When we asked our followers on Twitter which foods they'd like to see featured in the new weekly food fight, at least one response was [oddly] overwhelming: meatloaf. Personally, meatloaf is one of those items -- much like chicken and dumplings or cornbread -- that's best cooked and enjoyed at home. Unless the restaurants themselves are classics, they tend to take classics like meatloaf and screw them up beyond recognition, tweaking a perfectly serviceable dish with unnecessary additions and twists.
At its core, meatloaf is a very basic dish that -- if made correctly to begin with -- doesn't need any fancy sauces or garnishes. It's so basic, in fact, that the only true condiment that belongs on meatloaf aside from the sauce is a dollop or two of ketchup to spread around. This is comfort food at its most fundamental and most unfussy.
All that aside, the people demanded Battle Meatloaf, and Battle Meatloaf they shall receive.
We sampled the meatloaf at two highly-recommended yet disparate restaurants: Mama's Cafe on Westheimer and Ziggy's Healthy Grill on Fairview. Mama's is the epitome of old-school country cooking, all wood-paneled walls and cutesy sayings stenciled on yet more pieces of wood. Ziggy's is the epitome of Montrose, with a giant rainbow flag flying outside and an almost antagonistically healthy menu. Who would win?
Mama's has been in the same spot for at least 20 years, if not longer, as have most of its waitresses. While the rest of the city and the frenzied craze of the Galleria has grown up around it, it's remained solidly the same, its green sign beckoning out front and signaling a harbor in the trafficky storm. This is the kind of place where one expects an equally solid meatloaf.
Sadly, Mama's is also the place where one will be disappointed. As my dining companion tore into his chicken, I regarded the mess on my plate with despair. The "meatloaf" wasn't so much a loaf of meat as a heap of ground beef with no seasoning dumped callously onto the plate and covered with a ragout of onions and bell peppers. It barely held its form when I cut into it, never a good sign for something that should have been cooked in a loaf pan.
In the mouth, Mama's meatloaf tasted like nothing so much as really bad chili with no beans. The ragout was okay on its own and nicely spicy (although, seriously, meatloaf should never be spicy), but the bland ground beef underneath was simply unappetizing and held no correlation to the sauce it was in. At least the broccoli and rice casserole and mashed potatoes were good, although I made the wrong choice with the thin brown gravy.
Ziggy's Healthy Grill
The charmingly eccentric Ziggy's sits in an old house off Taft on a block that's suddenly become increasingly popular as patrons flock to Boheme and the new Dean's Credit Clothing. Ziggy's plays its role as the mother hen on the block well, with an aggressively healthy but tasty menu and waiters that cluck happily over you as you eat.
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Unlike Mama's, Ziggy's meatloaf is made with half turkey and half ground beef. I don't have a problem with this in theory, since my own favorite meatloaf is made with three different types of meat. But turkey has a tendency to be dry and tasteless when ground, and the meatloaf at Ziggy's is no exception.
It comes out looking like two burnt pieces of toast on a plate, with only a sad little bowl of weak brown gravy to somewhat moisten it up. After only a few bites, I'm through and shove it unhappily away. Luckily, the steamed spinach and the macaroni and cheese are phenomenal (as is the pesto hummus I ordered as an appetizer), so I don't leave with an empty stomach. Ziggy's may do a lot of things right, but meatloaf isn't one of them.
How do you choose a winner from two such tales of meatloaf woe? Truly, the winner in this case is homemade meatloaf -- with a very liberal coating of ketchup-based sauce -- that springs back to the touch, and tastes like a carnivore's dream. Score one for your very own oven at home.