Staying for Supper
Natachee's doors were wide open to our photographer this past week. See the slideshow here.
"You need a punch in the mouth," the sign greeted me as I walked into Natachee's Supper 'n Punch one evening. Sly little touches abound in the restaurant — this one a reference to the alcoholic punches that Natachee's whips up behind its bar — that's full of tongue-in-cheek playfulness and equally sassy waitresses. And although it struggled a bit when it first opened back in October, Natachee's has finally come into its own.
Menu items like the pork 'n cheezy burger (that's Natachee-talk for a bacon cheeseburger) and a solidly constructed chicken fried steak with homestyle mashed potatoes and red-eye gravy are making the restaurant one of the strongest anchors in this new development along Main Street in Midtown. Popularly known as the "Best Block in Houston," this stretch of Main kisses the Ensemble/HCC stop along the light rail and hosts popular live-music venues The Continental Club, Big Top and the Mink. Natachee's is in good company, neighbor-wise, with t'afia just around the corner and Tacos a Go-Go a few yards away, but it wisely doesn't try to compete with either restaurant.
The menu is classic Texas all the way, with short diversions into the rest of the South for items like pulled pork sandwiches and sliders. It's at its best when serving up local country classics like an open-faced meat loaf sandwich.
"People love or hate the sauce," our waitress, Cyndi, informed me one evening. "It's kind of spicy." I told her to bring it on, and was glad that I did.
The meat loaf here benefits strongly from that chunky, peppery sauce, almost an Italian-style ragout. It's not that the meat loaf itself is dry — it's not — but the sauce itself is so good, with a hint of sweetness coming through, the spice never overwhelming the acidic tomato base. It's hard to believe there are people who hate it.
And on top of the sandwich, without even requesting it, was a fried egg encased in an onion ring. I never would have ordered the meat loaf sandwich this way normally (I would have preferred to taste it unspoiled by additional gimmicky toppings), but ended up raving about the combination for days: bright yellow yolk oozing into the spicy sauce, all of it absorbed by the soft meat loaf underneath.
The meat here originally suffered from a distinct lack of seasoning. My first burger at Natachee's back in November was so bland that I nearly emptied an entire bottle of Crystal hot sauce on top in a vain effort to prop it up. The restaurant seems to have overcome this handicap, as the meat loaf and successive burgers, sliders and slabs of chicken-fried steak have all been expertly seasoned.
"You were really hard on this place when it first opened," said my friend Bill Shirley with a half-smile one recent Friday evening. We were there for the monthly Geek Gathering, where 90.1 KPFT's Technology Bytes hosts its listeners in an informal setting, usually a coffee shop. This month found us packed into a hopping-busy Natachee's, where Sean Reefer was warming up on the steel guitar and folks were slowly trickling out onto the enormous patio despite the cold weather.
"You're right, I was," I admitted to Bill.
"This wood," he said, pointing to the beams that formed the structure of Natachee's bar area, "was salvaged from an old house in the Heights that was being torn down." I suddenly felt terrible, knowing where Bill was going with this. In my "First Look" at the restaurant on the Press food blog, I wrote that it felt like a cross between a general store and the Country Bear Jamboree theater at Disney World. Now that the restaurant has settled into itself and has begun serving peppy, sassy food to match its theme, that description seems very uncharitable.
I told Bill that night that Natachee's had really grown on me since then, and it has.
I love the vibe it brings to this section of Main Street, from the raucous energy at night to the blowsy, laid-back feeling during the day, when businessmen from downtown mingle with the rockabilly kids who are hard at work constructing a salon/tattoo shop on the same block. Everyone is welcome here.
That vibe is only encouraged by the fabulous waitresses, from the bright and sparkling Cyndi to the talkative, friendly Larraine behind the bar. It's rare to find a restaurant with waitstaff so dedicated to making each customer feel at home.
Home-style food like your Southern mother would make doesn't hurt, either.
"I can't get enough of this gravy," my friend gushed over lunch one day. The notoriously picky gal, a pastry chef by trade, was delighted by the creamy gravy and its thick chunks of pan sausage. On top of the skin-in mashed potatoes that accompanied her chicken-fried steak, it was a one-two punch of perfection. The meat in the CFS was — like all of Natachee's meat — very well seasoned, but we were sad to see the batter underseasoned, soggy and pulling away from the steak as if it were being shed like a snakeskin.
My sliders (called "skillet lickers" here) were much better, however. The tangy little patties on sweet buns were dripping with seasoned mayonnaise and sweet juice from the mess of caramelized onions on top. My onion rings were suffering the same problem as the CFS: underseasoned batter that was far from crispy. It was puzzling to me, as the onion rings here consistently have been one of Natachee's best items. But with a new-ish kitchen, it stands to reason that they're still working out the kinks of consistency.
But our appetizers were spot-on: fried pickles — another of Natachee's all-star items — and guacamole. We were wary of ordering guac in such a down-home restaurant, but Larraine assured us it was one of the kitchen's best items, and she wasn't wrong.
"This is better than most of the guacamoles at most Tex-Mex places in town," raved my friend as we ate every last bite, the fresh guac bursting with onion and sweet tomatoes.
Despite loving the restaurant and its improved menu, I think there are definitely areas in which Natachee's can better itself. And I have no doubt that it will.
Were I in Natachee's shoes, the first place I'd start is with the punches. After all, "punch" is in the restaurant's name. The stuff needs to live up to that hype. The Sucker Punch here is a dizzyingly sweet and wonderful concoction of rum, pineapple juice and amaretto. It's like college all over again, in the best possible way. But the Paw-Paw's Paloma and the Maw-Maw's MellowRama Punch are to be avoided for now. The Paloma uses what I think is canned, unsweetened grapefruit juice in addition to its tequila and Triple Sec, while the MellowRama packs in enough Midori to intoxicate an entire sorority party. Both results are unpleasant.
And since these are punches we're talking about, why not make them ahead of time in small batches to let the flavors meld? Perhaps use fresh melon in the MellowRama instead of melon-flavored liquor? Use fresh, Ruby Red grapefruit juice in the Paloma? Both punches could stand a fair bit of augmentation.
Certain sides, too, aren't keeping up with their entrée counterparts. Macaroni and cheese here is still too gloppy, encasing itself in a hard outer shell of cheese after sitting on the table for only a minute or two. And I like the direction of the unusual coleslaw with slices of bell pepper in addition to the cabbage and carrots, but the mayonnaise-whole grain mustard concoction that coats it tastes solely of spice. It needs more balance, and definitely more salt.
But these are such small things, such minor nitpicks in the face of things like the wonderful daughter-in-law burger — a tasty veggie burger that's an unexpected treat on a menu laden with meat — or the enormous slices of sweet potato pie that are served warm with real whipped cream slowly melting on top. I can't wait for the warmer months and evenings I expect to spend on Natachee's broad, splayed-out patio...hopefully with a new and improved Paloma in one hand and a bowl of fried pickles in the other.
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