Sunday, June 14, 2009

Old Clinton Barbeque, Gray GA ****

Edna Earl had been hearing about Old Clinton Barbeque for years, so when she happened to spy it along the roadside there one bright and sunny noonday, she was ecstatic! Well, truth be told, EE actually arrived about 11:00 AM, openin’ time. When she and her two lunch buddies entered the front door, they were immediately and warmly greeted by the three women behind the counter. And you know what happened after that – It wadn’t but about five seconds before Edna Earl and her party and the women behind the counter had figured out that they knew each others’ cousins’ cousins – or somethin’ like that. At any rate, the women behind the counter were most helpful and friendly. And not just to EE and party. EE saw the women similarly greet others who entered the place, and not at all in any obnoxious way. The women’s first offer was always to help the customer with the menu. And, you know, some folks do need help with a menu.

Old Clinton’s “BBQ plate” features, in a manner typical to other barbeque establishments around the South, barbeque, stew, bread, pickle, and choice of coleslaw or potato salad. And this is exactly what Edna Earl ordered. EE did find it interesting that unlike at many other BBQ establishments around the South, one does not get a choice of “chipped, chopped, or sliced” pork. All is one at Old Clinton – and it was what EE would describe as chipped.

Edna Earl feels impelled at this point to clarify for any non-Southern reader that the term “barbeque” always means pork.

Old Clinton also offers a “Rib Plate,” “Smoked Half Chicken Plate,” and “Turkey Plate.” Interestingly, the “Rib, “Smoked Half Chicken” and “Turkey” plates offer “BBQ beans” as a side rather than Brunswick stew. One in EE’s party ordered the ribs and beans, and liked them. In addition to the plates, Old Clinton offers a few other items, of course -- sandwiches, chips, slices of homemade cake, etc. -- but the aforelisted is what one receives on a “plate.” The only concession EE could see to modern times is the fact that Old Clinton now offers (with voiced apologies from the women behind the counter) the customer’s choice of “light, wheat, or rye” bread. They also serve, of course, tea – sweet and unsweet – and soft drinks. Old Clinton does not serve beer or wine.

Everybody who knows anything about Southern barbeque knows that each region – and each different BBQ joint – is distinguished by its sauce. Sauce at Old Clinton is the kind Edna Earl and her ilk describe as the “North Carolina variety,” thin and dark, applied at table. Sometimes this kind of sauce ill suits Edna Earl, but in this case, owing to the combination of the finely cooked meat with the particular quality of the sauce itself, Edna Earl approved. (It must be noted that Edna Earl’s lunchmates, both diehard Alabama Yellowsauce fans, only reluctantly approved, but we all know about those Alabama Yellowsauce fans, don’t we?!) All three in Edna Earl’s party just thanked god that there was none of that middle-Georgia “catchupy” sauce in evidence at Old Clinton.

With only seven tables, an interesting counter, and a couple of picnic tables outside under the portico, Old Clinton appears to be first and foremost a take-out establishment. Now, that is not to say that dining in was not a pleasant experience. It definitely was. A diner may browse the family photographs, the newspaper articles, the antiques and the other artifacts on display. There is no music; there is no television. A diner may engage in conversation with the women behind the counter as well as with other diners. One may even read and learn about that famous middle-Georgia legend The Goat Man. This is all to say that one may have a most pleasant dining experience at Old Clinton. However, Old Clinton is not exactly the kind of place one would go for, say, a romantic evening out or a prom night or even a ladies’ lunch. It is a place one goes to eat barbeque. Enough said.

So let’s just sum this whole thing up by saying that Edna Earl hereby declares Old Clinton Barbeque to be (You read it here first, folks!) – drum roll – THE REAL DEAL. Yessir, Old Clinton is the real deal. Yes, Edna Earl admits to the Styrofoam plates and the plastic utensils, but how else is a take-out BBQ joint supposed to function? And besides – one can always carry a little Old Clinton home and serve it with Grandma’s Chantilly on Great-Grandma’s Haviland. But, alas, in that case one would miss the opportunity to converse with the friendly women and read about The Goat Man!

