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IT'S RARE TO MEET A HOUSTONIAN who has not felt the warmth and comfort of dining at Cleburne Cafeteria. The restaurant, named for Cleburne Street where it first opened 80 years ago, has managed to stand the test of time in a fast-growing foodie city. This year, the beloved staple proudly celebrates its milestone anniversary of 80 years.
Originally opened by Anabelle Collins and Martha Kavanaugh, Cleburne Cafeteria has been under the ownership of the Mickelis family since it was purchased by Nick and Pat Mickelis in 1952. At the time, the two lived in a home above the restaurant with their young son George. When they were working, George was there right alongside them, realizing at an early age that he wanted to take over the family business one day.
Though the restaurant moved from the original location on Cleburne Street to its current home on the corner of Edloe and Bissonett in 1969, it continues to offer a cozy, family-friendly atmosphere in which guests can enjoy serious comfort eats and even get a visit from George as he is commonly seen at the restaurant. As he hoped, he went on to graduate from the University of Houston’s Hilton College of Hotel & Restaurant Management and carries on the family tradition as the current owner.
So, what’s a trek through the Cleburne Cafeteria line really like?
Upon arriving at the restaurant, guests are treated to wall-to-wall black and white family photos and captions detailing Cleburne’s rich history. After passing through the foyer, guests can join the line which passes through a long corridor, finally spilling out into the main dining room. It is here where all of the deliciousness is on full display.
You may be eager to begin perusing the salads, but checking out the grill first is recommended. As the first stop, the grill is where guests can decide on a freshly cooked salmon filet or a USDA prime New York strip or Ribeye, each made to order. And no need to wait while it cooks — a member of the staff will hand deliver it to the table once its ready.
Alongside traditional salads like fruit, carrot and pea, find rows of colorful Jell-O cups and lime congealed Jell-O salad too. Produce is brought in every morning, delivered from Lonestar Produce, ensuring the freshest fruit and vegetables are used.
The entrees come next, and this is where it can get tricky, because there are a lot to consider. Both chicken fried steak and chicken fried chicken are offered and taste delicious smothered in gravy, with a side of mashed potatoes. Rows of baked chicken with the skin on glisten among trays of liver and onions, fried chicken and fried catfish. Fresh poached salmon and lemon pepper cod round out the seafood choices, while daily specials like chicken and dumplings, fried shrimp and chicken pot pie mix things up throughout the week.
It’s worth noting that all of the meat sourced is hand-selected, genuine USDA choice beef and is cut, trimmed and ground by Cleburne’s own butcher; the poultry is all-natural with no hormones nor additives; and seafood selections are delivered fresh each morning and fileted in house. As if choosing an entrée isn’t hard enough, Cleburne Cafeteria makes available turkey and dressing with house-made cranberry sauce every single day, allowing guests to relive the joy of Thanksgiving, day in and day out.
Continuing along, tray after colorful tray of hearty sides follow. The baked squash tops the list as the most popular, but there is also corn, baked candied yams, fresh green beans, macaroni and cheese and baked spinach, which reveals a bed of velvety greens with a crusty golden topping. Situated neatly next to the sides are towering trays of bread. There are fluffy dinner rolls and thick crumbly pieces of plain and jalapeño cornbread.
At this point, it isn’t uncommon for guests to have to overflow onto a second tray, and doing so right before reaching the dessert section is a good idea. Texas-sized slices of lemon pound cake, strawberry cake, cheesecake, chocolate icebox pie, apple pie, pumpkin pie and more are prominently showcased alongside cups of tapioca, and yes… more Jell-O. Not only does Cleburne avoid the use of preservatives in its desserts, but the pastry chefs use quality ingredients as in King Arthur flour and Madagascar vanilla, and the difference is in each decadent bite.
Nearing the end of the line, guests are welcome to stock their trays with ketchup and stuffed jalapeños, both prepared fresh daily, and choose a beverage. Large drink dispensers behind the counter boast bright pops of pink, churning Cleburne’s house-made pink lemonade and fruit punch. There are chilled bottles of Mexican Coke and Topo Chico, plus freshly brewed coffee and teas, from Texas coffee roaster, Duncan Coffee Co. And if the occasion should call for it, there is plenty to choose from in the way of wine or beer. Refrigerators are stocked with full and half bottles of red and white wines — including full bottles of Caymus! — canned wines and there are four local beers on tap. Cheers to 80 years indeed.
Once the adventure of traveling through the line is complete, the true culinary journey begins, so savor each minute. The large dining room offers cozy corners to comfortably settle in for a meal, and members of the staff are always near to provide guests with additional condiments and to-go containers.
As it has for so many over the past eight decades, a visit to Cleburne Cafeteria will leave you wholly satisfied. Many of the cooks who are thoughtfully preparing the items on the line have been with the Mileckis family for years, and its sense of family is ever-present today.
In its 80th year, this Houston institution is celebrated by the city, with Mayor Sylvester Turner officially having named May 8th “Cleburne Cafeteria Day” in Houston. Visit then or on any other day — even Christmas! — and it will be there, with turkey and dressing and much, much more.