Chicken-fried fake

Two more homestyle restaurants that Dallas doesn't need

I've just about had it with home cooking.
Dallas is awash in catfish and collard greens, filled with chicken-fried menus in homey digs manned (yes, that is the word I want) by substantial waitresses who should be named Mabel and call you honey, with places that are supposed to gratify the atavistic Bubba in us all.

I know this is holy ground I'm fixing to trample, but when was the last time you had honest-to-God good chicken-fried steak? I was dining with a transplant from D.C. last week--an earnest Tex-o-phile who wants to like the right things and who asks me questions in the unembarrassed way only years of friendship can allow. Mary, Joe asked, in the same trusting tone used when he came out to me 20 years ago, Is chicken-fried steak ever good?

Why lie? I believe more strongly in Santa Claus, and certainly in states' rights, than I do in good chicken-fried steak. No, Joe, I answered gently, it's never good. Home cooking is never as good as memory serves, because it's only as good as nostalgia can make it.

Location Info

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Norma's Cafe

17721 Dallas Parkway
Dallas, TX 75287-7343

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Carrollton/ Farmers Branch

Nostalgia feeds the fairy tale that fried meat and stewed greens are a good idea, and I want to point out that the emperor needs to get dressed. Or at least Norma does.

Ed Murph's Norma's has been one of Oak Cliff's comfort-food fixtures since "the fifties," as the menu brags, and the fifties are the departure point for the decor of the new Norma's by Bachman Lake, the third so far. (It looks like this may turn out to be a big brood, though the Belt Line location is now franchised to another operator.) Giant cutouts--hopefully zany--of rockets, burgers, and other icons of fifties mythology hang from the ceiling, and the place has the general atmosphere of Archie's Soda Shoppe or a diner where the Fonz might hang. It's practically modern for the menu genre, which tends to inhabit interiors slightly reminiscent of the Depression. Anyway, they're more depressing.

"Caution. You are about to return to the Harsh Reality of the Real World," reads the sign over the exit. Norma's walls are plastered with folksy wise sayings like this one, unintentionally a little too true. It's not a joke--you're definitely not in the real world when you're in Norma's. Norma has never heard of the food pyramid, and fat grams are fiction in this kitchen. That's fine with me. What's not fine is that even with all the fat left in, our food from Norma's just wasn't very good.

"If you like our food, tell your friends! If not, come back again--you'll get used to it!" reads a slogan at the bottom of the laminated menu.

Maybe. Butter-bottomed rolls and crumbly cornbread come with almost everything, and they were good, even with the non-butter spread. Chicken-fried steak, a mushy double-tenderized round thickly coated in batter, came with the usual library paste meant to season the grainy mashed potatoes as well as the meat. Fried chicken (same gravy) was better, but...Do I really have to go into that song and dance about pan-fried versus deep-fried chicken, bemoan the absence of the bones that give meat flavor, and reiterate the general tasteless condition of chicken these days?

I never drank a Coke that cost a nickel, and I get tired of hearing about the days when someone else did. If a whole generation grows up thinking fried chicken tastes like crunchy tofu, why should I carp? Norma's chicken breast was juicy on the inside and crisp on the outside, and compared to chicken present--not chicken past--it was good. I'll leave it at that.

Pork chops, though, weren't good. Thin, brindled, and cooked to the consistency of a hardback book cover, there was nothing to recommend them but their protein grams. Roast beef was related in style, though this had some historical resonance: You could trace the ancestry of American country cooking straight back from this beef to its British roots--the gene marker being a grayed tastelessness so complete it gives the impression the cook thinks flavor is a moral shortfall. Then too, my slices, covered in brown gravy, were as stiff as an upper lip. (The menu said the meat was slow-cooked and aged, but I think that just meant it had been waiting under a lamp for a while.)

Most entrees, blue plate or chalkboard specials, come with your choice of sides--the usual iceberg salad, severely chilled as though to keep it from multiplying, good french fries, last winter's carrots, beans, different beans, and waterlogged corn.

"If you're not Served in 5 Minutes, You get Served in 7 or 9...Maybe 12 Minutes! Just relax...We're Hurryin'" is the kind of saying that's only tolerable if it's not true. At dinner, there were no substantial waitresses, just a couple of distracted guys who ran around like a couple of plate spinners trying to keep their act in the air. There were multiple confusions--our meal was so long you'd think we'd cleansed our palates with sorbet halfway through, and lingered afterward for cappuccino and a light discussion of the goings-on at Cannes.

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