In theory, there is nothing not to love about a drag theme restaurant. Hamburger Mary's is so popular that since its 1972 inception in San Francisco, it has grown to include 17 locations. The latest is in Houston, at 2409 Grant, just off Fairview. It's super cute, in a glitter-soaked Bennigan's way, with celebrity caricatures; murals of "Mary," the restaurant's blonde, pleasantly plump mascot; and the directive, written in glitter, to "Eat, Drink and Be Mary."
The servers when I visited last night were like Jack Sprat and his wife in dimension, though Jack himself was a very tall man with flawlessly applied make-up. His colleague was a natural-born woman who appeared not to be sporting any paint at all.
I would advise that diners order more or less based on how closely the name of the dish hews to the theme of the eatery. Obviously, you should skip "Classic Chips & Salsa" in favor of Britney Fried Spears or To Wong Foo's Classic Egg Rolls. Not sure why so many of the dishes are "classic," while the "Golden Girls" pizzas (there is one named after each main character) should be yet aren't.
Paying homage to Barbra Streisand is always a priority, so we ordered the Barbra-Q Bacon burger. We attempted to add the chicken pot pie, just because it was stated to be homemade and seemed like a strange fit amid the other options. Apparently it was, as it wasn't available. We went with chicken and waffles instead, a choice of which our server heartily approved.
It was shortly after we ordered that a staffer began making the rounds at each table asking if we needed dollar bills. Though we initially feared a Magic Mike moment was about to take place—especially when a gentleman took the stage wearing a jacket with no shirt under it and what appeared to be yoga pants—it turns out that instead, the drag show was beginning.
Though said gentleman billed himself as a "professional singer," no audible singing took place. This is a lip-sync joint in theory, but most of the performers spent the majority of their time in the spotlight wandering the dining room waiting for dollar bills to be placed in their "cleavage," dead-eyed as migrant strippers, only occasionally remembering to pretend to sing.
This is a tragedy on the level of when A&E switched from being a cable version of PBS and started showing fare more along the lines of Duck Dynasty and Storage Wars. Similarly, these performances were neither artistic nor entertaining. From Paris Is Burning to RuPaul’s Drag Race, the medium has a history of attracting incredibly witty, talented people. Done right, drag can elicit every emotion from an audience. The primary skill set of the current crew at Hamburger Mary’s appeared to consist of changing their outfits and keeping their wigs on.
Oops. Never mind. But chicken and waffles heals everything, right? Not the malt-flavored sponge presented to us that night. Though served with both butter and syrup, there was not enough lube in the world to moisten the sub-Eggo disasters. The chicken? Well, it was fried, so I can’t complain.
The burger was better, though not “big and juicy” as advertised. But Barbra would not have been embarrassed of the meaty patty stacked with bacon, barbecue sauce and both cheddar and Jack cheeses. The onion rings on top had clearly come from a freezer bag, but were nicely crisped, a good pairing with the strangely but likably beefy tasting tots on the side.
Though there were plenty of real-life twinks in attendance and on staff that evening, the best were on my plate. Fried Twinks are essentially slightly upgraded fair food: deep-fried Twinkies served atop a raspberry coulis with lots of whipped cream. Not surprisingly, eating them right out of the fryer is ecstasy.
Is it reason enough to return to Mary’s? No, especially after I was presented with a high heel with the bill in it and saw that an “entertainment fee” had been added for both people in my party. It’s not the first time I’ve paid money to see someone embarrass themselves (I’ve seen a lot of community theater), but this is one time that I’m just going to have to say, “No tea, no shade, Mary, you’ve got to do better.”