A step back into the past

August 20, 2018

Disclaimer: I did not take this photo. I stole it from their web site.

The above is not what I had for lunch today. But it could have been.

Faced with one business meeting in Little Rock that ended about 12:15, and another one scheduled to start at 1, just five blocks away, and accompanied by a group that wasn’t familiar with Little Rock, I opted for an oldie-but-goodie — Franke’s Cafeteria.

Just like folks have been doing for 99, count ’em, 99 years.

There’s a reason Franke’s has lasted for doggoned near a century, particularly in an age when cafeterias are first cousins to dinosaurs outside of schools and hospitals. But Franke’s does a steady business on the first floor of the Regions Bank Building on Capitol Avenue in the Rock, not three blocks from where it originally started out. And it’s pretty simple — it’s just good.

How long has it been since you went to a cafeteria for a meal? (Schools and hospitals don’t count.) When I was in college, there was a Britling’s in Poplar Plaza, walking distance if you were a carless dorm dweller, and I used to go  there periodically for my veggie fix, to stave off scurvy and such. Learned early on that if you went around 1:30, you’d get bigger servings, as they shut the line down at 2. These things are important when you’re a starving college student. Piccadilly’s was another big one on the Memphis scene, although the granddaddy of them all was Morrison’s, in the bottom of the office building adjacent to Methodist Hospital, with what still may rank as the most heavenly fried shrimp I’ve ever eaten in my life. (They fried them in some sort of ethereal tempura-ish batter that was chock-full of chopped green onions, and it was Sweet Baby Jesus good, no matter it’s been 40 years since I’ve had them and Morrison’s is no more, sadly. They fried onion rings in that same batter, too. I can still taste ’em.)

Fast-forward 30-odd years and I was back and forth to Dallas occasionally for business, and I discovered Bryce’s, in Texarkana. Probably the biggest selection of any cafeteria I’ve visited since Britling’s; deciding on what to put on a salad plate there was always a challenge, and I’ve had more than a few $15 salad plates-and-a-half. Alas, Bryce’s is gone as well.

Franke’s, like a Timex, just keeps on ticking. Being across the street from one high-rise office building and in the basement of another, not to mention across a different street from the federal courthouse, assures an ever-changing parade of hungry lunchtime customers who don’t want fast food but don’t want to move their cars, either.

I had meat loaf (I do love a good meat loaf), candied sweet potatoes (Franke’s makes good ones, not too sweet), and carrot-raisin salad. I NEVER eat carrot raisin salad unless I’m at a cafeteria. I will damn nearly always eat it when I’m at a cafeteria. I don’t know why. It’s a stand-in-line thing, I guess. I passed on pie, with some degree of difficulty. And a passed on those gorgeous rolls that are as big as an infant’s head. The only rolls I’ve ever seen that could come near them are those from the old Buntyn Cafe in Memphis. Well, and Miss Mary Lloyd Young’s rolls at the Methodist Church in Marion, and you only got those once a year, and besides, I have the recipe and can make those, albeit not as good as Miss Mary Lloyd.

In any event, I’m doggoned proud Franke’s is still going strong after nearly a century, and I’ll be tickled to help them celebrate their century mark next year. I strongly urge you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em to do the same next time you’re in Little Rock and looking for a good place to have lunch.



Kissing the cook

June 9, 2018

You don’t have to kiss the cook. You do need to give her your credit card.

It is generally, if you are on close terms with the cook, a Good Thing to Kiss the Cook. Particularly if he/she turns you out a pretty wonderful meal.

I did not, in this case, kiss the cook,not being that closely acquainted with the lady. But I was certainly happy to hand her (or, more to the point, one of her employees) my credit card yesterday afternoon and let her ring up not just what I would eat for dinner last night, but quite likely for most of the rest of the weekend (save tonight, which is Another Story).

