All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
Two bowls of gravy come with important instructions. One is mixed with spheres of sausage, and it’s for the biscuits. Don’t mess that up. The other, a jiggly bowl of white, is for the chicken-fried steak. The sausage gravy’s already got a spoon in it, begging to be air-lifted and upended over the two biscuits. The biscuits are simple and fluffy, made whole with the rich and milky flavor of butter. There’s no question about where I am in this moment: This is a Dallas diner.
Diner identity is in full, crack-you-over-the-head force at Mama’s Daughters flagship location on Irving Boulevard. A strip running along the ceiling is filled in with quotes from “Mama,” and there are quippy, Maxine comic-esque sayings on the walls (“I Used Up All My Sick Days So I Called In Dead”). I’m called “honey” less than two minutes after arriving. Check. People are mulling about like it’s great grandma’s old kitchen. Double check.
The most critical diner decor at Mama’s Daughters: The list of what pies are available. “Life is UNCERTAIN, Eat Dessert First,” it says. Listen to the walls.
I’m in a booth to myself, slicing into a chicken-fried steak surrounded by two sunny-side up eggs. It’s part one of my "Texas-size breakfast" spread. The steak is flat and round with a little pointy edge, like a deep-fried speech bubble. It’s missing that brittle crust that I was hoping for, and the steak was soft to the point of mushy. Pepper aroma wafts off the CFS with force, but the flavor’s lost inside.
Of my hearty breakfast, I'm enjoying the sausage gravy and biscuits the most, spooning sausage-studded bits onto the biscuit’s crusty corners. The seasoning is much bolder in this gravy, and the sausage cuts through.
It’s nothing, however, compared to the nostalgic, sink-into-your-chair joy of the chocolate meringue pie.
“We make pretty much everything from scratch,” says Bonnie Jaggers, who manages the Forney location of Mama’s. Jaggers is the granddaughter of “Mama” herself: Norma Manis, the original owner of Norma’s Cafe in Oak Cliff. The name Mama’s Daughters Diner may sound like it was made with a diner name generator, but it’s an authentic descriptor: Jaggers' mom runs four locations across North Texas, and her aunt operates the diner’s Lewisville location. Jaggers has been working at Mama’s since she was 16.
They opened in 1988 after Mama sold Norma’s Cafe (Norma has since passed), which she had been running since the ’50s. “It’s in my blood,” Jaggers says. Some of her patrons come in two or three times a day. “We get up early,” she says, emphasizing again the from-scratch nature of everything. “We peel our potatoes.”
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The breakfast platters and the “meat and threes” (meats with a trio of sides) are the most popular items. At Thanksgiving, the place really lights up. “We call it our Super Bowl,” she says. “We stay up all night and bake cornbread dressing from scratch.” Other days, the cooks are there at five in the morning, and there’s a baker at every restaurant.
This is where that beautiful chocolate pie comes in: The crust is rolled out, loaded with a Hershey’s cocoa-based filling and chilled. It's topped with a book-thick layer of creamy, almost marshmallowy meringue. Once ready, the meringue gets a fast brown in the oven to tighten up. The result is a forkful of creamy meringue, less fluffy than most, and a rich pudding filling. It’s delicious.
Listen to the walls, embrace the diner-craving soul in you, and eat dessert first. In fact, eat it second, too: The chocolate meringue pie crust flakes as my fork works through the creamy chocolate, and the meringue has a sturdy sweetness that turned my pupils into saucers. Endless, brain-tweaking coffee balances the sugar crash, and suddenly, I’m feeling fine. At Mama's Daughters Diner, feelin' fine doesn’t have to cost more than a good slice of pie and a cup of coffee.
The Mama's Daughters Diner flagship location is at 2014 Irving Blvd.