Babe's is a family-style restaurant, so we descended on it in full-strength family style, which, frankly, can be formidable.
Our waitress was not one to be intimidated, however. She was tiny, young, and sassy, with a clever comeback for every query or comment.
About half of our extremely extended family gathered around the table in Garland--grandfather at the head of the table, the baby balanced in his carrier on an upended high chair, the toddler in a booster chair, and a couple of in-laws in attendance to provide the necessary friction--all to eat a fried chicken dinner at Babe's.
Babe, as I gathered from the menu and "press release" I was sent, is Bubba's better half. You know Bubba's place--the former filling station on Hillcrest that's been specializing in fried chicken for a dozen or more years. At Bubba's, the big deal is the drive-through--a very masculine approach. You want chicken, you got chicken, now move along.
Babe, in true matriarchal style, demands that you sit down as a family and enjoy your dinner. Together. Everything is served family style--and there are no menu choices, either. You just eat whatever Babe fixes, and what Babe fixes is fried chicken.
When we ate at Babe's, it wasn't for Sunday "dinner"--which is actually lunch--I think it was a Wednesday night (that would make it "supper"). But it was a Sunday dinner menu, all the way: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, corn and biscuits. For the sake of something green, you're served a salad of teeth-achingly cold iceberg lettuce with a syrupy dressing. But everyone knows the point of the meal is the chicken.
The Morning News Guide runs a separate restaurant category just for chicken--that's how popular chicken-eating has become. The bird responsible for the statistical rise in chicken-eating, though, is not golden-fried or roasted fowl. It's the ubiquitous boneless, skinless breast. (Remember Gary Larson's cartoon of the "boneless chicken farm" with those limp chickens lying all over the ground?)
Boneless breasts are the epitome of modern protein: light-colored, bland-tasting, easy to eat, quick to prepare and--most important--not recognizable as formerly living creatures. No bones, no discernible body parts. We're more Victorian than the Victorians, who used to put pants on their lamb chops and call legs "limbs." Boneless chicken breasts avoid all the bluntness, avoid the intimacy, the savagery of tearing meat from bone with your teeth and fingers, and allow us to forget the origins of our food.
The problem is, as good cooks know, bones give flavor to the meat. Babe's chicken is real chicken, chicken on the bone.
It's chicken with a very thick crust, deep-fried, which is not the best fried chicken.
Babe's is in a strip shopping center, along with the IndoPak Bible Church and the Church of the Latterday Rain, whatever that is (do you think they mean "reign"? "brain?"). Hey, this is family values land. You have your church and your Sunday dinner all in the same block.
Babe's is a big old place, full of an unlikely collection of weird stuff--a mounted swordfish, a life-size cutout of John Wayne, "clever" sayings burned onto the piney wood walls. There are stuffed animals in cute outfits--like the badger in a sheriff's get-up. It feels like the dining hall of a summer camp on "Hee-Haw."
You could sum up Babe's with the single word "corn"--corn is the menu and corn is the style. Our perky waitress had it down pat, and it's an inch thick. From the jokes to the batter, nothing is subtle here.
Now there are lots of ways to fry a chicken; it's a controversial subject among cooks ("chefs" don't fry chicken). Calvin Trillin has covered fried chicken almost as thoroughly as he has Arthur Bryant's Kansas City barbecue; his account of the not-so-famous "chicken wars" makes fascinating reading for fry fans.
James Beard, in American Cookery, gives seven recipes for fried chicken--listing them makes you feel like that other Bubba--you know, Forrest--Forrest Gump's--friend. There's the basic brown bag shake & bake (deep fry in lard or vegetable shortening), "pan-fried" (in fat, to halfway up the chicken), Tabasco-fried (previously unheard-of except on McIlhenny Island), and bacon-fried (yes, fried in rendered bacon grease). There's Maryland chicken, a controversial and famous version which always calls for cream sauce and which even the august Auguste Escoffier prepared, there's Shenandoah fried chicken (rolled in crackercrumbs and finished in a casserole), and Creole fried chicken, mixed with tomatoes and ham.
The funny thing is, none of these recipes calls for the chicken to be dipped in batter. Proper fried chicken may be soaked in milk or oil or, Lord help us, Tabasco, but it is always coated with seasoned flour or a mixture of flour and crumbs. Yet the only fried chicken you're going to get is battered and deep-fried.
Well, I don't have enough space to get into it, so I'll skip discussing the ramifications, whys, and wherefores of that peculiar fact and just say that Babe's is as good as you'll get. (They leave the lard alone and fry it in canola oil, which is fine with me.)
Our waitress hauled out platters of hot chicken, along with bowls of soft mashed potatoes and thick white gravy stiffer than the spuds, bowls of cut corn sweetened and creamed, and baskets of biscuits. You can eat it all and ask for more of anything you want, except you have to pay for more chicken. But chances are you won't ask for more, because a couple of huge pieces of this rich, thick-crusted, juicy chicken will finish you.
For "dessert": tall, tender buttermilk biscuits. The butter soaks right in, and then you carefully drizzle them with honey--pure unfiltered gold from Waxahachie--or, if you are truly of the south with a capital "S," sorghum. (It tastes a bit like light molasses, and Babe imports it from Mississippi.) Some of us drizzle the fried chicken with honey--returning to the sweet-and-meat combination of tastes that was popular back when King Henri IV of France first expressed a wish for a chicken in every peasant's pot on Sunday.
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Democracy is wonderful--at Babe's, every day but Monday, you can have chicken and all for only $5.99. Such a deal. Kids eat for less money, but they have to share your chicken.
Babe's Chicken Dinner, 1456 Belt Line Road, Suite 171, Garland, 496-1041. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Open Sunday 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Chicken Dinner $5.