The Spread: Michael's International

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As a service to our readers, Hair Balls has re-launched "The Spread," a weekly review of restaurants that have somehow fallen off the radar of our more esteemed food critics. We hope you enjoy.

Michael's International
6440 Southwest Freeway
Free buffet hours: Mon-Fri, 11 a.m. -2 p.m. and 4 p.m.-8 p.m.

If you have $4 and low expectations, Michael's International may be one of the best lunch deals in Houston.

My dining companions and I learned the hard way about the low expectations: I, for one, was lured by the advertisement for the place, which stated "Chicas Locas." Admittedly, I'm not fluent in Spanish, but I believe this is along the lines of the venerable southern California chain of fast-casual restaurants called El Pollo Loco. Unfortunately, the dim lighting and thumping reggaeton bass at Michael's is nothing like the sunny, family-friendly Crazy Chicken.

After paying the four bucks each to an unusually scantily-clad hostess in a lobby area, we entered the main dining hall. I was immediately impressed by the variety on what the menu claims is a 52-foot salad bar. The "salad" half of the bar was especially inviting, with a variety of fruit and vegetable concoctions. I opted for the cucumber salad, which was absolutely soaking in sweet sauce. Many folks might be turned off by such a saturation level, but I found it absolutely invigorating.

After loading our plates, the three of us found an open table, which wasn't hard, as there were only a few patrons there, all of whom were male, and some of whom were wearing cowboy hats. I hit the chicken parmesan first. While luke-warm and listing slightly toward the dry end of the spectrum, it was decent enough. The accompanying noodles, however, were cold and rubbery, and the runny tomato sauce likely came straight from a jar. And not even a Ragu or Newman's Own jar, but probably some off-brand joint.

I quickly sought refuge in the Ravioli of Unknown Origin. For some reason, I could tell by a cursory external observation that the pasta pockets didn't contain meat, so I was excited about the mysterious bounty inside. The excitement didn't last long, as the ravioli literally yielded no taste, and after eating three or four, I still couldn't tell what was inside.

Meanwhile, my mustachioed but ostensibly heterosexual dining companion declared the one entree I neglected to get on my first trip -- something that appeared to be lasagna -- to be "pretty good." Feeling like I had missed out, I dived into the Italian sausage with not much enthusiasm, only to be pleasantly surprised by semi-spicy deliciousness. Unlike the other entrees, someone clearly knew how to prepare sausage.

When a waitress finally appeared, I felt uplifted enough to order a beer to accompany the sausage. But when I asked if they had Lone Star, the waitress gave me a puzzled look, like she had never heard of Lone Star. Never mind, I said, I'll have a Shiner. My companions ordered Shiners as well, not realizing yet that we just agreed to pay $18 for those drinks. I gave the waitress my credit card, and then she said she'd need to hold onto my driver's license as well, a singular event in my history of eating out. She disappeared with both. Neither of my companions seemed alarmed; Mr. Mustache was watching a Dodgers game on one of the overhead televisions -- one of his fantasy league members, Chad Billingsley, was at bat; and the tattooed ex-Marine, whose shirt was unbuttoned `70's-style in an apparent mating ritual, was fervently tweeting beneath the table.

On our second trip to the salad bar, I made sure to grab some of the alleged lasagna, as well as a roll. The waitress caught us at the bar and gave us what appeared to be the bill for the beers to the ex-Marine, who politely directed her toward me. I signed what I thought was the bill, and we returned to our seats.

The lasagna was decent, although I was immediately convinced it was not lasagna but in fact tuna casserole. The roll was approaching stale. Mr. Mustache examined the menu and discovered that, while Shiners were $6, a 12-year-old Scotch was just $2.75 more. "Although," he said dismissively, with a bit of an aristocratic sneer, "it's probably a mixed blend."  Overall, he said, the meal reminded him of dorm food, and he asked the Tweeter how it compared to armed forces fare. Answer: "about the same."

Based on the menu prices, the buffet was a real steal: had we come during non-buffet hours and ordered the exact same items from the menu, our bill probably would have been three figures. But it was nice to know Michael's offered the usual appetizers, as well as a decent burger and sandwich selection.

When the waitress returned, she had the real bill -- apparently the document I signed earlier was just a practice run -- and she handed it to 'Stache, who then handed it to me. (Although the waitress still had my driver's license and its attendant photograph, she was still uncertain as to who actually provided the credit card).

We all agreed that, for $4, it's hard to complain about less-than-excellent quality; and if you forego any beer with your meal, Michael's is a darn fine deal. Just leave your high expectations at home.

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