DEFCON Dining: Le Peep

Dining out with children is an exercise in situational awareness. Each experience is unique, with different variables leading to different possible outcomes, DEFCON-like in their escalating threat levels. Keen observation, forward planning, and prior experience are critical in determining the proper strategy. Here at DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt-work for you. It ain't always pretty.

2012 has been a hell of a year, so far. If things continue apace, I figure I'll be committed by June. Most recent in the list of grievances was a call I received a week ago, while at work. I was already expecting to leave early to take my youngest to a visit with a pediatric allergist; we suspected asthma, and wanted to get to the bottom of the near-constant breathing problems that had plagued her since the beginning of fall. Turns out she also had a sinus infection.

The call came from my wife, an edge of panic in her voice, telling me that my daughter's pediatrician had called her, asking that she bring our daughter in immediately. Some lab work she had done at her last visit had just come back, and it looked like she had a staph infection. I was home in 15 minutes, and we had our daughter to the doctor in 30.

As it turns out, she's fine. They'd caught the infection early, it was mild, and they got her on an ass-kicking, name-taking antibiotic. Even after we found out that what had seemed like truly frightening news was not such a big deal, we felt for the kid. She'd been poked and prodded, tested and re-tested a lot lately, missing a few play-dates here and there because of her illnesses. I decided to take her out to lunch instead of returning her to school, and I asked her to pick the spot.

She chose, as she frequently does, Le Peep. It became her favorite restaurant a few years back, while her older sister was in kindergarten. There were many mornings on which my wife would walk the two girls to school, deposit the elder in class, and have breakfast with the younger, at Le Peep. In addition to those mommy-daughter memories, I think she appreciates the fact that Le Peep is extremely kid-friendly. The wait-staff almost always coos at her cuteness, she gets to color and play tic-tac-toe, and they have eggs. In general, that kid seems to absorb nutrients out of the atmosphere, like one of those weird air-ferns, but she can always be counted on to eat a few over-mediums.

This time, she sided her eggs with a gigantic pancake studded with granola (her mom's idea). Though I enjoyed the textural contrast and nutty flavor the toasted oats lent the pancake, my daughter rejected it. She cited textural issues ("pancakes should be fluffy") with which I can't entirely disagree. I think I'm going to try my hand at some granola griddle-cakes myself, only I'm going with yeasted pancakes.

I'm not really the biggest fan of Le Peep, but I'm not entirely certain why. Sure, the food they serve isn't breaking any new ground, or even at the top of the ground it covers. But it's quite serviceable on the whole. The staff is extremely friendly and capable. My wife has made a habit of comparing kid pictures whenever we're waited on by one guy; I find it kind of weird, but she seems to appreciate the familiar touch.

This visit found me again leaning toward dislike, and asking myself why. There are plenty of things Le Peep does well. They have fresh-squeezed orange juice. It's delicious, the drinkable embodiment of brightness. Their egg cookery is sound, with orders coming out as requested. The house-made potato chips that sided my Buffalo chicken sandwich (I honestly don't know what possessed me to order that) were remarkable. Still hot from the fryer, they were almost ethereally light and crispy, tasting of salt and earth and potato. I don't get why anyone ever eats the bagged kind, but I could get happily fat on these.

That sandwich, though, was a wreck of lackadaisical execution. An overly thick double-breasted hunk of chicken seemed to have been tossed onto its bun from afar, so off-kilter was its symmetry. Though it had been fried handily, with a light and shattering exterior, it desperately wanted salt. The Buffalo sauce, rather than coating the chicken as in its namesake dish, had been sparingly drizzled on top. It was thin stuff, too, fine as a straightforward hot-sauce, but lacking a bit in character.

Thinking back, I may have ordered that sandwich because of its promise of Ranch dressing, based on what turned out to be a misplaced memory of fantastic ranch at a different mediocre restaurant. My wife later opined that perhaps it was Late Nite Pie I'd been thinking of. This stuff wasn't bad, homemade and certainly better than anything out of a bottle, but it was similarly lacking in complexity. While the best ranch (as with the stuff once-upon-a-time served alongside those lackluster pies) packs a wallop of tangy buttermilk, mild sweetness, and herbal oomph, this one was the Bob Arctor of ranch dressings.

If it seems like I'm whining, let me mention that, while we were finishing our meal, I told my wife that I thought I'd been too hard on Le Peep over the years. For a moderately priced, slightly chain-ish joint, they actually aren't so bad. In DEFCON Dining land, when you're letting your sick 5-year-old pick a place, that's actually pretty good.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall