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.
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.