shrimp with cilantro oil and Cajun spices.”  In reality, it was ten shrimp blackened beyond the point of recognition, arrayed on a bed of rice that tasted of tap water.  If these shrimp had been involved in a ten-car pile up, they would need to be identified by their dental records — that’s how blackened they were.  This was major blackening overkill.

I couldn’t taste any Cajun spices but I did see a viscous green drizzle on the shrimp that I took to be the cilantro oil.  The dish was depressingly devoid of any fresh cilantro, which shouldn’t have been too much of a stretch for the kitchen, seeing as how they put about two pounds of raw, diced bell peppers around the rice as garnish.  Again, overkill.  And the bell peppers added nothing aside from a little color.

The cilantro oil itself was the biggest disappointment.  The accident-victim shrimp had been slathered oppressively in the stuff, which had almost no cilantro taste whatsoever.  It tasted almost exclusively of low-quality olive oil, so the dish I ended up eating only a few bites of might have been more accurately described as “Burned tiger shrimp in oil.”  I guess I can see why they didn’t go with this choice of wording.  Appetizing descriptions always win out over veracity, I suppose.

Another dining companion had ordered the “Maui Steak.”  The menu mysteriously declined to elaborate on what made this steak so Hawaiian, but she was intrigued.  It turns out that the secret Maui ingredient was something that looked and tasted of olive oil with pineapple juice mixed in.  The steak was glistening with grease, and not in the good way.  It looked like the angry, pockmarked face of a teenage boy with a sebum issue.  On the upside, the steak fries that accompanied it were actually good.

My other dining companions ordered veggie burgers.  I know, I know.  But I have no control over what these people order.  They complained that their veggie burgers had — as with the other dishes — been coated in oil (cilantro oil? pineapple oil?) in a weird and unwelcome attempt to make them seem “juicy.”  They also complained that the burgers themselves were grainy and bland.  Needless to say, none of us finished our food and declined to taste the in-house desserts.  I didn’t want to contemplate the idea of a carrot cake with olive oil icing.

But there is good news in all of this:  After our oil-soaked afternoon, I believe that I may have finally convinced my coworkers to give up the chains once and for all.  I’ll keep you updated, as always.

16 responses to “J. Alexander’s

  1. I don’t believe it. They’ll be back at Chili’s before you can say “baby back”.

    Fortunately for me, I work in Bellaire which means that there is an endless supply of Mom and Pop places to eat, almost none of them chains.

  2. Love your writing style-very humorous. One thing I’ve always liked about Houston is that whatever kind of food you are in the mood for, you can find it. I wish San Antonio was more like that. There is a glut of restaurants that pass off plates of unsavory food hidden under melted cheese as Mexican. There are handfuls of alternative food joints here, but little that is that exciting. I’ve recently written a review on a local Thai place that your friends may want to brush up on. Liked your post on brussel sprouts. I’d like to hear your opinion on my anchovies. thanks

  3. @ Cory – I’m terribly jealous of you. I used to work over in Bellaire, too, and while I don’t miss the commute from Memorial, I do miss the great restaurants and shopping. Right now I’m working on getting my boss to take me to a good Pho place in the Pan-Asian part of Bellaire. She’s Vietnamese and is convinced that a white girl won’t like Pho, no matter how many times I’ve told her that I DO like it, I just want to go and eat it with HER because I want to enjoy the meal with a Vietnamese perspective. But, wow, that’s a huge tangent I’ve swung off into. Heh. Like I said, I’m totally jealous of you and your mom-and-pop joints. 🙂

    @ ieat – I’m headed over to sarestaurantreview right now to check your anchovies, my friend. You should leave your website in the comments, so other people can visit, too! 🙂

  4. When Jo posted the holiday blog on our chefs network site, I knew I had to read more! Ah yes, David Lynch and Mulholland drive along with Ice cream slasher movie is my kind of humor! I had to watch it with a big smile on my face. Thanks!

