"Is there anything better than eating peach cobbler while listening to Patsy Cline?" asked my friend Marc over a dish of the dessert that we were splitting with our friend Linda. The peach cobbler was lovely, if a bit too mushy and doughy, with fat chunks of sugar-saturated peaches drowning in quickly melting ice cream as we rushed to polish it off.
In answer to his question, I can think of two things that would be better than eating peach cobbler while listening to Patsy Cline: No. 1, if Patsy Cline were still alive to sing "I Fall To Pieces." And No. 2, if the rest of the food we'd just eaten hadn't been so painfully mediocre.
Looks can certainly be deceiving, and that's the case so far with Natachee's Supper 'n Punch (3622 Main, 713-524-7203), the new restaurant on the "Best Block in Houston" that looks as if it's been there for the last 70 years. It also looks as if the restaurant, with its intentionally old-timey vibe, would serve up deliciously old-fashioned food to match. But so far, it doesn't.
The menu certainly adheres to the purpose-built old-timey atmosphere, serving up items like "skillet biscuits with spicy country gravy" and burgers with cutesy names like "Natachee's skillet lickers" or the "pork 'n cheezy burger." A chalkboard propped up against the bar promised PIE in all caps while a sign outside indicated that breakfast was served all day, diner-style.
It doesn't feel like a diner inside, however. It feels like a cross between an old general store in a quiet, East Texas town and the Country Bear Jamboree theater at DisneyWorld. Even the much vaunted horse outside, Lacy, seems like part of the attraction instead of a holistic, natural component of the place. It's that classic form of cognitive dissonance that one experiences sitting inside of a new space meant to look much older than it really is. (Side note: Yes, I know the building itself is old.)
Despite this, I found myself relaxed very quickly in the comfy booth as the sun trickled into the huge windows and my friends' laughter echoed off the tall ceilings. It's instantly inviting, in spite of any misgivings about the provenance of the "antique" tin signs hanging on the walls, T.G.I. Friday's-style. We ordered -- mostly burgers -- and waited for the food to come out. It didn't take long.
The fried pickles were the hit of the table, despite still having copious amounts of oil attached to them. Patting the dill pickle slices dry a bit before serving could do wonders, as the batter itself is already wonderful stuff. We ate them up while they were all still furiously hot, though, so the oil was clearly not a huge concern.
Our burgers came out quickly enough, but my fourth friend -- who had ordered breakfast -- had to wait nearly five minutes for her food while the rest of us watched our meals become cold. (Yes, we're those people. We don't eat until the entire table has their food. IT'S CALLED GOOD MANNERS.) When it did come, it looked like any old steam table breakfast, complete with rock-hard little biscuits. A taste confirmed that the underseasoned, puny potatoes, the unsalted scrambled eggs and the dense pucks of pan sausage were not at all worth the wait.
The burgers fared better, luckily, although I found it odd that the veggie burger was the better of the two. A highly flavored patty made from a melee of black beans, red peppers, corn and cilantro verged on too dry, but was saved by the fatty richness of an avocado slice on top. The buns on all three burgers were eggy and barely sweet; I could have happily eaten a basket full of just those buns.
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My friend Marc and I had both ordered the Tamara's Outside In burger in an "Oh my God, it's stuffed with cheese!"-induced frenzy, so we were both quite disappointed at what we got. The burgers looked extraordinary. But the meat had very little flavor; the cheese inside had even less. It needed to be sharper, but instead tasted like "gummy industrial cheese," as Marc glumly put it. That same cheese seemed to be adhering in festering globs to the macaroni that he'd ordered as a side dish. "Luby's is way better than this," he lamented. I took one bite and didn't even want to swallow the gloppy, greasy mess.
We successfully doctored up our Outside In burgers with copious -- and I do mean copious -- amounts of Crystal Hot Sauce, upon which the burgers were transformed into highly edible and enjoyable treats. On the other hand, Crystal could probably transform gravel into an enjoyable treat. The wilted spinach on top was a nice touch, but the pickles and Ranch dressing didn't add anything to the taste of the burger. It was an exercise in blandness save the hot sauce.
Nevertheless, I'm happy to have Natachee's on Main Street. Why? Because I have high hopes that the place can bring its burgers up to par and transform into a destination in the same way that Tacos A Go-Go, t'afia and The Breakfast Klub -- all on the same block -- have done.
I'd like to see the menu expanded from just burgers and breakfast. Yes, there are a few odd offerings like wings and a meatloaf sandwich, but they seem to be afterthoughts. A chicken fried steak sandwich but no plate of just chicken fried steak? Why? Sides like guacamole but no mashed potatoes? It doesn't entirely make sense yet. Have a burger section and a "country food" section; just make sure the food on both sides is up to par. Main Street would have a thoroughbred in no time, and I don't just mean the black-and-white horse out back.