By Jim Ayres
I still remember four years ago when I wrote these words, intended humorously, for the Montrose Star: “I’m breathless about Cleburne Cafeteria’s million-dollar makeover. New ambient lighting, tables and terrazzo from Italy, all to spotlight the nouveaux creations of Chef… Oh, wait a minute. I must have drifted to another universe! Cleburne Cafeteria is the same as it always was. It isn’t hip. It isn’t foodie-forward.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and I’m eating those words. Newly reopened after a devastating fire in April 2016, the makeover is remarkable. And the food is better than ever
As before, patrons of all ages orbit the building, circling for a parking spot. Now, there’s much more parking available, even valet if desired. Before my friend Anthony and I opened the door, we noticed the new patio. There really is terrazzo in the entry, and the new lighting flatters. It’s like walking into a well-heeled church.
Well, this is the temple of Houston cafeteria food, after all. Cleburne doesn’t “do” LuAnn platters. Everything is prepared from scratch daily, by many of the same cooks that have been with Cleburne for many years. Vegetables come directly from the farmer’s market and are often organic. As their website concludes, “We never use anything imitation.”
But what’s new as you approach that magnificent line of tempting entrees, sides and desserts? Now, USDA Choice steaks and fresh seafood are grilled to order. Cleburne serves beer and wine, too. And they even take credit cards!
Grabbing fiberglass trays and rolled utensils, we both had to have the classic pea and cheese salad. Too much of it was put in a small bowl and handed to me by the smiling, uniformed server. It was delicious and fresh, as was my huge serving of meatloaf with stewed tomato gravy (easily feeds two) and buttery new potatoes.
My friend devoured his chicken fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. The barely-there batter cradled the meat like my mother did me on a stormy night. Anthony tried to stay a little bit healthy with a nice stalk of steamed broccoli, beautiful in its simplicity.
And the bread pudding for dessert? Sinful! The sauce wasn’t spiked, but I’d still put it up against the best cooks in the Krewe of Olympus.
There’s so much to choose from at Cleburne Cafeteria. They have lots of fried seafood dishes that look great, along with classics like carrot and raisin salad, baked squash, coconut meringue pie and, yes, liver and onions.
No matter what time or day you visit Cleburne (mid-afternoon Saturday for us), there’s going to be a lengthy line in front of you. It moves quickly, but if you’re pressed for time, you may want to come another day. It’s all worth it, though. The food is so good, and that it’s prepared with love makes it even more special.
Oh, did I say Saturday? Cleburne Cafeteria was never open on Saturday before. Now it is. I love this place!