You have to remember only one thing before you go to Cleburne Cafeteria: Bring cash, because they don't accept credit cards. Once you get there, the rest is gravy. Quite literally, actually.
It took me longer than it should have to visit Cleburne Cafeteria. Like a fool, I judged the book by its cover and assumed, perhaps because of the unassuming plastic sign, that it was some local branch of a Lubyseque chain. "Probably just for old people with no taste buds and a high tolerance for salt," I remember thinking.
The only thing remotely true in the aforementioned assertion is that Cleburne does seem to be a hotspot for the post-70 set. But one reason seniors might favor the Cafeteria is that they've followed the sweet history of this restaurant, which has existed in various forms for more than six decades.
This article continues on the next page. In addition to the fact that I'm a sucker for an immigrant success story and food history, I also have a strong fondness for cafeteria dining. I know standing in a line with a tray should remind me of that shitstorm known as middle school, but oddly, I find it comforting. And the food selection at Cleburne is definitely a far cry from the desiccated produce, carcinogenic mystery meat, and suspect dairy products that comprised the "hot lunch" at my school cafeteria.
I purposefully chose to visit Cleburne on a Tuesday so I could try their much-lauded chicken and dumplings special. However, when I was faced with other enticing options such as the chicken fried chicken, meat loaf, fried catfish and turkey, I questioned my original decision. "Stick to the plan, O'Leary," I told myself and turned a blind eye to the other tantalizing entrees.
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I faced further paralyzing indecision when it came to choosing sides. Cleburne Cafeteria claims to visit farmers' markets daily for their produce, and their selection of fresh, appetizing vegetable dishes (green beans, feta and tomato salad, roasted brussel sprouts, carrot salad, and homemade coleslaw) supports this assertion.
The cold weather had me craving something heartier, and frankly, less healthy, so I paired my chicken and dumplings with baked squash and some macaroni and cheese. And for dessert? Yet another dilemma, given the mountainous cake slices, huge pieces of cream pie, and custards. My usual strategy in such situations is simple: "One of each, please." But the surprisingly hefty price tag per dessert ($4) convinced me that I didn't need an entire buffet just for myself.
Because I arrived at the tail end of lunch, I took my meal to go, lest I annoy the waitstaff by lingering as they tried to clean and prepare for dinner service. I don't think my meal suffered for lack of Cleburne's atmosphere. The chicken and dumplings lived up to the hype: The large slices of white meat were tender and juicy and mixed with soft white dumplings enrobed in a peppery white gravy. I also very much enjoyed the no-frills macaroni and cheese (the most stereotypical "cafeteria" item in terms of composition) and the baked squash, which I suspect contained half a stick of butter. Less impressive was my yellow cake, due to the extremely low frosting-to-cake ratio. In my book, the piddling amount smeared on the cake constituted a "glaze" not "icing."
Next time (which may be, um, tomorrow), I can't wait to switch things up, perhaps with some roast beef, gravy, and cornbread. I'll skip the yellow cake, but double up on the pies, maybe coconut meringue and dutch apple.