Dude Food: Babe's Chicken Dinner House, Cedar Hill

Each week the Dude Food guys assess the 'masculinity' of Dallas area dives. The more fried meat and junk on the walls, the better the rating...

Babe's Chicken Dinner House
200 South Main St., Cedar Hill

Dude Factor: 9, or Baby Face Nelson on a scale of 1 (Babyface) to 10 (Babe Ruth)

While I'm a big fan of Bubba's, I'm embarrassed to say that until last night I'd never tried any of the home-cooking diner's sister fried-chicken restaurants, despite the local chain's multiple Best of Dallas awards. I have seen the light and completely understand its lofty status among local chicken places.

The one thing I don't understand is the layout and decor of the Cedar Hill location. It's as if it were built by someone with two personalities. One of the personalities wanted to make diners feel as if they're relaxing in a luxury hunting lodge, complete with folksy homilies like "The older I get, the better I was" and "If you are trying to drive me crazy ... don't worry it's a short walk from here" decorating the hewn-wood walls. The other personality thought he was building a Halloween haunted house.

The confusion set in before we even made it inside, as we circumnavigated the former City Hall in the dark, getting conflicting answers about the location of the damned entrance. It was as if everyone who exited had agreed to play a prank on newcomers. Finally a seemingly hidden door opened and we scooted inside. Then we walked around the restaurant seemingly invisible to the throngs of servers for several minutes before we found the hostess and got ourselves seated.

Things got decidedly less eerie once our waitress explained the family-style service. At Babe's, rather than buy an entree for everyone, you just pay for the meat--choosing from fried chicken, roasted chicken, fried catfish, pot roast or chicken-fried steak. Biscuits, gravy and veggies (corn, green beans and mashed potatoes) are free, and you get as much as you want. This bears repeating: YOU CAN EAT ALL THE MASHED POTATOES AND GRAVY YOU WANT.

We got fried chicken and the chicken-fried steak. Each chicken order came with basically half of a chicken split lengthwise: one breast, one wing, one thigh and one leg. There was no identifiable seasoning other than salt, but it was delicious nonetheless: perfectly crispy and juicy, with no sign of heat-lamp dessication. The chicken-fried steak was thin, tender, crispy and--most importantly--huge. It nearly overran the dinner plate. Gravy was tan and creamy--not as good as Mom's, but not as chunky, either, and was just what the almost-bland potatoes needed. The corn was sweet and creamy. The only misstep was the soggy green beans in some weird sweet brown broth. Other than that--and I shoulda known better than to eat something green at a joint that clearly specializes in brown, yellow and white food anyway--everything was simple. No parsley, no rosemary, no garlic, even.

If only the layout were so simple. The bathrooms were another apparent practical joke on diners, unmarked save one small sign, with handle-less doors hung flush against the walls and painted to blend in. But the hallway leading to them takes the weirdness cake. There's a glass window that lets you look into a little closet, in which stands what looks like a person in a furry mascot-style Garfield costume. As you look at it, the room darkens and the figure seems to dissolve and turn into a stuffed Easter Bunny costume. Then it slowly turns back to Garfield. If you crane your neck to look to the left inside the space, you can figure out how the trick is done (I won't spoil it). Why a homestyle fried chicken place needs such a surreal attraction is never explained. Maybe this touch of uncanny, completely inexplicable weirdness just makes the chicken--so simple and without mystery--taste that much better.

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