Ticket to Paradise

I planned out a vacation. It was an ambitious world tour touching down in various European, Mediterranean and South American countries. I would pack a wardrobe that would allow me to fluctuate a good 10 or 20 pounds, since my itinerary would be heavily food-focused.

Then I calculated airfare, cat boarding and wine with every meal and realized that since I can't even justify gas for a trip to Waco, I should set my sights closer to home. I didn't have to call a travel agent either; my local substitution sat just on Lovers Lane: Kathleen's Sky Diner.

Although its menu is laid out like a flight schedule—"Lunch Flight," "Breakfast Flight," etc. and prices notated like ETDs—the University Park restaurant (formerly Kathleen's Art Café) fortunately doesn't feel a thing like an airport or the Admirals Club. It's more of a showcase of destinations with iconic cities and a giant world map hung upon the wall and a globetrotting menu to match.

Kathleen's Sky Diner brings you on board with its multinational menu—and there's no extra charge for baggage.
Tom Jenkins
Kathleen's Sky Diner brings you on board with its multinational menu—and there's no extra charge for baggage.

For my first stop, I touched down somewhere near Baja. Before me lay a plate with three soft corn tortillas upon which sat a light and crispy cabbage and jicama slaw, huge fillets of fried tilapia and a creamy, spicy remoulade. The hunks of crisp batter and perfectly cooked fish had to be cut in order to fit the tacos, so I waffled between hand and fork. But no matter how the bites found their way to my mouth, each was blissful—a balance of cool and steamy, crunchy and tender, sweet and zesty.

Meanwhile, my companion was in Cuba ready to leave me for a medianoche. Once his eyes glazed over, it was difficult to wrest the sandwich away from him for even one bite, but I was successful and truly thankful when I did. The gigantic sandwich was stacked to the sky with ham, Swiss, a lightly applied chipotle aioli and these incredible snappy pickles that leveled out the heavy doses of pork and fended off the meat sweats. The Kathleen's-baked bun was warm and, though delicate, held up to the heft of its contents. The accompanying shoestring fries—crispy, salty and thin—were overkill as far as proportion but absolutely impossible to stop eating.

Before departing across the Atlantic, we next stopped off in the Southern states for a little brunch (and elastic-waist pants). Rigo's Especial provided a Tex-Mex spin on the Benedict with a stack of English muffin, chorizo, poached egg (flawless) and a jalapeño hollandaise. Now, if I had to lay down money, I'd swear that every one of Kathleen's hollandaise sauces is made to order—as it should be but so rarely is during rushed brunch services elsewhere. It was light, airy and not at all overpowering, unlike many versions that practically turn into icing atop eggs and other dishes. It's easy to just eat on through a heavy-handed, vat-born hollandaise when you're hungover on a Sunday morning, but it's hard to ignore the thrill when you taste one that's right. Rigo's was a spicy and pleasant wake-up call.

Kathleen's French toast was also a nice morning treat, though the serving was enormous. The slices were ever so slightly dredged in a cinnamon-tinged egg batter and topped with sweet sliced strawberries that made the warm syrup on the side unnecessary. That being said, it was hard to avoid a meal spent trying to find my perfect bite of buttered toast, berry, syrup and crispy bacon (orders come with sausage, bacon or chorizo). It was a long, indulgent flight, and by the end I needed a layover.

Next stop: Greece. Our lamb lollipops arrived with ample luggage. The two skewers (chopsticks, actually, but I digress) were each driven into a mass of gyro meat rivaling the size of a Polish sausage; it was as though we received our own mini street-cart spits. The lamb was robustly seasoned, the requisite garlic and oregano present and enlivening the meat's natural flavor. The skewers came with a large accompanying Greek salad that was just as flavorful, as well as an invigorating tzatziki and some pita.

Then Germany beckoned, and I responded by ordering the house schnitzel. The basic breaded, pounded pork loin cutlet was close to excellent. The meat was fork-tender, and the breading was neither garishly bready nor wimpy. The edges provided an exciting little crunch, and the lemon caper sauce was a lovely variation from the too-heavy mushroom sauces that one finds with most stateside modifications of German classics such as Jaeger schnitzel. One of the most appealing aspects of the meal, however, was the side of sour red cabbage. Many times, a red cabbage side will be oddly sweet and thrash the taste buds without a heavy cream to temper it, but this cabbage was mild, pert and addictive. It paired wonderfully with both the sauce and the meat and made the fried entrée less weighty. The mashed potatoes were an unassuming, acceptable starch.

My co-diner ventured into old Sicily for Franny's spaghetti and meatballs. The menu cites the creator of the dish as owner Kathleen Ellington's mother, and it's evident there's some maternal love in the sauce. Mixed in with the angel hair, the thoughtfully seasoned sauce sang of sun-kissed garden tomatoes, onion and fresh basil. Prego be damned. Refreshingly, the noodles were just tossed with the tomato sauce instead of drowning in it. The dish needed just a touch of salt, but in all fairness, it was the slightest of peccadilloes.

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