As we sat at a table waiting for our food at The Men's Club of Houston, my friend Glenn told me a story about a trip to a Houston BYOB strip club and a dancer named Dimension X, who "flapped her pussy" in his face while giving him a lap dance. That gruesome image was instantly seared into my head.
So I was happy when our Roman Orgy appetizer plate appeared, and I had an excuse to think about something else. But, good God, what a miserable trade-off in imagery it was. One fried shrimp. One stuffed jalapeño. One chicken tender cut into three bites that you'd feed to a toddler. An unidentifiable lump of meat in one corner. And "seasonal fruit" scattered across leaves of lettuce that was actually mealy watermelon and nearly colorless honeydew. Watermelon is not in season. Neither is honeydew.
"This tastes like sawdust," Glenn said of the watermelon before spitting it out.
"I can't even tell what this is," I responded, poking at the mysterious meat lump. He picked up a strip of it.
"I think it's a battered jalapeño," he said, squinting at it. It's so dark inside the dining room at the Men's Club that it's impossible to read the wine list, let alone see your food, without pulling out your cell phone. The scantily clad but always sweetly helpful waitresses usually oblige with their own.
The meat turned out to be beef fajita strips, cold and nearly congealed. Glenn and I split the shrimp in half, and I ate the stuffed jalapeño. They were the only edible items on the plate. "This doesn't feel like an orgy," he cracked. "Certainly not a Roman one." And it certainly wasn't worth $17.
In an age when you can see more at home with an Internet connection thanks to City of Houston laws mandating how much of a stripper's areolae need to be covered, are strip clubs and their mostly overpriced offerings becoming obsolete?
That seemed to be the case on a quiet Tuesday night at The Men's Club, where beautiful girls halfheartedly "danced" more or less fully clothed on a runway for a few bored-looking men who were more interested in tie-loosening and Jack-sipping than anything else. They sat in cushioned wingback chairs amidst dim lighting and Toulouse-Lautrec prints on the walls, a cigar case squatting near the entrance and men in suits walking the floor to check on their customers. Sex seemed to be the last thing that was selling here. Is this the modern version of a gentleman's club?
If so, shouldn't it have better food?
I was shocked to find out that the Men's Club employs an actual chef, Dwight Stewart, who — by at least one account — is a pretty regular guy. Chef Jason Kerr, an occasional contributor at the Houston Press, interviewed Stewart last week independent of my review. It was a fairly standard interview, as our online Chef Chat series go. Stewart told Kerr he doesn't date the dancers, he actually works the line and he stays pretty low-key, rarely leaving the kitchen.
This, combined with a cursory glance at what looked like a pretty decent menu online, led me to the Men's Club in the first place. Unfortunately, I wasn't exactly impressed with Stewart's work.
On that initial Tuesday night, I was perhaps already in an uncharitable mood after paying $8.50 for a Jack and Coke that was mostly Coke, then another $8.50 for a shot of Jack that I bet went like this: Take a shot glass, put an ice cube in it, pour a little Jack Daniel's on the top, let it all melt, serve. Across the table, Glenn merely chuckled at me, a cold bottle of Budweiser in his hand. "You're doing it wrong, Shilcutt. They can't water down beer."
There are apparently many rules like this that I'm unfamiliar with, that Tuesday being my first visit ever to any strip club, anywhere, despite a nearly irrefutable rule that any Baylor grad had to catch a show at Sonny's BYOB by its legendary (and most likely fictitious) one-legged stripper. I almost wore it as a point of pride that I'd made it 30 years without setting foot in a strip club. But the hotel lobby-vibe at the Men's Club was only vaguely tinged with sleaze, certainly no more so than any regular club of the non-breast-baring variety.
By the time our entrées arrived, we had become uninterested in the girls onstage. There is no pole at the Men's Club, no mirrors, just a runway that leads halfway into the dining room on which the nearly identical-looking girls gyrate endlessly. At one point, I'd caustically remarked that one of them had "mom hair," to which Glenn replied, "Those are actual people up there, Katharine." He was being sarcastic, but it shamed me into silence for the rest of the meal. We talked about other things instead, or rather yelled into each other's face over the ear-numbing sounds of Flyleaf and Lit and other bands I'd thought faded into obscurity with the 1990s.
