Houston's Best Cafeterias: Hearken Back to the Good Old Days

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I haven't always been a food snob.

When I was little and my mom would teach night classes at the local university, my dad and I were left to our own devices for dinner. Because the man can do little more in a kitchen than boil water for pasta or make a cup of coffee, we often found ourselves at Luby's Cafeteria. I'd get macaroni and cheese and jello. He'd get the fried fish filet with tartar sauce. We'd always sit in the same seat, and the same servers would always greet us as we walked in and out of the bustling cafeteria.

Before I left home for college when I was 18, my dad and I shared one last meal at Luby's. It wasn't as good as I remembered, but there's a nostalgia attached to it--for me, at least--that makes the food that much better. Back in December, Katharine Shilcutt of Houstonia made a similar assertion about Luby's and the fact that most Houstonians remember dining at the chain at some point in their lives. And most Houstonians really liked it.

While I'm now much more inclined to seek out a hearty bowl of traditional pasta or pho when I want comfort food these days, there is something about the old fashioned cafeteria that I enjoy, that I miss, that I think others should give another chance.

Here's to the Houston cafeteria, in all its glory.

Though it's not a cafeteria in the traditional sense--traditional here meaning chicken fried steak, potatoes and mac and cheese--Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine is a cafeteria for a new generation of diners. Aladdin serves comfort food for a slightly more continental crowd, one who craves hummus and pita bread with a chicken shawarma sandwich. It's also BYOB, so if you've ever found yourself craving a bottle of wine to go with your plastic tray full of food, Aladdin is your spot.

Bell Street Cafe is also a non-traditional cafeteria in the sense that it doesn't cater to the general public (though anyone can eat there). It's located in the basement of the Exxon building downtown, which made it a popular lunch destination for Houston Press staffers when we were still in our old building at Pease and Milam. It's much more bright and almost sterile-looking than the average old school cafeteria, but the same cheap prices and slightly overcooked veggies are still there. Many dishes are made to order, and the food is surprisingly fresh for what you pay. Plus, you can rub elbows with Exxon bigwigs. Maybe. This story continues on the next page.

The perennial classic when people talk of Houston cafeterias is, of course, Cleburne Cafeteria, a local institution since 1941. It's still owned by the Mickelis family who bought it from the previous owners in 1952, and the menu hasn't changed much since then (though the prices have). Because the family is Greek, you'll find dishes like moussaka on the menu next to squash casserole, fried fish and roast beef. The same staff has been serving at Cleburne for years, too, so if you're looking for a restaurant to call home, this just might be it. But don't expect to find a LuAnn Platter (a la Luby's) here, cause Cleburne is a beast all its own.

Much like Aladdin, Fadi's Mediterranean Grill serves a different sort of cafeteria food that, in a melting pot like Houston, could be called classic as well. Even though all the food is served cafeteria-style, some dishes are cooked to order, ensuring everything is as fresh as possible. Many Houstonians count this among the best (if not the best) Mediterranean restaurants in town, and it's easy to see why. From the nearly overwhelming selection of dishes to the friendly service and low prices, it's a great place for a top-notch, cheap meal. Note that it might not always be fast, though. Both locations are so popular that there's often quite a line.

You didn't think we'd write about cafeterias in Houston without including everyone's favorite Swedish import, did you? The IKEA Restaurant is a cafeteria like no other, featuring items you can taste test before you decide to stock up on things like frozen meatballs by the pound. Is it the best cafeteria food in town? Not by a long shot, but it might be the cheapest, and it's hard to resist the allure of Swedish imports in a chic setting. It's also hard to resist anything when you've been navigating the maze that is the IKEA show room for the past few hours.

An often overlooked Houston cafeteria is Mikki's Cafe, a southern and soul food outpost just north of Missouri City. The food here is like what you'd expect to find at Thanksgiving dinner, if the person preparing your meal grew up in the Deep South and wasn't a whit concerned about healthy eating. From candied yams to smothered pork chops, it's hard to go wrong at Mikki's, though the best item of the whole spread might just be the tender oxtails served over rice. Though the cafe opened a mere 12 years ago, it has the feel of a cafeteria that's been there forever, serving regulars and newbies alike with a smile.

While most cafeterias shy away from too much spice due to a largely older clientele, Treebeard's embraces the hot stuff with a menu of Cajun classics. Crawfish étouffée packs just enough heat to necessitate a glass of water, while gumbo is dark and velvety. With five locations downtown, there's a Treebeard's close to just about any office building, and going through the cafeteria line pointing to smothered fish or pork chops makes for a quick (though definitely not light) lunch. Don't ever, ever skip the bread pudding when they have it. But beware, the more popular dishes--bread pudding being one of them--sell out fast.

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