Above is: A healthy serving of The Best Pasta Salad I Ever Ate In My Life, as detailed a couple of days ago; a healthy serving of fruit salad with an impossibly delicate poppy seed dressing; and some of the Best Chicken Salad I Ever Ate In My Life, but for what Andrea used to make at the Little Sweet Shop in Marion, and what Mrs. Margaret Fogleman used to make for Rotary Club occasionally, also in Marion, back in the day.

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The skinny on thinfish

October 30, 2017

Thinfish. Nothing skinny about the taste.

Logic and a familiarity with fried catfish will tell you that filets need to not be too thin in order to avoid overcooking them when you deep fry them.

Reality will tell you to chunk that supposition over your shoulder when you’re heading in the door at Middendorf’s Restaurant in Manchac, La., where “thinfish,” catfish filets sliced about 1/4 inch thick, are breaded in an impossibly light, almost tempura except that it isn’t, breading and fried in what must be a screamingly hot fryer to a level of light golden crispy perfection on the outside, and moist, creamy fish inside.

Think catfish chips.

On second thought, don’t think. Just eat. Before they get cold.

Lots of fish fried here since the mid-1930s.

Manchac, a tiny group of houses and boat docks on the northern shore of Lake Ponchartrain, just off Interstate 55, would be a blink in the rear-view were it not for Middendorf’s, which has been packing them in for lunch and dinner since the mid-1930s. They serve regular catfish filets as well, along with the full menu of shellfish that any self-respecting south Louisiana eatery will offer, but it’s the thinfish they’re known for, and it’s the thinfish that brings the crowds off the interstate.

We stopped shortly after noon on a Saturday, and were promised a table would be available shortly; were given a pager that’d summon us. We spent maybe five minutes perusing the T-shirts, alligators and frozen goodies in the shop before it buzzed.

Had I not been set on trying thinfish, I’d have been most tempted by the Oktoberfest menu, albeit that was really a dinner, and not lunch, menu. But I wanted thinfish, and thinfish I would have. I asked for a small order.

I’d have hated to see a large order. Mine had three filets which, had they been flattened out (they curl up a bit when fried) would been the size of a trade paperback book, or my two hands outstretched and laid side by side. They came with hushpuppies, fries and slaw, as well as cocktail and tartar sauce; my request for lemon wedges quickly brought me a dish of half a dozen of them.

Let’s get the less-than-stellar out of the way first. The slaw was OK. It’s creamy, mayo-based with a good bit of vinegar, fairly sweet. Adequate. Comes, for some reason, with a dill pickle chip perched on top of it. The hushpuppies were OK. Decent flavor, fairly coarse texture. Some jalapeno, but minced fine enough so’s not to be objectionable. The fries were pretty good, and came from a real potato.

The fish. The fish was just damn well heavenly.

Those filets were lighter than air — I’m surprised, on reflection, they didn’t float off the plate. Light golden tan. Ethereally light breading that was almost like, but not quite, tempura. Inside, a thin, thin layer of moist, creamy fish. Damned if I know how they do it. I’m just glad they do.

I got through two and a half of those three filets before having to give up the ghost. Lord have mercy, but that was some of the best catfish I’ve ever had in my life.

Next time you’re going to or coming from the Big Easy, time it so you’ve got some time, and some space left in your tummy, for a stop at Manchac. You can’t miss Middendorf’s. And you shouldn’t. You ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em need thinfish in your life.


Seafood safari

October 29, 2017

Perennial Gulf Coast fave — shrimp and crab au gratin from Mary Mahoney’s.

Just got back in town from a jaunt to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans, which included a significant number of calories contained in some excellent meals.

As beach trips go, it was not the greatest. I’m not crazy about the Mississippi Sound beaches (no waves!), though an excursion on a shrimp boat was entertaining. But I gambled for several hours over two days on thirty bucks before I lost it all, and ate several memorable meals as some old and new favorite restaurants, so on the whole I call it a success.

We started things out at lunch on the road in Jackson, Miss., with a stop off at Lou’s Full Serve, tucked in behind a grocery store near downtown. It may be hidden, but it’s no secret — place was packed when we got there between 11:30 and 12. Extensive sandwich menu, extensive salad menu, and a daily blue plate special. Wednesday’s was meat loaf.

