It's got to be one of the most relaxed gigs in the restaurant world: Chef/caterer Ann Swain, who owns the lunchroom at Autry House, is open for business only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and only on weekdays. She presides over a pleasant, high-ceilinged refectory populated by high-IQ Rice students, bespectacled professors and well-behaved Medical Center personnel. Even her bookkeeping is simplified by the cash-or-check-only payment policy, surely the last no-plastic bastion in Houston.
Not that you need a lot of cash at this eatery-within-a-chapel. Blue-plate prices for an entrée and two vegetables run from $4 to no more than $8, and that high-water mark is reserved for the Norwegian salmon special on Fridays. No wonder Swain was beaming recently as she rang up our purchases. "Twenty-five dollars, that's got to be our record," she said with a laugh. Over her shoulder, the Reverend Ed Stein, the dog-collared Episcopal minister who shepherds the Autry Refectory's chapel flock, was beaming too. He surveyed the crowd with a smile, looking over dozens of heads bowed happily over steaming plates of food. Since Swain took over the cafeteria operation, rest assured those students have been well fed, and at a 10 percent discount to boot.
Each day at Autry House is known for its daily bread. For example, the kids call Wednesday "chicken enchilada day" ($5.95), and Thursday is "chicken and dumplings day" ($4.95). On our last visit, we found those chicken and dumplings absolutely grandma-approved: a white china bowl full of chicken chunks and fat, squishy dumplings, afloat in a thick, salty chicken broth prettily flecked with green bits of parsley. And every day, hurray, is King Ranch chicken casserole day ($5.95), Swain's heartfelt rendition of the church-supper classic, also chock-full of chicken chunks satisfyingly swathed in gooey gravy and cheese, dotted with black olives and chopped tomatoes. No, this isn't challenge food for glossy culinary magazines; it's soothing, simple food for the homesick, the stressed out, the brain-drained.
6265 South Main
Those who freeze in indecision when confronted by the gazillion and one choices on the line at a franchise cafeteria will be relieved at the more modest spread of salads and vegetables at Autry House. Each day there are just four vegetables to choose from, standards such as steamed broccoli or yellow corn, say. Our current favorite is the mashed potatoes, a buttery blend of new potatoes with shreds of red skin and the occasional lump for authenticity. The brown gravy was a bit thin, true, but perhaps all the better to allow the rich, earthy flavor of the ivory-colored mash to shine through. We weren't as happy with the squash, which had perhaps waited too long for us in its steam-table tray. The zucchini was brownish and limp, its blandness unrelieved by great hunks of overblanched green bell pepper.
There are four daily salad choices, too, each available by the cup or by the bowl. On our last visit, we were pleased with a simple toss of sliced cucumbers and radishes (cup $1.50, bowl $3) lightly dressed with a yogurt-sour cream blend, seasoned with lacy fronds of fresh dill. The lightly sweetened fruit salad (cup $2, bowl $4) was fresh and appetizing, made mostly of watermelon and red grapes but overwhelmed by the sharp citrus tang of ruby red grapefruit. (My grandma always warned me that "mean ol' grapefruit" would take over any fruit salad you put it in; if I needed proof, I found it here.)
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Some deals on the Autry House line are strangely better than others. While eight bucks may be a bargain for the Friday salmon, one of my dining companions pouted over his skimpy single slice of everyday meat loaf, at $5.95 priced the same as my plate-overlapping serving of King Ranch chicken. The meat loaf was moist and flavorful; the serving was just too dang small. And we all sulked over the $4.25 bowl of "Cajun" chicken and sausage gumbo, so seriously underflavored that we repeatedly doused it with Tabasco, then admitted defeat and left it unfinished on the table.
The dessert goodies are found close to the cash register, of course, and alternate between various fruit cobblers and pies, brownies, oatmeal and chocolate chip cookies, even tapioca pudding. (Does anyone ever eat that stuff?) I was fond of the Kahlóa brownie ($1.50), thickly topped with a sugary caramel icing crunchy with chopped pecans; and I felt wonderfully decadent eating it in "church," so to speak. The peach cobbler ($2) was more what I expected from a cafeteria: sweet and ignominiously stuffed into a cup tightly wrapped in plastic, which softened the pastry crust more than I'd have liked. As if apologizing, the sliced peaches, sweet with cinnamon and sugar, tried hard to compensate.
It seems almost churlish to pick at what is obviously a genial, good-hearted place. Despite the minor slips, no doubt inherent in performing the miracle of the loaves and fishes on a daily basis, there are few more pleasant venues to dine than this laid-back room, its tables topped with cheery green-and-white checked oilcloths. Of course, if one is very early or very lucky, the absolute best seats in fine weather are at one of the half-dozen tables just outside the French windows on the shady, vine-trellised patio. Even the game of restaurant eavesdropping, as played here, is unique. On any given weekday, you might tune in to a discussion of particle physics at one table, Latin participles at another and the latest in paramedic technology at a third. Food for the body, the mind and, presumably, the soul. What more could one ask of a cafeteria?
Autry House, 6265 South Main, (713)521-1589.