Newk’s Eatery Has Some Surprises Dotted Among Its Comforting Sameness

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Newk’s Eatery surprised me. It also fell exactly in line with my expectations. That these two results can sit side by side, effectively describing my experiences at one restaurant, is a bit surprising in itself. Especially when talking about fast-casual chain restaurant concepts.

The supposed nature and appeal of chains is that they do not surprise. Same food, same decor, same vacuum-sealed smiles on the faces of the homogenized staff. For many, this sort of dependable sameness is apparently deeply comforting. For chains poised at the ends of freeway off-ramps, catering to the hungry traveler, dependability is an oasis. The same can be said for approachability. If you’re pulling off the interstate, tired and hungry and just wanting to find the straight line between whiny kids in the backseat and either getting back on the road or turning in for the night, your goal is a dinner that demands nothing of you. Newk’s doesn’t demand anything of its diners, but it offers up a bit more than you might be expecting, at least some of the time.

On a menu dominated by meaty sandwiches and kitchen-sink pizzas, it’s the salads that surprise the most. The sandwiches often seem a bit miserly — a scant tiling of the advertised hams, salami and other proteins scattered haphazardly across the surface — and the pizzas suffer from an odd lack of flavor that belies their preponderance of stuff. The salads, though, are finely tuned and welcoming.

If you order a salad as a stand-alone item, you may be shocked at the size of the thing. You have the option of tacking a side salad onto your sandwich, either in place of the standard sides or as a half-and-half combo. Unfortunately, these deals will only net you the basic “Simply” salad or the Caesar. If you go it alone, your salad will be big enough to feed two handily, assuming you augment it a bit. Split a pizza and a shrimp and avocado salad between two adults and you can have a lovely light meal for under $20 (before tax and tip).

That avocado salad first came to our table as an accident, instead of the shrimp rémoulade we’d actually ordered. We didn’t notice at first, engaged in conversation as we were, and didn’t mind once we did notice.
It wound up being the surprise hit. Much more than anything else, it tasted fresh. It’s a simple thing, really. Fresh, peppery, gently bitter arugula. Avocado in peak form, little emerald and jade trapezoids of lush richness. Sweet bursts of grape tomatoes. Shrimp nested throughout in almost clown-car quantity, plump little curls showing up when you thought you’d eaten them all, over and over again. They’re meaty and tender, sweet and succulent against the dressing, which zips along brightly, coating the greens and all their buried treasure just so. Little batons of green onion and a prickle of heat from crushed red pepper provide punctuation. It’s a perfect light meal for one, or split between two with a little something else. It’s a lot of arugula, mind you, so if that’s not your thing, neither will this be.

I did end up getting the shrimp rémoulade salad on a later visit. It might have shone more brightly had I not had its predecessor for comparison. The mixed greens, fresh as they were, didn’t have the spark of interest that arugula brings. The dressing didn’t scream rémoulade, which was a disappointment. Succulent chilled shrimp with an edgy rémoulade make for a delightful combination. Still, the mustard-flecked dressing was creamy and satisfying. Even the quartered hard-boiled eggs were nice. As with most of the salads here (avoid the distressingly fish-less Caesar-, with its distractingly textured flurry of parmesan shards), it would make a fine light lunch or dinner, with a bit of help, as noted above.

If you’re taking my advice, you’ll want to keep the pizza simple. Too many of Newk’s pies — super-thin-crusted, bar-style specimens — seem overburdened by their ingredients, somehow winding up oddly blank despite. Take the Newk’s Q, which reads like a flavor bomb but winds up a bit of a dud. The pizza comes topped with a white barbecue sauce (an Alabama regional thing comprising not much more than mayonnaise and vinegar, often paired with poultry) that barely shows up, along with thinly shaved chicken (whose turn through the impinger oven does nothing for its texture), crumbles of bacon and rings of pickled jalapeño. The white sauce is like smoky butter, and the rest of the ingredients find an odd math, their high flavor indices adding up to a pittance. Far better to stick with something simple.

Of course, simple can get you in trouble, too. High on the wonderfully peppery arugula in the shrimp and avocado salad from a previous visit, we threw caution to the wind and opted for a prosciutto and arugula pie one evening. We shouldn’t have. Where the salad was light and lithe, letting each of its simple, assertive flavors speak for itself, the pizza stomped all over those peppery greens and drowned out even the salty, porky punch of prosciutto with its sweet, lemony dressing. It’s all you can taste, and that’s not a good thing on any level.