Well, now, y’all know me and meat loaf. People, this was MEAT LOAF. They brought me a full half-pound portion of it, coated in a marvelous tomatoey-ketchupy glaze, with nary a nasty bell pepper lurking anywhere about it, and it was GOOD, I am here to tell you. Sweet Baby Jesus good. It came with lima beans and mashed potatoes which benefitted greatly by the addition of a tad of bacon. I got through all the veggies and three-quarters of the meat loaf, and looked at the little waitress with absolute disbelief when she inquired about dessert.

Lucky I was riding and not driving. I may well have napped en route from Jackson to the Coast. Short story: Lou’s deserves its No. 1 place on the Yelp ranking for lunch spots in Jackson, and I’ll go back.

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French toast, with sourdough bread from the Farmers’ Market.

It’s sure quiet in my house this morning.

For the first time in more than a week, I have no children here. Well, I do, but they’re of the grown variety, and thus are sleeping soundly. All the campers from Camp KayKay have gone home, or in any event to other grandparents’ homes. There are no toys in my living room floor.

It’s kinda lonesome.

But I have a lot to do today — two work projects which didn’t get done last week, because I was chasing tiny tornadoes hither and yon, plus figs that need to be washed, jam made from them, and canned, purple hulled peas (a half-bushel of them) that need to be shelled and stashed in the freezer. The half-bushel of peaches can wait until a little later in the week, which is also filled with lots of things I  need to do, which I hope will involve significant cooking.

Because there sure wasn’t any last week.

The above photo is one of the three times my stove was turned on last week. The other two were to boil eggs for AGC3, and to make a grilled cheese sandwich for AGC1. I did make potato skins one night after everyone had gone to bed and it occured to me I’d forgotten to eat. And while there was plenty of fast/junk food, there were also two good meals out, both Mexican in nature, at Colorado Grill in Hot Springs and at the old faithful Ark-Mex standard, Pancho’s, in West Memphis.

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Barbecue time!

May 28, 2017

Dinner. Yes, my eyes were bigger than my stomach.

It’s pretty much canonical, in this part of the world, that Memorial Day weekend, sometime, you need to consume some meat that’s been up close and personal with a grill or a smoker.

I will wager that not too many folks got as good a taste of that as I did today. Not that I can claim any of the credit for the barbecue — just the sides — but I had what I believe is just about as good a pork barbecue as I’ve ever had in my life.

How it was, was, like this. A month or six weeks ago, when we had all the flooding in Northeast Arkansas, some friends of mine who live an hour or so to the north of me had 5 1/2 feet of water in their home on the Eleven Point River. This is the third time they’ve gotten water in their house, which is built well above the 100-year flood level; the other two times, it was a foot or so, and they’d elevated everything on blocks and moved everything moveable upstairs. A pain in the butt, but manageable.

Oh, and the insurance company cancelled their flood insurance after the second event.

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Blue Q chicken, soaking in its sauce.

I love me some blueberries. I love me some chicken. I never thought about putting them together. At least, not until I purchased Deep Run Roots, the cookbook from Vivian Howard, chef at Chef and the Farmer and star of “A Chef’s Life” on Food TV.

I pause for an unsolicited endorsement. If you have a cookbook-loving cell in your body, buy this book. Not only is it filled with really cool recipes, the recipes are not those which require a pantry-full of exotic ingredients or a spice cabinet with stuff you can’t pronounce and y’mama ‘n ’em never heard of. She relies on a lot of salt, pepper and fresh herbs you can grow in your flower bed. Her recipes let the ingredients, time-honored ingredients any Southern cook knows, like pecans, tomatoes, sweet corn, greens (well, I won’t testify for the greens recipes, as I detest cooked greens in any shape, form or fashion) and grits, and uses them in different settings and combinations to create great new dishes.

Besides which, sista can WRITE. I took the cookbook to bed with me and read it cover to cover in three nights.

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