I am a city girl. I grew up in cities--Southern cities, but definite metropolises. I did not grow up eating greens, red beans, or okra regularly, and my Mama, a wonderful cook, refused to fry chicken--unless we were going on a trip, when she served it in the car accompanied by mysterious bread and butter sandwiches. If we ate cornbread, my grandmother's cook made it with white meal. We ate lunch in the middle of the day, dinner in the evening.
Yes, I was raised a food snob--with the notable exception of hamburgers and onion rings at The Varsity, the world's largest drive-in hamburger joint. I have made up for it since, seeking out fried chicken and cornbread at every cafeteria and roadside dining room I've ever stopped in since I was a little girl. But it's not food I think of as home cooking. So I don't have a personal standard by which to measure purported home cooking such as that served at Mama's Daughter's Diner.
The original Mama's Daughter's Diner is on Irving Boulevard--the line crowds out the door at lunchtime. Then a second Daughter appeared out north on Royal Lane; now, Mama's Daughter's has arrived downtown, right on Record Street in the West End, moving the whole idea from home-grown cafe to big business. It's more than a family affair now. It makes you wonder if Mama Norma's got enough daughters to go around. Having a passel of kids can mean that they don't all get enough attention.
It's a big space--you might remember it was formerly Chuy's, and if you remember that, you'll want to know that the construction is finished and there's a clear path to the door now. Inside, the checked linoleum floor and tubular chrome dinette chairs are still there; the change from Chuy's PeeWee Playhouse decor to Mama's Thelma and Louise diner-style was evidently not as much of a stretch as it sounds.
While we waited for our table, we wondered how long it took to remove every trace of Chuy's kitsch from the premises. (There was so much--where are all those thousands of little worry dolls that lined the bar? What happened to the photo booth? And the red velvet that lined the King's shrine? If there was a sale, I wish I'd known about it.)
Daily specials are the deal; like the first Mama's, this is a lunch place. (The Royal Lane location is open till 8 p.m.) Monday through Saturday, you can get your choice of home-(there's that word again) style meat loaf, chicken fried steak, liver and onions, chicken and dumplings, Salisbury steak, etc., with a choice of three vegetables for only $5.50. There's also a list of a la carte items and sandwiches.
I searched the whole list, a la carte menu included, for something that said "fried chicken," but I didn't find it. What I found instead was "chicken fried chicken." What does that mean? Of course, it's a "cutlet," a boneless breast, the only kind of bird we ever eat any more. I ordered it anyway; the crust was seasoned and crisp, the meat juicy at the thick end, dry at the thin end. The thick white gravy helped, and the mashed potatoes, still the real thing, tasting like potato, with some shreds of skin and an occasional lump. And the green beans, Kentucky Wonders, cooked--stewed, really--to Gerberlike softness. The sweet, fluffy yeast rolls were exactly the kind of bread my Mama never made (hers being chewy and yeasty) and, of course, there was plenty of sweet wet cornbread. But oh, for a bird with bones.
The "grilled" chicken breast was naturally boneless--is there any other kind of grilled chicken?--dusted with spices and griddled. Chicken fried steak was over-tenderized; the meat seemed almost like a hamburger patty beneath the breading. But this is also a trend even at the most die-hard of lard joints.
The refrigerated shelves behind the diner bar tempted us the whole meal, but when finally the chocolate ice box pie arrived, you couldn't cut the crust with your fork--not exactly feathery. It was a pretty meringue and it was meringue instead of the easy-way-out whipped topping piled on many modern cream pies. Rice pudding, with raisins, was the real thing. You like it or you don't.
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Dallasites clock out for lunch at noon, clock in at 1 p.m. When we arrived, a little after noon, the diner was full, but not as full as the parking lot. Our efficient, Texas-twanging waitress had our ticket on the table an hour later by the clock. Dinner hour's over.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Mama's Daughter's Diner #3, 211 N. Record (between Elm and Ross), 741-6262. Open Monday-Saturday 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
Mama's Daughter's Diner #3:
Daily Special $5.50
Chicken Fried Steak Plate $6.90
Grilled Chicken Breast Plate $6.90
Cream Pie $1.75