HEAD-TO-HEAD: Columbia Meat & Threes (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by The LunchMen Thursday, September 9, 2010

If you are familiar with this blog, then you'll know that we usually leave head-to-head comparisons up to you through our polls. Hey, you guys almost always get it right anyways. However, the Lunchmen like to mix it up, and so we are rolling out a new post format: the Head-to-Head. We could think of no better Head-to-Head to start out this new tradition than a meat & three challenge.

First, we needed parameters for the herculean task for comparing Columbia's meat & threes. We know that there are truly baller meat & three options in the area. If you have not been to the Farmer's Shed out in Lexington, then you have a void in your life, even if you don't realize it yet. If you have not saddled up with the blue-hairs at the Millwood Cafe, then you are missing out on what I believe to be Columbia's best downtown meat & three. But the Farmer's Shed and the Millwood Cafe were not what first came to mind when we began asking our usual suspects to list the three meat & three restaurants that first came to mind. Instead we got Compton's, Nathan's, and the omnipresent Lizard's Thicket. So, we agreed we would pit these three popular options head to head, and save the true stars of Columbia's meat & three world for their own posts.

I committed to trying the country-fried steak, green beans, and macaroni & cheese at all three locations. We took at least five (and as many as ten) of our usual suspects on each of these trips. After asking everyone what really mattered at a meat & three, we agreed immediately that fried chicken needed to be tasted at each place as well. Rabbit, and others, stressed the need to highlight the veggie options. Therefore, we decided to rate the restaurants from 1st to 3rd in four categories: Proteins, Sides & Veggies, Atmosphere, and Price. When the dust cleared, the results were truly unexpected to this group. Final rankings will appear in the third and final post in this series.

NATHAN'S RESTAURANT: 1840 Hampton Street

Nathan's is a long-standing Columbia establishment. In the mornings, it is flooded with a mix of office workers and blue collar workers alike partaking of a very affordable, and artery-clogging, breakfast. Nathan has a lot of lunch options, but everyone I know goes to Nathans for the meat-and-three lunch special. If you've ever had a sandwich for lunch, give us a comment and let us know if they are good.

To most of our participants, Nathan's came into the Head-to-Head as the projected front-runner(although I believed that Compton's would ultimately triumph). With buzz circulating our office over the Head-to-Head, ten regulars came out for the Nathan's taste test, and we descended on Nathan's like a bus of tourists on a Ryan's steakhouse. The service at Nathan's is fast and friendly. Nathan's feels exactly like a downtown diner should feel: established, relaxed, and unpretentious.

The food that came out of Nathan's kitchen was polarizing. The Queen of Frozen Cuisine, for example, had some delicious fried chicken. She was pretty thrilled that she came out of her office cave and joined society for a while. Pizza the Hut and I had the country fried steak, and we both thought it was good, although perhaps a little tough. Tex, however, ordered the Cajun chicken, which I believe was actually made out of that rare chicken most often reserved for shtick comedy routines - the rubber chicken. It looked, and reportedly tasted, deplorable.

Nathan's biggest shortcoming, however were its sides & veggies. My okra was clearly something the came from a large, frozen bag - likely pre-breaded. The okra had absolutely no flavor and a mealy texture. With fresh okra growing locally while we made this trip, I shed a small tear for having to eat something so tasteless. Everyone who had mashed potatoes agreed that they came from a box of instant mashed potatoes mix - perhaps the Idahoan. I can't remember who all ordered cheese on their mashed potatoes, but none of the cheese was melted when the potatoes hit the table. To add to my pain, my green beans tasted like the tin can they were likely poured out of prior to service. At least I may have obtained some extra minerals that way.

Apparently the collards were a saving grace, and others (not me) liked the macaroni and cheese.  Pizza the Hut liked the deviled eggs, though I could detect none of the signature seasoning that should top a proper deviled egg.  So, let's talk about the real saver for Nathan's: the price. If you want a living example of the saying, "you get what you pay for," Nathan's is it. The price on the meat and three is phenomenal. Its cheaper than a $5 foot long and a drink. For the price of a fast food meal, you can have a sit-down meal with friendly service in a place that feels comfortable. Of course, your meal is no healthier than that fast food, and the food is not fresher, either. But, for those looking for a meat & three on a tight budget, Nathan's has been and will continue to be here for you.

- Tank  (who apologizes for the shifting font that is a result of Blogger's insistence on tinkering with things that need to be left alone.)


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Rabbit, Tank, and The Publican are three dudes just trying to get through the work week here in Columbia. Rabbit is a Columbia native, Tank is from Charleston, and The Publican hails from Greenville. Rabbit's favorite lunch spot is the No Name Deli on Elmwood, where you may find him putting down a grilled chicken salad and a side of vinegar pasta. The Publican usually wants to find food to cure his all-too-common hangovers. Tank claims no favorite lunch spot - he lives for the thrill of the hunt.