My lavender-crusted ahi tuna salad was the better of the two entrées, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it contained actual lavender and actual ahi tuna. Several pieces were draped over a mound of field greens that had been coated lugubriously with a peanut dressing that reminded me of a Chili's airport salad. Great? No. Inoffensive? Yes. And inoffensively priced at only $10.
Glenn's Kobe beef burger was most certainly not Kobe beef, but it was a decent pub-style burger. The mound of sturdy french fries that came with it nearly made up for the $9 price tag. The meat was sadly unseasoned, but the cloak of cheddar cheese beneath an eggy bun held it up stoically. I wouldn't order it again, but I'm not exactly the Men's Club target clientele, am I?
What the Men's Club does manage to do quite effectively is cater to its target clientele: the middle-aged men taking breaks from their home lives and the groups of young, frattish men who come in to impress each other and bump fists over bottles of MGD. Steak and shrimp nights with loaded baked potatoes. Half-priced menus on Tuesdays. Happy hour buffets with greasy finger foods. Crawfish boils in the summer. The food isn't good, but it isn't bad either.
On a recent Saturday night, another friend and I arrived well before the Men's Club starts charging a cover — 10 p.m. — to find the main room characteristically empty. There wasn't even a dancer onstage. My friend, a seasoned strip-club connoisseur, was bereft. Until our waitress came by, that is.
Oana was of Eastern European origin and — like the dancers — stunning. She asked for our drink orders, and my friend sputtered his out like an old lawn mower starting up. I asked to see the wine list, and then quickly gave it back when I saw the cheapest item was a $25 half-bottle of Kendall-Jackson amidst a list that had average bottles of Merlot listed at $1,050. Ordering the house wine by the glass seemed like a safer venture.
They really do gouge a hunk of your flesh on the drinks here, which seems to be how the Men's Club generates a lot of its revenue. I pondered this over an $8.50 glass of house Cabernet that tasted like room-temperature Manischewitz while our waitress sat back down with one of her regulars and resumed chatting with him, presumably for extra tips.
My friend looked somewhat longingly after her. "It's a shame she has to sit with that creepy old dude," he remarked. Then, a few minutes later, "Do you think I could pay her to just do a few laps in my living room? She smells so good." I ignored him and plowed heroically through my glass of warm, sugary wine.
Our dinner that night came out to $35, exclusive of wine. And for that, I can't fault the Men's Club. A down economy might be keeping big spenders off the main floor, but it also means that you can dine fairly cheaply here if you're a man with a big appetite out on the town.
Crab cakes were poorly constructed but filled with lashings of jumbo lump crab; these were heavily buttered, rendering the side ramekin of rémoulade nearly moot. Garlicky baked potato soup was clearly made from reconstituted potato flakes — something made even clearer when the same garlic mashed potatoes showed up as side items on both entrées — but would appeal to a certain type of unfussy palate. Salad was a steakhouse-type affair with great bunches of iceberg lettuce, bacon, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs. And our entrées were large enough to feed two people each.
My dining companion's pork chop tasted like it had been cooked on a dirty grill, the flavor of old oil and charcoaled scrapings more pronounced than any pork flavor. But my chicken-fried steak was wonderful. I was gobsmacked. "I guess Sysco does some things right," my friend joked as he chewed a few bites of it. The soft steak inside cut easily with a fork, the nicely crunchy batter embracing it closely, never gummy, never flaky. It needed no gravy.
By the time our cheesecake arrived, I was too full to eat more than two bites. It tasted like the industrial-size cheesecakes that Costco sells, grout-thick and overly sweet. My dining companion, who I was beginning to think might become a regular, wolfed it down, then headed for the bathroom.
A few minutes later, he was back. "The bathroom attendant, this older Hispanic dude, was reading a cookbook," he reported.
"Really?" I sat up in my seat. "Which one?"
"Something by Escoffier," he replied.
"Escoffier?" I repeated, astonished. Maybe the wrong man is in the kitchen. As I ruminated on this bizarre arrangement — a bathroom attendant devouring classic French cooking tomes and a kitchen turning out mediocre steaks — a dancer finally took the stage. It was 10 p.m. My dining companion's eyes lit up.
"Is this really that interesting?" I asked as he admired the woman's long torso and flawless hair. "She's not naked. You aren't even going to interact with her. She's not interested in you."
"Well," he finally said after a long pause. "There are worse things to look at while you're eating."
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