After a day of rushing around (me) and working in dusty, cramped spaces (my husband), topped off with flu shots for the kids, we prescribed ourselves some serious comfort food.
In large swaths of the United States, that genre is built on such stick-to-the-ribs recipes as meatloaf, mashed potatoes, chicken-fried steak and macaroni and cheese. Those classics, with a decidedly Southern sensibility, gave rise nearly a half-century ago to Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, among the chain restaurants recently staking their claims in Medford.
Having no prior experience at Cracker Barrel, I found myself with a surprisingly open mind after reading a review last year of the country’s top 10 chain restaurants by Washington Post writer Tom Sietsema. The December 2017 article awarded Cracker Barrel the only “A” grade among perennially popular establishments that all too often deliver mediocre dishes, warranting lots of “B,” “C” and even some “D” and “F” rankings. The majority, from Applebee’s to Texas Roadhouse, have Medford locations.
Known for its folksy ambiance and hospitality, Cracker Barrel also outperforms competitors in the kitchen, according to Sietsema. Of all the restaurants he tried, Cracker Barrel’s home cooking tasted the most like well, home cooking, rather than prepackaged in a central factory and reheated for consumption.
Based on my family’s experience (and we’re no strangers to Red Lobster and Olive Garden), I would agree. Meals at Cracker Barrel, like most restaurant fare, are a tad salty, but suggest fresh preparation. And prices are fair for portions that don’t trigger the American appetite for excess but are instead reasonably sized.
My husband’s appetite had long since announced that it was time for a hearty repast by 4 p.m., which would be a dead time at lots of eateries. But I expected Cracker Barrel’s target demographic to be lined up for a table, and they certainly were. Luckily, we waited a mere five minutes or so before being shown into the dining room. The restaurant’s website allows for joining a specific location’s wait list electronically.
I’d also noticed the online promotion of a Cracker Barrel seasonal special: country-fried turkey with macaroni and cheese, green-bean casserole and cranberry sauce. I’m a sucker for traditional Thanksgiving dishes and welcomed the chance for a holiday preview. Unfortunately, the Medford location is not serving that limited-time entrée. But the chicken-fried chicken ($10.99) closely mimics the turkey’s appeal, which I mentioned to my husband, Will, who ordered the gravy-topped cutlet with sides of macaroni and cheese, a green salad and shredded kale and Brussels sprouts.
Although the kids each wanted macaroni and cheese ($5.19), I wasn’t about to pass it up, either. But three sides seemed more than I could conscience, so I ordered from the array of Country Dinner Plates, which furnish two sides, plus a biscuit or corn muffin. The fried chicken livers were too tempting to resist, particularly with their price tag of $7.99. And because I was going old school, I requested mine with a side of turnip greens to offset the macaroni and cheese.
Our meals arrived more quickly than anticipated, in less time than we seemed to wait for beverages. Falling short of steaming hot, each dish’s temperature was adequate, although the biscuits and corn muffins weren’t even tepid. Consequently, the cold butter served alongside doesn’t stand a chance at melting or even being spreadable.
Will, predictably, was pleased with his chicken dish, plying it to the kids, who soon wanted bites of his meal more than their macaroni and cheese. I eagerly stepped in to supplement my portion of macaroni and cheese with theirs. Streaked with brown bits of caramelized cheese that I adore so much, the macaroni closely resembled Stouffer’s before its recipe changed to include more noodles and less dairy.
Vegetables Cracker Barrel does have aplenty. Green beans, broccoli, carrots, okra and coleslaw all have permanent places on the menu, augmented with boiled cabbage and lima beans, depending on the day of the week. The salad of Brussels sprouts and kale with bits of dried fruit and pecans stole the show on Will’s plate. And my turnip greens had an authentic presentation, simmered with country ham and served with apple-cider vinegar. An a la carte bowl of greens ($5.99) with a corn muffin is highlighted under the menu’s “specialties” section.
That Cracker Barrel counts turnip greens among its most beloved items gives me hope that a younger generation enamored of kale will reinvigorate a bygone era’s contributions to the country’s cuisine. And my older son’s appreciation of chicken livers, gobbled like so many Chicken McNuggets, confirmed that Cracker Barrel is getting quite a bit right, even this far west of its Tennessee roots.
Located at 1445 Center Drive, Medford, Cracker Barrel is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Call 541-772-1164 or seecrackerbarrel.com.