Restaurant Reviews

So-So Food, Great Fun: More Than Making the Best of It at Little Matt's

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. In this special edition of DEFCON Dining, we do the grunt work for you at Little Matt's, a safe haven for all DEFCON levels.

We're doing something a little bit different this time around. Since the restaurant in question, Little Matt's in West University, caters specifically to kids (and the harried parents who serve as their bleary-eyed entourage), I figured I'd look to an expert for guidance: my daughter, Cecilia. She's 11, and has accompanied me on more eating adventures in her brief decade-plus than I had in my first two. I gave her a few simple instructions on what to look out for (food quality, ambience, overall impression, etc.), armed her with a notepad (digital, granted) and asked her what she thought. Her words are in italics. Since this is a formal review, I'm keeping things between the ditches with my own color commentary. I'll leave you to decide whose opinion bears more weight.

Little Matt's: a desirable destination for the pickiest of toddlers, the most exhausted of adults and everyone else in between. This restaurant's laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere makes it a "fast and fun" place (as the wall painting states) to enjoy some simple, good comfort food and some kid-friendly, classic arcade games.

Pulling up to Little Matt's feels a bit like hopping onto the set of Pleasantville. Nestled alongside West University Elementary, this strip of Edloe has a decidedly old-school, small-town feel. Diagonal street parking in front of American flag-bedecked storefronts, a town hall and postage-stamp fire station just down the street, and the cheerful din of a Little League baseball game in the park adjacent all lend the place a homey charm even before you pass the row of bright red picnic tables out front and head inside.

...As we walked in, the first thing I thought was, "OMG IPADS!!!" Yes, the Facebook legend was true. There, in front of my ecstatic face, was a counter mounted to the wall with six of the devices in metal cases, ready to be played with. The iPads, I think, are a good way to avoid having us grumpy children tugging at our parent's sleeves when we're waiting for dinner.

I'd been talking up the iPads for a while, trying to generate some enthusiasm in a couple of kids who often find themselves dragged out to restaurants that might not be their first pick, to put it diplomatically. Little Matt's is different. I think it's fair to say that they've asked to eat there every night since our first visit, and that first, technologically enhanced impression surely has something to do with it. It's a good strategy, having those iPad stations right up front. They'll give you a chance to figure out what in the heck is going on.

There's a bit of a "tribal knowledge" problem at Little Matt's. If you've not been before, you won't be entirely certain what happens where and in what order. We had a brief staring contest with the young woman behind the cash register, who seemed to expect us to know the drill. We didn't. To save you a few minutes of confusion: Pick your order from the menu on the wall across from the giant pile of candy (more on that later) and deliver it to the cashier. Listen for your name as you join the arms race for open tables (you seat yourself). There seems to be a black-market trade in unused chairs. Regardless, you'd better have a plan before they call your name, lest you wind up juggling an order of chips and guacamole, silently begging those stragglers with the four-year-old to get up already. Once you find a seat, find your kids. They'll spend the remainder of the meal dodging back and forth between the table and the games, stealing a few bites and a few more quarters with every return visit.

But then, I saw something perhaps even more wondrous: a candy bar. Not like those fun-sized Snickers you get on Halloween, I mean a smoothie bar... but with candy instead of fruit drinks. Yeah, pretty awesome. So we played various games on the iPads until our food was ready. I snatched up a chip and dipped it in some of the fresh guac on the plate. Now, let's be real; the chips were thin and over salted. The guacamole was all right and the queso tasted like it wasn't homemade -nothing particularly brilliant.

That guacamole? It's nice and fresh, with a few chunks of avocado remaining amid the tomato and onion, which retains a bit of pungent bite. It's needed, in light of the absolute absence of chile heat. The chips taste a bit like old fryer grease, though; I'm sure theirs gets a workout. I enjoyed their thin, shattering crunch, and found them to be properly seasoned. The queso here is thin and simple, reading like the ubiquitous South Texas party dip of Velveeta and Ro-Tel. None of it is inspired, but it works well enough when chased down with a free margarita. Yes, you read that right.

Little Matt's has no liquor license. You can't buy beer or wine, but that doesn't mean you can't drink like an adult while the kids are plowing through your loose change. Frozen margaritas, a house red and white, and a selection of bottled beer are provided free of charge (two-drink limit). That helps the margaritas go down a little easier. While their slushy texture is nice, the sub-basement-quality tequila is not. It feels a bit crummy to complain about a free margarita, but hey. You should know going in that you're basically huffing sugar and rubbing alcohol.

If you go in for that sort of thing, you can keep the kids feeling included with an Icee (ask at the counter, then shuffle three steps to the left and wait, lest it never materialize) to go along with the burger they will almost certainly wind up ordering.

My hamburger sent delicious smells across the dining table. I took a big bite and meat juices exploded in my mouth. I could hear the crisp of the fresh, leafy-green lettuce and the soft crunch of the newly-cut tomatoes. The bun was a brilliant golden brown, and tasted like your stereotypical grandmother's homemade, fresh-baked bread.