Edna Earl says, “Visit Old Clinton soon. You won’t be disappointed.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Eleven Grill, Madison FL *

Edna Earl’s hopes literally soared when she spied this inviting looking little café occupying a space in a row of historic buildings near the courthouse square in lovely downtown Madison, Florida. Yes, indeed, the café’s front door was most welcoming –
flanked by an ample arrangement of healthy potted plants, shaded by a bright awning, augmented by attractive red-checkered café curtains in the large windows on either side of the door itself. Once Edna Earl entered the place, though, her hopes faltered just a tad when she was struck by the thought that maybe somebody had tried a little too hard on the interior décor. Two HUGE new sofas faced each other smack dab in the middle of the dining room. The paint job on the plaster walls had endured a little too much attention (think “faux something”) and the art collection – well, EE was just relieved that there wasn’t much of it. Then, after EE was seated and got a glance at the menu, she knew she was in trouble. Quiche, salads, a few sandwiches, a burger, chicken pot pie. Now, anybody who knows Edna Earl knows that she LOVES a good quiche, a good sandwich, a good salad, a good chicken pot pie – and she’s even tolerant of a good burger. But Edna Earl’s concern over this café’s menu was in the details. Here’s an example: “pecan encrusted chicken salad with bleu cheese crumbles and apple slices and choice of curry or blueberry dressing.” Edna Earl’s assessment: Yuppieville. Last year’s “upscale.” Correction: Last decade’s “upscale.” Tired. Old. And, you know what? It wadn’t good then, and it ain’t good now. Edna Earl never ceases to be surprised at “chefs” who think that words are more important than food. Do they really think that because those words – pecans, chicken, lettuce, bleu cheese, apples, curry, blueberry, encrusted – sound good together that they’ll taste good together?

Well, guess what? They didn’t. That “pecan encrusted chicken salad” is, indeed, what Edna Earl wound up ordering, because the grilled grouper sandwich she first ordered turned out not to be available. Edna Earl’s husband, Earl Jenkins, ordered the chicken pot pie. Bad mistake. Edna Earl doesn’t know of any other way to put it except to say that that chicken pot pie simply did not taste good. Earl encouraged Edna to taste his pie, and EE concluded that the pie was missing an ingredient or two, but at the same time she decided that it contained an ingredient that didn’t belong. (Garlic? In a chicken pot pie? Please!)

Neither Edna Earl nor Earl cleaned his or her plate – which oughta tell ya somethin’.

EE and E did like the fact that some attention had been put into the serving dishes themselves. The chicken pot pie was served in this neat little bowl and saucer – and the crust looked good (a fact that is completely beside the point since in the taste department it fell far short).

Lastly, Edna Earl can’t leave this post without saying something about “Miss Jackie,” the woman who appeared to be in charge of this place. (Owner/chef, perhaps?) Early on in their One Eleven Grill experience EE and E had noticed that the sweet little girl who had seated them and served their beverages seemed to be intimidated by “Miss Jackie.” It was, indeed, because the sweet little girl referred to “Miss Jackie” several times that EE and E even knew “Miss Jackie’s” name. “Miss Jackie” was none too friendly when later she took the Jenkins’ order, but she completely did herself in when, after the meal was finally over, after Earl handed her the cash for the tab, “Miss Jackie” failed to mutter even so much as a thank-you.

Edna Earl has thought long and hard and decided that the best thing about One Eleven Grill is its façade – and the second best thing is the fact that there’s this very neat little independent bookstore about two doors down.

Suffice it to say that Edna Earl and Earl won’t waste any more of their valuable time at the One Eleven Grill in Madison, Florida. And you might not want to, either.

You get one star, One Eleven Grill, for your front door.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Big Jim's Oyster Bar, located in the swamps around Lake Seminole, about 15 miles below Donalsonville GA *****

Need Edna Earl even try to say more than this photo already says? Well, of course -- but later. In the meantime, just imagine for yourself -- and realize that Edna Earl has granted Big Jim's Oyster Bar (and here) the coveted compliment of FIVE STARS! Stay tuned to this very swamp.

Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant, Columbus GA ****

Just go ahead and call ol' Edna Earl nerdy, but her current favorite place to have lunch in Columbus is Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant and Natural Food Store. Run by Seventh Day Adventists from out at Yuchi Pines Institute, Country Life is a combination health food store and restaurant. Up front you can buy bulk items such as granola, beans, and rices, along with lots of packaged organic products. There’s even a room of “herbal supplements,” which Edna Earl herself never enters. (She’s not into those health food items dispensed in medicine bottles.)

Toward the back of the place is the cafeteria style restaurant where for $5.95 one can opt for the “Entrée Special” (Edna Earl’s favorite) or a loaded baked potato, or one of two delicious soups of the day, or a fake burger or hot dog, or the terrific salad bar. The Entrée Special includes the entrée of the day plus the two vegetables of the day plus bread plus a small salad. The entrée of the day might be anything from Penne Pasta with Tomato Sauce to Taco Casserole to Nut Loaf (a mock meat loaf made with an assortment of nuts – Yum!) – and it’s all vegetarian and it’s all super-healthy – and best of all, it’s GOOD!

Now, let it be known right here that ol’ Edna Earl is not a vegetarian. She does love her vegetables, and she definitely does severely restrict her intake of red meat – out of health considerations as well as ethical considerations as well as simple personal preference – but EE definitely does not profess to being a vegetarian. However, this vegetarian restaurant has great appeal to ol’ EE. Why? Because the food is good, the portions are hearty, and ol’ EE feels that she can eat well and guilt-free at Country Life. No worries about additives, about bad fats, about empty calories … Just good, healthy food – and a goodly portion of it at a ridiculously low price.

