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.
Diners are great. It's almost categorically impossible not to like them, even when they're really not very good. There's something so comforting about the low counter, the chrome, the stools. Even the vinyl-cushioned booths are an oddly pleasurable thing, in context. Add to that a solid arsenal of America's greatest comfort foods and all day breakfast, and a diner is just about the perfect DEFCON Dining restaurant. See also: PIE.
Naturally, I was pretty excited when I heard about a new old school diner, Hanz Diner at 185 West Dyna in the Greenspoint area. Dreams of uniformed waitresses calling me hon while I got serious with some meatloaf, my kids satisfied by plates of eggs and pancakes with whipped cream smiley faces, never ending coffee poured from one of those bell-bottomed glass carafes. It was enough to send me out there, hoping. My hopes weren't dashed, exactly, but Hanz is not the diner of my dreams.
Hanz Diner doesn't feel like one. Shoehorned into what seems like a former Chinese food buffet, the sprawling space is half sheathed in darkness, with an entire section seemingly disused. It's borderline creepy, like they have a haunted wing and there have been some "incidents." There actually is a bit of counter seating, but it's bar seating, awkwardly placed and not inviting the way those swiveling stools are at the Rockwell diner that exists in my mind. A sandwich board sits in a different corner, advertising a grand opening that doesn't seem to have received much fanfare.
None of this elicited a single comment from my kids, who just wanted to know if Hanz Diner had milkshakes (they do), and if they could both order pancakes (they could). An appropriately broad menu covers diner classics (meatloaf, steak and chop plates, burgers including a patty melt), but also branches out into some regional specialties with fried catfish, red beans and rice, huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos.
We took a bit of time deciding, as the breadth and depth of a diner menu is liable to require. The waitstaff, friendly and helpful, kept our water glasses and coffee mugs filled, never rushing us or seeming irritated. Even when the baby dropped his water cup on the floor. Repeatedly. (It had a lid. Still.) The coffee, though, was weak and bitter. It wasn't even good crappy coffee. Strike one. The orange juice my older daughter requested came in a plastic bottle, as if it had just been pulled from a vending machine. Strike two. Decent crappy coffee and fresh OJ should be considered mandatory at a diner, in my opinion.
Food-wise, things were a bit of a mixed bag. I'll admit that we strayed from the path of diner benchmarks, as I was intrigued by some of the more unusual regional items. It's entirely possible that the patty melts and pork chops and meatloaf plates at Hanz Diner light up your taste buds like a July 4th fireworks display set to Souza.
First, some good news. Breakfast basics like fried eggs and bacon are properly prepared. The eggs all boasted nicely runny yolks and no snotty whites on top, and the bacon fell into the wonderful intermediate zone between crisp and meaty, which is my preferred bacon style. Even the kid whose eggs came scrambled was pleased, finding them fluffy and delicate. Seasoning was likewise spot on.
In the breakfast breads department, the pancakes won out handily over the waffle. Lacking any exterior crispness, the waffle wilted under a glazed strawberry topping the menu had led my wife to believe would be fresh, the whole thing coming across as moist and mushy and saccharine. The pancakes, on the other hand, were lovely. The platter-sized pair boasted a subtle perfume of vanilla, thick and fluffy yet managing to avoid the gummy-interior trap that plagues many bulkier flapjacks.
I mentioned that I ordered a few regional dishes that stood out at me, and the S.O.S. was one of these. The waitress had no idea what it was. I had to inform the table, using a little bit of vaguery so as not to scandalize the kids. The waitress laughed. I laughed. It was fun. It was not, however, S.O.S. It was, instead, biscuits and gravy. I'm not sure if there was a miscommunication or not, but when you go out of your way to say shit on a shingle without saying shit, it seems there should be no ambiguity. I even described the dish, as neither the waitress nor my wife knew what it was. Nope. Biscuits and gravy.
Of course, the B&G was pretty good. Nice fluffy biscuits, nice creamy gravy studded with plenty of sausage. There was a bit too much salt and not enough pepper, but it was satisfying in the rib-sticking way B&G should be. The toddler approved, too, proving in the process that he has far longer arms than I previously thought. The kid would make a good boxer with all that reach. I ended up wearing about half of the shit as a result, shingle or no.
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Disappointment came again in the red beans and rice I ordered alongside my fried catfish platter. It had a strange, sweet-ish flavor with very little seasoning. The split and scored sausage, deep fried and crispy, was the best part of the deal.
The catfish, on the other hand, was excellent. Moist, flaky and mild, it was sweet-fleshed with just a hint of muddy minerality. A light hand with the crisp breading and the seasoning made the fish stand out more. It's not something you commonly see with fried catfish, but I appreciated it here. A dash of hot sauce and a forkful of workmanlike fried rice, and this was a truly pleasurable bite. The kid stole huge chunks of the fish for himself. Damn those long arms.
Ultimately, I'm not yet sure what to make of Hanz Diner. Part of this is experiential. While the staff is welcoming and attentive, there's just something missing from the feel of the place. If a part of the charm of a diner is the space itself (and I believe it is), Hanz Diner falls woefully short. If the food were fantastic, that wouldn't be such a big deal. I'm willing to go back and give them a try with some more traditional diner favorites, but so far, I just don't think Hanz is the diner classic I so badly wanted it to be.
They didn't even have pie.