The cheeseburger is of the thin-patty variety, but it takes a nice solid turn on the griddle, maximizing contact and crust. It comes sans condiments, so dress as thou wilt, though this one is best suited to the Texas roadside fashion of mustard and mayo. The standard rendition gets lettuce, a fat wad of pickles and tomatoes that are truly trying their best. It is February, after all. The fries have excellent crunch and a well-bronzed exterior, but are in desperate need of salt.

I shoved some sweet potato fries in my mouth and my smile melted. They were not crispy enough.

Listen to the kid. Skip the sweet-potato fries.

I COULD EAT THE GARLIC FRIES ALL DAY LONG!!! Mmm, the taste of the garlic was so fresh and rich that I could almost start a garlic fry fan club.

She's right again. There's a nice garlic flavor that asserts itself without being overly pungent or aggressive, acting as an accent rather than running roughshod over the earthy sweetness of the potatoes.

The burger-and-fry combos are a good way to go on a menu that's mostly split between those, an array of sandwiches and salads, and a smattering of Tex-Mex-ish options. Perhaps you'd prefer the Comfort Texas Burger, with its spread of guacamole, pops of pickled jalapeño and crunch of bacon (everything's better with bacon), or the Santa Barbara sourdough, in which suavely savory mushrooms buttress the beef. As for the Tex-Mex portion of the menu, I bet you're wondering about that "-ish." Well.

The enchiladas my dad got were really strange. The chicken was not-so-Mexican-tasting, and the sauce tasted canned, with a lot of pepper on top. They were highly Americanized, but delicious at the same time. And I mean, really good.

Flour tortillas stuffed with shreddy chicken in a sort of mildly peppery green chile/chicken gravy and blanketed with mixed cheese (the type that's referred to in casual company as "yellow and white"), those enchiladas almost certainly aren't the Tex-Mex you're thinking of, but they are strangely comforting. Think of them as King Ranch Chicken, the classic enchilada casserole, reconstructed. Ignore the rice that comes alongside; it's boil-in-a-bag with a few flecks of carrot and entirely too much butter and salt. The black beans are simple and satisfying, despite their likely tinned -provenance.

From the salad side of the menu, the Chinese chicken is a riot of textures played out in slippery rice noodles, shattering strips of wonton, crunchy peanuts and the wet crispness of green onion. Warm grilled chicken offers a nice contrast, too. The dressing is overly sweet with a slightly gummy texture, and yet a bite of everything together is sort of fun in spite of itself, even if the dressing gets cloying quickly.

From the sandwich side, simpler is better. Skip the ahi tuna sandwich, and stick with anything that has bacon. The bacon, lettuce, avocado, tomato, for example.

The BLAT. It sounds to me like SPLAT. Haha. Splat! I really loved the sandwich. I mean, I already like all four things on there, so it *had* to work. The bacon was so crispy, the tomato was really soft, and the lettuce was crunchy green and was a fresh addition to the rich avocado. In other words, to Little Matt's; What kinda gat-dang voodoo witchcraft are you workin' to make that there sandwich, y'all?

Remember, she's 11. To be fair, the bacon is nice and crunchy, neither shattering into a million pieces under your teeth nor snagging in them. The tomato is trying valiantly. The ratio of ingredients is spot-on, but the bun is just a bit too soft, like a par-baked bake-at-home roll that didn't make it all the way. If you want, you can go with the California chicken club, which adds a thinly pounded breast to the proceedings. It's fine.

To pick apart the food is to miss the bigger picture, though. Too often, taking kids out to eat means either struggling to extract decent behavior from them while the childless dining public glares at you, or else giving in to the soul-sucking pandemonium of a disease vector disguised as a ball pit, and an animatronic animal band whose clangor will haunt your dreams. Little Matt's is an altogether more affable pandemonium, in comparison. It feels like a restaurant for grownups, for one thing. This helps keep the noise level down, and the space is laid out in a way that discourages wind-sprints. It's kind of like if Chuck E. Cheese's didn't rob you of your will to live, and the fact that Little Matt's is pretty easy on the wallet removes both insult and injury. You will want to bring along a sack of quarters, though.

Though the iPads are nice, it's only a matter of time until the kids discover the small arcade tucked in the back. This comes with the usual caveats about kids and disappointment, especially if yours fancy the occasional game of chance. Cecilia does, and spent the better part of one evening trying to win a GoPro camera from a game so confoundingly difficult as to make a carny weep with joy. She failed. She was not happy about her failure.

Things got ugly. Later on, I spotted my friend Christina, and we played for a bit. It wasn't ugly anymore.

That same visit, we also ran into our younger daughter's erstwhile Girl Scouts troop, giving her another diversion that didn't bleed me dry in 25-cent increments. It seems, quite often, that every parent within a five-mile radius has the same idea at the same time, descending en masse upon Little Matt's. You'd do well to join them. Bring some quarters, grab a free margarita and enjoy the best so/so meal you've ever had.

Little Matt's
6203 Edloe, 713-592-6200. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.

Guacamole and chips $7.95 Garlic fries $3.99 Queso $6.95 Chinese chicken salad $9.95 Ahi sandwich $15.95 BLAT $9.95 California chicken club $9.95 Comfort Texas burger $9.95 Cheeseburger $9.95 Santa Barbara sourdough burger $9.95 Chicken enchiladas $9.95

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Nicholas L. Hall and Cecilla Hall