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The housemade banana pudding at the Humble City Cafe came in a cannonball-size schooner. The astonishingly large glass was lined with vanilla wafers and topped with a towering dome of whipped cream. At first I figured the enormous banana pudding parfait in a beer schooner just looked over-the-top to me because I think of banana pudding as a simple dessert and picture it the way my mom made it, in a rectangular glass baking dish.
200 E. Main St.
Humble, TX 77338
7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sundays.
Chicken-fried steak: $13
Honey-marinated salmon: $14
Meatloaf special: $9
Banana pudding: $6
But then the peach cobbler arrived in a miniature cast-iron Dutch oven. The waitress set it down next to the cornbread, which was delivered in a black cast-iron skillet set in a wooden holder. The peach cobbler didn't just look good, it was made with fresh peaches rather than canned, with a gooey bread pudding-type crust. By then I had concluded that honest, homemade-tasting food in elaborate vessels was the theme here.
To tell the truth, I was reminded of the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain when I first walked into Humble City Cafe last summer. Both of these country-themed restaurants require you to walk through a gift shop filled with scented cutesy crap and wait at the hostess stand until somebody seats you. As the hostess led me to my table, I was resigned to the idea that I was about to eat the same sort of bumpkin fodder that they serve you at Cracker Barrel.
I was researching chicken-fried steaks on that first visit. (See "I Love CFS," June 21, 2007). I was pleasantly surprised to see that the menu was written in plain English instead of the moronic "salads n' such" Cracker Barrel style. And I laughed out loud when I read that the restaurant served the best chicken-fried steak in Texas. I wish I had a cold beer for every time I have heard that claim.
But in fact, the chicken-fried steak I sampled there was among the best I've had in the Houston area. It was beautifully battered and fried in the undulating Southern fried chicken-style, with an excellent pepper gravy on the side. It came with hand-cut French fries and a slice of Texas toast, along with a bowl of seasoned green beans. The CFS was marred by a little gristle, but otherwise it was splendid.
I was also impressed by the high ceilings and stone walls of the pleasantly dark interior. The Humble City Cafe is located in the Pangburn Building, which was built in 1914 and has housed a long list of retail establishments, including a drug store, a grocery and the original City Cafe. The dining room features broad wooden floors, and the high ceilings are covered with pressed tin. Old signs and memorabilia from the days when Humble was an oil boomtown hang on the walls.
On another visit, I sampled the "Humble burger," a massive sandwich made with an enormous ten-ounce ground beef patty decorated with lettuce, a slice of tomato and a slice of purple onion on a square, sweet bread bun spread with mustard and mayo. I ordered it medium rare and it came out closer to medium well, but it was still one of the best oversize burgers I've had lately. If you like your burgers big (and I do), you will be pleased to note that all four burgers on the menu at Humble City Cafe are made with ten-ounce patties. There is a bacon cheddar version and another with mushrooms and Swiss, along with a patty melt with sautéed onions and Swiss on toasted rye. The burgers come with hand-cut fries and a pickle.
Meatloaf was the daily special one day when I stopped by for lunch. It was a bargain at $9 with two sides and cornbread, so I ordered some. My lunchmate ordered "honey marinated grilled salmon," which went for $14. I was quite sure that I had ordered wisely and he had made a mistake. Meatloaf sounds like one of those country-cooking entrées that a small-town Texas cafe with great CFS and awesome hamburgers is going to excel at, and marinated salmon does not.
Imagine my surprise when his salmon showed up perfectly cooked to medium and deliciously flavored by the sweet marinade. And my plate of bland meatloaf with sticky mashed potatoes and boring brown gravy turned out to be the worst meal I ate at the Humble City Cafe.
My friend got a side of turnip greens with lots of big chunks of turnips in it. I love the bitter flavor of turnips, and I ate most of his bowl after adding some hot pepper sauce. I traded him my tedious grilled zucchini, which was made by slicing the squash lengthwise and slapping it on the grill with no discernible seasonings.
The menu also features a Tex-Mex section and a couple of Black Angus steaks. Hopefully some braver souls than me will sample those unlikely items and get back to us with a full report. Who knows, they could be right up there with the salmon.
The vegetables are hit or miss and the meatloaf a bad idea, but otherwise this place turned out some remarkably solid cooking. The chicken-fried steak has already made my statewide top 25 list and the hamburger is a real contender in any round-up of greater Houston's best burgers. Combine that with a location in a 94-year-old building in the historic district of an old boomtown, and you get a truly charming small-town Texas cafe — if you can hold your nose long enough to get past the potpourri.