  5. Lenny Lovehandles

    Hey! – What’s wrong with chains?? Long live the Paradise Pie….:-)

  6. @ Debra: I’m so glad you followed the Yellow Brick Road over here from PCN and so very glad to have a reader who appreciates my morbid sense of humor! You never know if food + black humor will appeal to the masses, so it’s nice to see that I’ve reached another kindred spirit out there. 😀

    @ Chain Lover: Shut up and crawl back to your insipid Applebee’s, you mongrel. Just kidding, my love… 😉

  7. Andrew williams

    J’s has the most scrumptious veggie burger I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve tried A LOT. I’ve gone so far as to try to find similar recepies online. To each his own.

  8. Stumbled across this article looking for a recipe, how pretentious you are.

  9. I just came across this article and had to make a quick comment. i agree it can be frustrating when people aren’t willing to look beyond chain restaurants, BUT i do have to say you missed on when you chose to for-go(sp?) J. Alexanders carrot cake. If you like carrot cake, this is a must. I’ve only been there twice. Once for a full meal and another time just for the cake. Nothing about the food stands out. I dont even remember what i had;l but that cake has been with me since. When you go back for that post-work drink you mentioned, assuming you like carrot cake, you should really give it a shot. let me know if you do. 🙂

    • yessssss… their carrot cake!!!!!! i lived in the south for five years, and this dessert is the only thing i remember about this restaurant. we’re getting married back in nashville next year, and i am buying their carrot cake to use as my wedding cake. it’s THAT good.

  10. My family went to J Alexander’s yesterday. We ordered the sirloin with baked potato, the rotissoire chicken salad, the fish sandwich with fries, and an order of their chicken noodle soup. I would rate the meal average and the price very over rated. We went to J Alexander’s on recommendation of a friend that they had great carrot cake. So, we went on and ordered carrot cake for desert. It was amazing! My recommendation, go elsewhere for a meal and save J Alexander’s for desert and coffee and you will not be disappointed!

  11. I once worked as a server there for a while and they really do make most of the things themselves. If you order the veggie burger without the sauce, it is fabulous (veggie burgers made of real food are phenomenal). At least once a day, someone was in the back mixing up flour, sugar, etc., for the carrot cake. They even had a giant recipe book in the back so you could go look up ingredients if a customer had an allergy or something.

    The (not so) funny thing is that all the “teamwork” you see going on? The management and the other staff will snap at you if you didn’t pick up enough dishes from another person’s section.

  12. We have a J. Alexanders in Memphis Tn, and I have seen the Sames Grill master there cooking up the meat for the last 10 years. So I know it is consistant! I’ve never gotten a bad meal out of there. On the other hand, most of the mom and pop restuarants around here serve microwaved Sysco products cooked by a person a few rungs up the evolutionary ladder from an orangutan.

  13. Sounds like a one-off bad experience. The “oil” on the veggie burger is a ginger-mustard glaze. It’s since been removed but most regulars still request it to be added. The maui is a 14oz ribeye that is aged in-house for over a month, and marinated in a from-scratch tropical marinade for a week. Everything in the place is made from scratch, bar the fries, which come frozen. It’s not the best place to work, but I can tell you with great certitude that you won’t get a more carefully, freshly prepared meal in any other chain.

  14. I was looking around for J. Alexander’s coleslaw recipe (a simple side dish which I am picky about, but theirs was stellar) and came across your blog, I agree that J. Alexander’s is overrated except for the carrot cake (and coleslaw.) I love reading food blogs but would caution you to be less pretentious… you may find more followers,

  15. I just came across your blog looking for the coleslaw recipe. I just went yesterday here in ATlanta to J. Alexander’s and ordered also the Cilantro Shrimp. I must tell you: mine was delicious and I did not have any stomach cramps afterwards. We eat at home extremely healthy and I get stomach aches after eating in restaurants. I am a very small person and I normally eat only half of the food I ordered, but I have to say: I devoured it yesterday and finished the whole plate. It was my first time going to J.Alexander’s and it was yummy. The servers were nice and paid attention to us and the food was great. Sorry, you had such a bad experience there.

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