A part of life in America's fourth-largest city for generations, the Cleburne still welcomes all
Well before the traditional dinner hour this Thanksgiving Day, the line at the Cleburne Cafeteria, on Bissonet Street in Houston, had grown so long as to have spilled from the sizeable property, onto the sidewalk, down the block, and around the corner, out of sight. Just to get to the front door, anyone jumping into the queue might have expected to remain there for ninety minutes, maybe more, followed by another wait, but not a terribly long one, thank goodness, for their dinner. Their very good dinner, it must be said, of turkey breast, sliced thick to order from the whole bird, cooked perfectly. With big scoops of cornbread dressing, whatever kind of gravy you like, fresh cranberry sauce, and many sides to choose from—expert-level green bean casserole, with all the little crispy bits, silken mashed potatoes, bright orange squash, creamy baked broccoli and cheese, and a vast array of cold salads.
Most of this, plus a great deal else, you can get any day of the week at Cleburne, which is Houston’s longest-running cafeteria, blowing past everything life has thrown its way, which is a lot, hanging on to a loyal, sometimes adoring clientele that on this particular day, had showed up in force. There are plenty of times when you walk in to Cleburne, you compose your tray, you take your seat, and it's all very easy. On holidays, which includes Christmas and New Year’s, as well as Thanksgiving, you come patient, or you don’t come at all.
Waiting long periods of time for food with other humans can be a tricky business, and certainly in Texas—you haven’t really had the authentic barbecue experience here until you’ve quietly excused yourself from a near-brawl in the line at, say, Snow’s in Lexington on a Saturday morning (true story), but Thanksgiving was a special day, and the sun was shining, and the weather was perfectly suitable for long periods of standing around al fresco, doing absolutely nothing, and people were being generous, conversational, and we were assured by the patient staff that there was plenty of turkey for everyone. They were not going to run out of food.
And what very good food it was, just like always. Simple food, not food to light the world on fire, but made with obvious care, from quality ingredients, all-natural, and often organic—one of the first things you see as you approach the line is a lengthy explanation of the Cleburne sourcing rules and strategies, and what kind of meats and seafood they are using—you are in good hands here, this is a family business, and has been since 1952, when Nick and Pat Mickelis purchased the Cleburne, at the time located over in Midtown, from the two ladies who’d been running the place since 1941. Nick had come to America from Patmos, through Ellis Island, couldn’t speak a word of English, and ended up in Houston with a couple of bucks and change, looking for his brother’s restaurant, where he started as a dishwasher.
The story of Nick and Pat is as charming as the Cleburne itself—as you did in those days, Nick quickly saved up enough for his own restaurant, a barbecue joint. He met Pat, a photographer, soon after that—she was one of the earliest fans of Nick’s artwork. At the time, he contented himself painting murals on the walls of his restaurant, because, as the story goes, he couldn’t afford the canvas.
When Nick and Pat bought the Cleburne back in the early 1950’s, Nick thought he’d just run another barbecue restaurant out of there, but the existing (and, it turns out, quite loyal) customer base all but threatened revolt. A cafeteria it would stay. And has stayed, throughout the years, surviving a move in the 1960’s, numerous weather events, and two fires, the most recent in 2016, when the old building burned pretty much to the ground, which is why you see the one here that you see today, looking all sparkling new and modern Texas-ified, like some Hill Country vineyard tasting room.
A spacious, vaulted lobby is not only a waiting area for when things get busy, which they can, but it is also a monument to Cleburne history, a museum of sorts, with one wall given entirely to Nick’s art, or at least sophisticated reproductions of the originals lost in the first fire, back in 1990. Today, Nick and Pat are no longer here, save in spirit—son George is the captain of the ship now, and unlike some restaurants that have moved, shuttered, and rebuilt once, sometimes more than that, you can feel the history here, you can feel the authenticity, and the welcome.
Holidays are memorable here, but any day is a good day for a trip down the line at Cleburne, from prime rib Sundays to chicken and dumpling Tuesdays, to fried shrimp Fridays. From the colorful collection of salads up front (there’s even ambrosia) to gargantuan, homemade desserts down the end, there is little here not to like.
The food, however, is only part of the experience. You get your plate, or plates, you pay your typically reasonable check, no more than you’d shell out at one of those gourmet burger joints, and you take your rightful place in the comfortable dining room, where many of the seats will already be occupied by a crowd as diverse as the city of Houston itself. From suits and ties to track suits, cufflinks to ripped tees, everybody seems to feel very much at home here, and if you are new and slightly uncertain about all of it, the roving army of friendly, trolley-pushing ladies checking in with you, from time to time, dispensing coffee and water and extra utensils, to-go containers and friendly small talk, will have you feeling like one of the gang in no time.
The restaurant estimates that roughly 70 percent of their customers are regulars, and even Houstonians who don't go there very often, or at all, tend to have kind things to say about the Mickelis family, or the Cleburne experience. Surely, this is very traditional food in a city increasingly known for being anything but traditional, but this is still Houston, to the core; on any given day, you will here multiple languages spoken among (and between) the clientele and staff, for starters, and then there is the complimentary condiment bar, with all sorts of good things, including a selection of hot sauces, a neatly-arranged Sriracha bottle collection, whole jalapeno peppers, and a very good house salsa, too, brilliant orangish-red, studded with fresh chiles. Try it with the turkey. Delicious.