Fried chicken was the favorite food of my childhood, probably because we hardly ever had it.
We came home from church on Sunday not to chicken but to leg of lamb, a legacy of Anglophile grandparents. My mother didn't like to fry chicken because it was "too messy," which it absolutely is, so for me it was special occasion food.
I still search it out, but it gets harder and harder to find. I thought RosaLee's, a new restaurant featuring homestyle cooking in the old Clara's Kitchen location, might be a source, but I guess you can't go home again.
Welcome to the Highland Park Cafeteria of Fair Park: absolutely spick and span, freshly decorated in a sedate mauve and gray color scheme, Rosa-Lee's is a completely genteel dining room. Never mind that you pull a plastic tray from the stack and stand in a cafeteria line; the silverware is wrapped in white linen, the walls are hung with art, not newspaper clippings, and the atmosphere is soothing and civilized.
The selection here is smaller than the Park Cities palace, but the feel is the same: mind your manners, now, and don't smack your lips. Put your napkin in your lap.
On our first visit, for an early evening supper, I chose the excellent meat loaf--brown and crumbly with loads of chopped peppers and onions under a thick tomato gravy. And a whole baby catfish, coated in cornmeal head-to-tail and deep-fried. Inside the crisp brown coating, the meat was white and moist, though it was a small fish, not the steak-sized slabs we've gotten used to.
But since they serve catfish on the bone, why not chicken?
When I went back to Rosa's for lunch, I was really looking forward to real fried chicken and was sure I'd find it. The only place I know to get it is The Green Room, and why should a fancy rock and roll chef have anything on South Dallas when it comes to fried chicken?
But Rosa's chicken was not the bird I'm looking for. It was certainly moist and tasty, but it, too, had been battered and deep-fried instead of floured and pan-fried. And, it was boneless--what they call chicken-fried chicken instead of just fried chicken.
Well, the mashed potatoes comforted me, just like they're supposed to. Semi-mashed potatoes, I'd call them; plenty of brown skins and lots of lumps mixed in with fluffy potatoes.
Beef tips over rice, a cafeteria staple, were chewy little nuggets, without the deep brown taste you deserve from this dish. But collard greens were a wonder. I never liked any kind of cooked greens as a child; for me, they're a barely cultivated taste, probably because my brother used to sing that childhood ditty about "great green gobs of..." you know, whenever spinach or cooked leaves were served.
He wouldn't have left such an impression on me if the greens had been like these: not cooked to mush, but still leafy, with that distinctive bitterness offset by a touch of sweet cooked onion.
Kernel corn and green beans are perhaps canned, or cooked to that texture, anyway. And macaroni, in a thin pale cheese sauce, would never be mistaken for anything but a side dish. A great cube of yellow cornbread was moist and sweet, the light yeast roll was soft and squishy. Butter pecan cake was lightly spiced, moist, and slathered with cream cheese icing, and the iced tea was pre-sweetened--truly Southern.
We hardly left hungry, but I'm still searching for that rare bird. Let me know if you find one.
--Mary Brown Malouf
RosaLee's Homestyle Cooking Restaurant, 3126 Grand Ave., 428-3118. Open daily 11 a.m.--8 p.m.
Fried Catfish with Vegetables $5.25
Meat Loaf with Vegetables $5.25
Chitterlings with Vegetables $6.45
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.