Questions of taste

"I believe it's $4.95?" our friendly waiter answered when we wondered how much the manager's merlot selection o' the day was. "Um, I believe it's Monterey Jack?" he replied when we asked about the cheese on the chicken sandwich. It was just a trick of speech, that rise at the end of every sentence, but always one to spy the deeper meaning, I was perfectly prepared to agree with his inflected implication that most answers are really questions, that, actually, life is just one big question mark, at least to those of us who don't have faith in Hale-Bopp or better things.

To bring it back from the astral plane to the dinner plate, we were eating at Harper's, and the immediate question in my mind at the time was, What is Harper's? Where it is, is hard enough for me: It's located--not too far north of the reputed center of the Metroplex (that would be the Galleria, of course)--at the corner of Keller Springs and the Tollway. But I was having some trouble locating the niche for this restaurant in my imagination. What unfilled gap do its investors envision it fits into? What unsatisfied hunger does Harper's fill? I mean, most chains blare their mission--you can't help but think Italian when you hear "Olive Garden," and you will loosen your tie and order another beer when you think "TGI Friday." But Harper's has no apparent specialty. Is it a family restaurant? The menu sells pizza, some pasta and salads, some steaks, a little seafood, a little chicken--something for everyone. Is it a young professional place? The bar is open an hour after the restaurant closes every night. The decor is noncommittally generic. Except for some touted but, in the end, overwhelmed murals, vaguely sports-themed, it appears to me to be a sort of upscale Denny's with the lights turned low, family dining given some glamour by the luster of brass railings. It's a little like Houston's, maybe. Something about eating at Harper's gave me the feeling that I wanted to check in at the motel (in my imagination there was one right next door) and drive on to, oh, Ohio or Wisconsin in the morning. I guess Harper's is everyman's restaurant, anonymous in the most American way, as broad in its appeal as Wal-Mart.

The menu promises the place will win you over with "smothering attention" as well as fabulous food and tempting libations. It's a frightening enticement at best, so I suppose we were fortunate to be led instead to a high-backed, oversized booth and then abandoned with little hope of rescue. Only our plaintive waiter visited us occasionally, and then only at his whim--there was no way we could summon him. It was strictly a one-way relationship.

We ordered the special Santa Fe pizza, its excellent thin but strong crust (you could, as you were coming or going, see the chefs stretching and flipping the dough in that vast kitchen terrarium) topped with, guess what?, grilled chicken, cilantro, peppers, and jack cheese. On another visit, the Chicago pizza, with Italian sausage, smoked cheddar, marinara, peppers and onions, like a hoagie on a crust, was also good. And we tried the Caesar salad, though we were warned inquiringly by our waiter that it had lots of anchovies in it? We couldn't taste any, and the salad seemed to have been waiting airlessly in the refrigerator since mid-afternoon. The romaine leaves and even the croutons were chilled to rubbery tastelessness. The house salad--mixed greens topped anachronistically with egg and bacon--had the same problem when we tried it another day.

Of course, there was roast chicken; how could there not be? And Harper's, to complete the array of options, offers theirs with a special sauce of the week, though both weeks we ate there, a turgid lemon gravy was the sauce de la semaine, so to speak. The chicken was good without the gravy.

Beef had to be there, and the 20-ounce "Tuscan style" cowboy steak was the choice, its price averaging about a dollar an ounce and the image of those parmesan cowpokes irresistible. It was lovely, bloody and browned. The most exotic entree listed is the "Danish" ribs, another heavy-duty item--and they say, yes, they really are from Denmark. Evidently, everyone must ask. We went for the boneless meat served on a bun, and it was delicious, messy and tender, the sinewy strips of meat mixed with crispy bits of fat piled with coleslaw and sauce on a bun. French fries were good, as they almost always are now everywhere, skinny and greaseless.

In the end, the food answered our questions about Harper's, and certainly, no one else seems to have any. The first time we had dinner at Harper's, ours was almost the only car in the parking lot. The next week, we had to wait for a table. And after all, you don't really need to look any further than an extra-thick milk shake for the meaning of life.

Harper's, 5150 Keller Springs Rd., (972) 503-4500. Open Monday-Thursday 11:15 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11:15 a.m.-midnight, Sunday 11:15 a.m.-10 p.m.


Chicago Pizza $8.95

Caesar Salad $5.25

Baby Back Sandwich $6.95

Cowboy Steak $21.95

Penne Pasta $9.25

Extra Thick Milk Shake $3.25


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