Why should we pay for home cooking? Hell, it's the same stuff Mom whipped up free of charge for decades. It's always a bit perturbing to see people shell out good money for something they could prepare in their own kitchens for quite a bit less. Besides, most places never match the ambience and comfort of home anyway.
Thus the home-cooking restaurant concept has one key problem. Anything they flip off the grill must equal this or that person's memory of home. If Mom or Dad routinely overcooked the burger, then woe to the place that fails to match the comforting taste of burned beef. Home cooking is one of those amorphous phrases, like comfort food, that mean different things to different people--which, of course, makes the concept absolutely meaningless.
Or it should, if we weren't immersed in a culture addicted to euphemisms and misnomers.
Ultimate BLT $5.99
Herb-roasted chicken $5.99
Iceberg salad $3.99
Dallas mozzarella salad $5.99
Exotic salad (small) $3.99
Fried black bean ravioli $6.99
Grilled chicken skewers $6.99
Habanera pork chop $10.99
King Ranch chicken $8.99
Chicken-fried steak $10.99
Meat loaf $9.99
Pecan pie $3.50
Apple pie $3.50
Toss up a "mission accomplished" banner and guess what? People buy into it. Dial in a few cutesy accoutrements and, voilà, a theme restaurant.
And then there's AllGood Café, a contradiction to everything known, understood, cute and crafty. Part Texas roadhouse, part home-cooking theme spot, part gourmand niche, it's nothing as promised. OK, it may resemble home in certain respects: Dirty plates and half-filled glasses sat on several abandoned tables during one visit. In real life, things sometimes sit in the sink for days at a time. The ripped vinyl seating and haphazard furnishing remind one of, at best, a college pad rented by a bunch of frat guys without the wherewithal to warrant a place in the main house. But forgive the furnishings. The restaurant opened five years ago on a shoestring budget, borrowing cast-off booths from Daddy Jack's and old tables from Chili's.
And forgive the crumbs when you sit down for a meal. The place is short-staffed some evenings. Nevertheless, the servers--a young woman in a T-shirt and jeans or the guy wearing a baseball hat, dull plaid short-sleeve monstrosity and cut-off dungarees--somehow win your confidence. They approach guests with ease, affability and even an honesty that more polished waitstaff should envy.
That's your first clue that AllGood Café is one of those unpredictable misnomer-type places. The second? Try the mashed potatoes. On one visit, they were dry and nearly inedible. Other times they stood up to anything experienced at high-end restaurants. At worst, the side dish mound is just a lump of potato roughage, requiring several beers to swallow. Two subsequent visits reminded us why some people consider mashed potatoes the ultimate comfort food, whatever that means. They are an artery-clogging frappe of real potatoes, butter, cream cheese and sour cream that never masks the earthy flavor of the main ingredient.
In other words, it's not all bad at AllGood. But it's not all good, either.
An iceberg wedge salad showed brown around the edges, evidence of pre-slicing and extended exposure to the elements. (And in Deep Ellum, those elements include more than just oxygen and carbon whatever.) A sloppy blue cheese dressing full of listless chunks of barely identifiable curd only made the starter worse. Char marks provided the only excitement on an otherwise bland serving of habanera pork chops. Even then the only flavor was an unidentifiable "black." Bits of habanera pepper encrusted within the charred parts barely nudged the taste buds. In fact, the spicy dipping sauce accompanying dull grilled chicken skewer appetizers exhibited more firepower. The watery blend of Asian flavors--soy, ginger, garlic and industrial Thai sauce--in the dipping cup played like a howitzer compared with the toy pop-gun burst from the usually dreaded chili clinging to the overcooked chop. It actually required a Herculean effort to saw through the pork.
A casserole of King Ranch chicken tasted mostly of cheese, and congealed cheese at that. The menu suggests tortilla, chilis, pico de gallo and specialized white meat, but it mostly reeks of grocery-store shredded cheese left in the broiler way too long. After sampling the pecan pie we wanted to check the trash bins around back for empty Mrs. Smith frozen pie boxes. Heated, the apple pie emerges as a gooey, unpleasant mess.
Ah, but some of the dishes are, in fact, astounding.
Our state's official dish is a gut-wrenching measure of pounded beef, flour, grease and white gravy otherwise known as chicken-fried steak. AllGood bills its version as "world's best," as if Texans should brag about their culinary exploits.
In this case, however, "world's best" is not much of an exaggeration. AllGood kitchen staff double-dips tenderloin (rather than pounded flank steak) in flour and buttermilk, then deep-fries the combination in a vat of peanut oil. Sure, deep-frying and peanut oil may be sacrilegious in this state. Texas swagger, apparently, results from greasy, heavy, pan-fried hunks of beef and the resulting intestinal discomfort. What emerges from the fry station at AllGood, however blasphemous, is close to perfection. The crust is crispy and light, almost like a Deep South version of tempura. They drizzle gravy across the top sparingly--a plus in this case, as the pasty white stuff doesn't compete with the crust. Rather, it enhances the overall experience. If a restaurant can become a destination based on something as plebeian as chicken-fried steak, then AllGood Café found its niche.
Meat loaf is perhaps the greatest test of a home-cooking establishment. After all, everyone measures the dish against the version Mom prepared--generally adapted from Grandma's recipe. Here, again, AllGood exceeds expectations. Their meat loaf is firm but not dry. The kitchen staff kneads in a fair amount of crumbled saltines as filler, and it's noticeable. But don't be offended. Filler, after all, is essential in true home-style recipes. The meat itself has a strong natural flavor typical of high-quality product. Saltines are a neutral element, but bell pepper and onion baked throughout add an undercurrent of sweetness. An assortment of dry herbs leaves a hint of thyme wafting just above the taste buds, noticeable for an instant then gone. Always present, lingering, is a dose of pepper light enough to allow other flavors across the palate but hefty enough to battle an overly generous portion of red sauce heaped on each slice.
Here, again, is the AllGood conundrum.
As presented, the sauce (mostly ketchup with an afterthought of dry mustard) obliterates the delicate meat loaf. Yes, delicate. Scoop off most of the thick red covering so that only a thin layer remains, however, and the tangy sauce complements the peppery-sweet mound of ground beef and crackers.
Other standouts: the pairing of Paula Lambert's Mozzarella Co. cheese with firm, fresh tomatoes purchased several times each week from the Farmers Market, known as the Dallas mozzarella salad. Indeed, the quality of AllGood's produce is one of the endearing things about the place. Unfortunately, there's that old bugaboo of inconsistent preparation. Case in point, a soggy portion of fried black bean ravioli, served as an appetizer without individual plates for each person at the table. Black bean? Good. Raviolis? They tasted like freezer-burned Sam's Club leftovers.
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OK. Back to the pluses.
The exotic salad is a bright medley of greens, sautéed onions, chopped pecan, avocado and mango. Cole slaw arrived with none of that milky white stuff. The bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich--a lunchtime favorite--is heavy on the B (and a thick, crispy, pepper-encrusted B, at that) and light on the L. In other words, perfect.
Well, not quite.
The menu promised avocado on the BLT--noticeably absent, in this case. And herb-roasted chicken, served as part of a blue plate special, contrasted deft seasoning with a slightly rubbery texture. Just a bit too long in the oven; not enough to destroy the dish, mind you, but enough to remind you that AllGood isn't always all good. And you can't go home again. 2934 Main St., 214-742-5362. Kitchen open 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 9 a.m-9 p.m. Tuesday -Saturday. $$