I think it’s worthwhile to pause here and note that both of the arugula-based items we ordered were among the least favored by the kids we had in tow. They found pretty much everything else agreeable. Even where I found fault, the kids tucked in with gusto, eagerly picking up a sandwich I had set aside or grabbing the last slice of a pizza I had declared lackluster. Newk’s is a family-friendly place, after all, so the kitchen’s ability to turn out food a somewhat picky ten-year-old won’t turn her nose up at is a decided plus. The last thing you want when turning your minivan in off the interstate is for the kids to rebel under the weight of “weird food.”

There’s nothing weird about any of the sandwiches at Newk’s; they just aren’t that great. The best part of most of these sandwiches — which come across a bit like thrown-together substitutes from a cafeteria line that ran out of entrées — is the bread. As advertised, the bread is soft and airy inside, with a finely crackling crust bestowed by its toasting pass along the metal tracks of an impinger oven. Unfortunately, that same browning-pass takes its toll on many of the toppings.

The shaved chicken on one evening’s pesto chicken sandwich was so dried out in spots that it more closely resembled a toughened potato chip in texture. Stringy and chewy/crunchy, it was a distraction on a sandwich that could have been much better. The namesake spread is surprisingly deft, though. Bright with basil, with a savory depth and a subtle but well-tuned hint of garlic, it fares better than most casual interpretations. A spread of tangy goat cheese and a few casually applied spears of vibrant bell pepper round out the sandwich. If you can get everything in one bite, avoiding the leathery edge of the chicken, it’s flavorful. Careless construction makes that rare.

The Italian is much more flavorful, its mix of Creole mustard spread and Italian sauce also keeping it much moister. The edges of its meats dry out a bit in the run through the toaster, a step that makes the fresh, crusty bread a delight, even if it sometimes makes the meats suffer. This is less a problem for capicola than for chicken, as the high fat content of the cured pork renders it crispy instead of tough. The rest of the components — cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and hot cherry peppers — do their parts well enough, but there’s just not enough of anything to make much of an impact.

With all the sandwiches, I found myself peeking under the hood to see where all the meat had gone. Couple that with the almost comically small size of the half sandwich offered as a soup-or-salad-sided deal, and the sandwiches leave almost everything to the imagination.

Oddly, the best of the bunch wound up being a conciliatory toasted ham and cheese ordered from the Little Newk’s Favorites menu for a kid whose quest for simplicity proved a noble one. The ham retained its moisture, its gently salty-sweet pork flavor rounded out by mild, melt-y cheddar.
Simplicity didn’t work when applied to Newk’s mac and cheese, though. The original five-cheese version, ordered as a side, was a bit skimpy. Overcooked noodles swathed in an overly buttery cream sauce, the only apparent cheese being broiled on top, it was inoffensive but unconvincing. The baby loved it, but he also loved the gloppy crab and corn chowder, which dwarfed its accompanying half-sandwich. Overly sweet and salty at once, it tasted processed, like reasonably good quality canned soup. The stale croutons didn’t help.

If you want cheese and noodles, spend the extra buck and change and opt for the six-cheese version, studded with bacon. That extra cheese is actually Newk’s homemade pimento cheese spread. The creaminess of the spread makes all the difference here, turning the dish from saucy and bland to thick and satisfying, with a nice punch of sharp cheddar flavor. The smoke of the bacon echoes nicely, adding a surprising amount of nuance to a dish that sounds much heavier than it is.

Some of Newk’s surprises are swell, like the shrimp and avocado salad. It’s so good you’ll be stuffing forkfuls into your sandwich and dredging leftover pizza bones through the bottom of the bowl. Some, like the surprising lack of consideration paid to the sandwiches, aren’t quite as nice to find. It’s an odd misstep from a kitchen that can clearly turn out good food, carefully constructed. Of course, Newk’s isn’t in the running for anyone’s Best Of list. It’s not breaking new ground or serving exciting, innovative food. At its best, Newk’s serves fresh, tasty food at a good price point, in a setting that puts convenience and familiarity forward as prime motivators. It’s a useful restaurant, and that’s exactly what it’s trying to be. When all you’re really looking for is a straight path, Newk’s might be just what you need.

Newk’s Eatery 
9448 Katy Freeway (multiple locations), 832?917-0500, newks.com. Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

Shrimp and avocado salad $10.99
Shrimp rémoulade salad $10.99?
Half sandwich, half soup/salad $8.39
Pesto chicken sandwich $8.49?
Little Newk’s Favorites toasted ham and cheese sandwich $4
The Italian sandwich $7.69
Five-cheese mac and cheese (side) $4.39
Six-cheese pimento mac and cheese with bacon (side) $5.99
Bowl of soup $6.89
Newk’s “Q” pizza $7.99
Five-cheese pizza $22
Caesar salad (half) $4

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