Chicken-fried fake

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.

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.  

"If you're too full, order dessert to go. You'll thank us later," is another pearl of Norma's wisdom.

Pies and cakes are available whole from Norma's, though we left most of our carrot cake (dense as toothpaste) and chocolate pie (stiffer than cement) there, anyway. Blueberry cobbler was better, with vanilla ice cream melting into it, and our lunchtime waitress gave us the full serving for the price of a small one, because the kitchen was out of mugs. Honey.

The slogans at Doody's Roadhouse are a little more enigmatic, sounding less like something your mom might say and more like advice you might get from a fraternity brother. "Eat. Drink. Doody." Whatever that means, and whatever a roadhouse is, Doody's menu offers the same country cooking origin as Norma's, with a little more styling.

In the old Moctezuma's location, a cave-like space surrounded by a wide patio, Doody's was opened by a refugee from corporate America who decided he wanted to do something more interesting. And probably harder. With some advice from the chef at Bob's Chop House on Lemmon, the kitchen at Doody's has come up with a menu that ranges from suds fodder (quesadillas, chili, onion rings, stuffed jalapenos) to steak, covering most of the comfort-food homefront in between.

If you order guacamole and chips to go with your soda-size (and strength) margarita, you'll receive a tray filled with blue and yellow chips along with a ramekin of chopped tomatoes (that's your "salsa"), one of solid sour cream, and one of guacamole that appears to the palate to have been blended with banana. You get used to it.

It might seem odd to order spinach dip outside its natural setting (that is, away from the TV). But if you're taking the roadhouse idea seriously and settling into the patio for a series of cold ones--as most of Doody's patrons seem to be doing--you'll want this spinach dip. It's a huge bowl filled with the familiar spinach and sour cream glop, topped thickly with melted cheddar cheese and bacon bits, and served with the same blue and gold chips.

Enormity is the rule here, which ties in with the fraternal "doody" theme. Orange, cheese-dense biscuits came with a dip of melted butter. The chicken sandwich, on a long, seeded loaf, held two boneless breasts. A southwest steak sandwich was a mingling of thick steak strips, wilted peppers and onions, and a wad of melted cheese in a thick flour tortilla bunting. Two flour tortilla buntings. It tasted good, at first bite, but it was more than twice as much food as a person could reasonably eat, and we took home more than we ate at Doody's. Likewise, the "cote d'pork" was a two-inch thick chop, the baby-pink, fibrous meat running darker juice under its darkest sear, served with a big dollop of fine, buttery mashed potatoes and a little dollop of spicy applesauce in a ramekin (which made us, perversely, wish for a larger portion, though we couldn't even finish the chop). Corn comes on the cob, and Cobb salad comes with pinwheel-arranged toppings of cubed avocado, bacon bits, minced olives, and chopped egg, as well as grilled--or, if you want to continue the anti-salad, all-fat theme--fried chicken. This again is more than a meal; it's an event, and you should be given a blue ribbon or another drink if you finish it. Caesar salad, the comfort food of the nineties, is equally large and very rich.

There's chicken-fried steak on the menu, and chicken-fried chicken, too, but because of the beef link we'd heard about, we ordered instead the certified Angus steak, which doesn't really qualify as comfort food (nothing over $12 a portion can be called "comforting") or home cooking (although steak is still a favorite in most homes). In spite of Bob's chef's advice, this ribeye was not the best, unless "resilient" is a word you like to associate with your beef, but the skinny-cut, barely battered fries were good, as were the homemade potato chips, delicate ruffles of translucent tubers, fried hard till they melted on the tongue.

The chocolate milkshake, thin enough to suck, was made with a drop of almond extract, making a grown-up dessert out of a child's treat. But for most desserts at Doody's, it's back to the country. Lemon pie is made the way real moms make it, with that wonderful science-fair combination of condensed milk and lemon juice that congeals into a quivering, mouth-watering curd in its graham-cracker crust.  

Norma's Cafe, 3657 W. Northwest Hwy. (at Webb Chapel), (214) 357-7771. Open Monday-Saturday 6 a.m.-8 p.m., Sunday 7 a.m.-3 p.m.

Doody's Roadhouse, 2847 N. Henderson Ave., (214) 828-9600. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Chicken-Fried Steak $5.35
Chicken-Fried Chicken $5.35
Roast Beef $5.65
Grilled Porkchops $7.25
Cream Pie $1.65

Doody's Roadhouse:
Spinach Dip $5.95
Guacamole and Salsa $4.95
Cobb Salad $7.95
Cote d'Pork $13.95
Grilled 10-Ounce Ribeye $13.95

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Norma's Cafe

17721 Dallas Parkway
Dallas, TX 75287-7343


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