I’m happy to have Tio Wally (long-time Me So Hungry reader) aboard to send in his eating adventures from across America. Here he is in Fairfield, Texas.
Greetings from Fairfield, Texas
N 31° 43.104’ W 096° 10.561’ Elev. 579 ft.
Sam’s Original Restaurant is one of those places I’d passed by many times. It had all the hallmarks of a great place to eat: Nondescript building, packed parking lot, located at an intersection of some highway to nowhere and the Interstate, in Texas. When I discovered that I could park in a lot right next door I finally stopped and went in.
I was kind of taken aback at first. The entrance to the restaurant was a gift shop. People were buying all kinds of over-priced crap — waiting in line two-, three-deep to pay for it! Sam’s is evidently some sort of landmark.
I asked the lady manning one of the two cash registers to see a menu. Though she wore no name tag, I’m pretty sure her name was Surly. She grudgingly obliged me and I took it to the foyer, to take pictures, and figure out if I wanted to eat there. After perusing the menu and taking pictures, I took the menu back. Surly was still there. I gave her the menu, thanked her and offered some chitchat. A cricket chirped somewhere, figuratively speaking. I was amazed how easily one can read certain people’s body language. Surly’s surely said: Go away, scum!
Ah, the hospitality industry.
I have to say this: I’ve been to a lot of places and nowhere have I seen more unsmiling faces on the staff than I saw at Sam’s. I ended up counting the smiles I saw. Indeed, of the 20+ person staff I saw just three people smile. It was kind of sad. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly per se, Surly notwithstanding, just that they were, well, sort of glum, like they’d all much prefer to be most anywhere else.
Sam’s has been here forever it seems. Indeed, it’s been such an institution for so long that I think their credo has devolved to “We don’t care because we don’t have to.” That doesn’t stop people from coming in droves, which may explain the lack of any need for geniality. Then again, it’s an extremely busy place and maybe the staff is just frazzled.
Although the restaurant is centered around an all-you-can-eat buffet, they also offer a complete menu that’s rather extensive. In fact, one of the things I saw come out of the kitchen was a stack of Hand Battered Onion Rings (Small $1.99, Large $2.99) that looked as if it could give Cheddar’s a run for its money.
I got the buffet ($11.99), which consisted of chicken fried chicken (that I thought was fish), fried chicken, smoked sausage, barbecued beef, and chicken fried steak. Because it was my first time there I got all of them.
Although I was hoping it was fish — they only have fish on Fridays — the chicken fried chicken, fried chicken breast filets, were pretty good. If I had an ounce of self-respect I would never admit that I circled the salad bar looking for tartar sauce before discovering it was actually chicken.
The fried chicken was somewhat Swanson-esque, though much moister than TV dinner chicken. I was thinking that perhaps they’d merely overcooked that batch a bit or, at least, I hoped so. The smoked sausage was good but run-of-the-mill, but the barbecue beef was quite good. The chicken fried steak, however, was … O.M.G.! How do you make the perfect Chicken Fried Steak? Well, you make it tender with a nice moist breading and you have a decent gravy. Sam’s did just that.
When I first saw the Chicken Fried Steaks I thought they were dressing, like patties of leftover Thanksgiving stuffing/dressing. I had to ask a lady, who ‘splained it. I’m pretty sure that I wasn’t the only person to discover that these Chicken Fried Steaks are to die for. Fork tender, simple gravy. Sam’s truly has this dialed in.
Sam’s has a very, very extensive salad bar, all of it quite fresh. It contained a couple of real treats: pickled watermelon rind and pickled green tomatoes. The pickled watermelon rind was perfect; a pickled, almost candied, piece of opaqueness. It tastes slightly like bread-and-butter pickles. The pickled tomato is likewise a treat. Less seasoned than the watermelon rind, it too has a little pucker going on with the sweetness. What a treat such things are!
They had two soups on the buffet. I think one was a cheesy broccoli affair, while the other was a hearty vegetable. Obviously homemade, the vegetable was just slightly salty but still very, very good.
A nice thing Sam’s does is they bring you a mini-loaf of homemade bread, if you want it. I was pretty excited when it came until I discovered that it wasn’t warm. It kind of surprised me that it wasn’t. I mean, Is there anything better than warm homemade bread? I would’ve asked them to nuke it for me but that seemed like a nonstarter.
Another real standout at Sam’s are the desserts. They’ve got a rack of various slices of pie, as well as a steam table with warm desserts. I had both the raspberry cobbler with a little soft-serve ice cream and the peach cobbler. They were both very good. Then I had a slice of Chocolate Pecan Cream pie. I had to ask a staffer who passed by, unsmiling, what it was. This was the best piece of pie I’ve had in awhile. The merengue was perfect, nice hard crust atop, dense yet fluffy underside. But that’s not what really made it.
The chocolate filling in the pie took me back to my childhood. I’d tasted that filling before. It’s made with Hershey’s cocoa, milk, and lots and lots of sugar. When I was a kid our neighbor, Georgia, who was originally from Arkansas, used to make Chocolate Gravy (chocolate pudding served while still warm) and Baking Soda Biscuits for us for breakfast. Then send us off to school. I suspect eating such wholesome Southern breakfasts may have had something to do with my being suspended from school for a week when I was in the First Grade.
Now that I’ve been to Sam’s I can definitely see eating there again, especially now that I know what to expect and what not to, like a slew of smiling faces. Heck, for all I know maybe the frowns at Sam’s Original Restaurant are actually part of a stealthy cult thing, like the service at the now-closed Sam Wo Restaurant in San Francisco, and the staff are vying to become as notorious as the late Edsel Ford Fong. Having experienced Edsel’s terrifying “service” firsthand, however, I can say the frown thing at Sam’s Original isn’t even remotely in the same league.
And so we roll.
Sam’s Original Restaurant & BBQ, 390 East I-45, 1-45 & US 84 (Exit 197), Fairfield, Texas
Tio Wally pilots the 75-foot, 40-ton(max) land yacht SS Me So Hungry. He reports on road food from around the country whenever parking and InterTube connections permit.