The downside of a dining experience at Country Life? The background music. Yep. The folks who run this place are very religious, and they tend to play this creepy music. Now, ol’ Edna Earl does love her some Methodist hymns, and of course she loves herself some good ol’ Southern gospel – but the kind of “new-agey” religious stuff they play at Counry Life just ain’t EE’s kind of thing. Except that EE does admit that of late she has noticed that the music doesn’t seem to be getting on her nerves as much as it used to. Whoa! Did Edna Earl just hear herself say that? Is Edna Earl perhaps becoming INDOCTRINATED? CONVERTED?!? God forbid! Let us go rush out to Smokey Pig Barbeque right this minute!

Edna Earl does appreciate the solace of Country Life, though, and the sunny little dining room, and the fact that all sorts of other weird folks eat lunch there, too. Long live Country Life Vegetarian Restaurant and Natural Foods Store. Edna Earl loves ya!

Niki's West, Birmingham, AL *****

website: Niki’s West, Birmingham, Alabama

Lord! Edna Earl doesn’t know where to begin! Maybe at the big ol’ meandering parking lot, which attests to the popularity of the place. Parking attendants stationed throughout the extens ive lot make sure that things do move right along, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble snagging a parking spot, even if you arrive at peak hours.

Located across the street from the Alabama Farmer’s Market in an industrial neighborhood sandwiched between two interstate highways, Niki’s is a one-story low-slung building which with its canvas awning that stretches from the front door out into the parking lot evokes supper clubs and steakhouses of the 50s.

Speaking of that front door, HUNDREDS of Birminghamians show up just about every time it is opened. And the clientele is diverse. You’ll see everybody from tiny blue-haired Birmingham ladies to businessmen (lots o’ businessmen) to lawyer-types to mechanics to big ol’ former jocks sporting “UAB Sports Medicine Center” badges. The last time I was there I saw a coupla characters who defied even ol’ Edna Earl’s description!

Niki’s West is, among many other things, an exercise in efficiency. From the parking lot through the serving line (Niki’s is cafeteria-style), through the seating method, through the check-out, Niki’s is a veritable study in efficiency. They have mastered the art. It is no telling how many folks Niki’s serves in a given hour on just about any day they’re open. And it doesn’t matter how many folks are in line when you arrive as a customer, you can be assured that you’ll be in and outta there, and well-fed, well within an hour. And, they have so much seating space that it’s okay to linger, too, should that be your pleasure.

When you go, try your very best to look way ahead of you up the line and scope the offerings of the day so that you’ll be ready to order when it’s your turn – ‘cause if you’re not ready, you’ll get “yelled at” by the big ol’ guys on the serving line. Well, “yelled at” might not be quite the right term – ‘cause they did call Edna Earl “Sugar” when they “encouraged” her – but these guys’ first priority seems to be to move folks on along.

Now for the food. If Edna Earl tried to list all the items that Niki’s offers, this post would run so long that – well, it’s a moot point because EE couldn’t list everything anyway. Let’s just say that on any given day Niki’s offers at least 8 meats, at least 20 vegetables, let's say around 30 salad items, a full array of desserts, and several breads. And everything Edna Earl has eaten there so far has been good! Niki’s mostly serves traditional Southern fare, but EE thought she detected a hint of “Greek.” And sure enough, after her first trip to Niki’s she did a little research and learned that indeed Niki is Greek. The family has apparently been in the restaurant business in Birmingham for a long time.

Edna Earl's research also yielded the fact that the Southern Foodways Alliance has interviewed members of the Niki’s family, and you can read that online if you’d like to:

Edna Earl can’t leave Niki’s without saying a word about the women who run the check-out station – the cashiers. If ever ol’ Edna Earl saw two “dolled up” women, these are they! PLATINUM hair, tons of make-up, low-cut sparkly dresses, flashy nails, heaps of “jewelry” … You get the picture – and they take yo money and say a few kind words – encourage you to come back, that sort of thing. But even that is done efficiently. Those two Dolly Parton look-alikes are also the fastest two change-makers and card processors ol’ Edna Earl has ever encountered! EE really wanted to linger a bit in order to catch the “just between themselves” gossip these two were engaged in slightly beneath the volume of their public “thank you sirs” and “yall come backs,” but alas, ol’ Edna Earl was moved right along so efficiently that she didn’t have even a minute to eavesdrop. And everybody who knows anything about Edna Earl knows that eavesdropping is a major reason she even goes to a restaurant in the first place!

So will Edna Earl return to Niki’s West? Definitely. Time and time again. But not on a day when she wants a quiet, relaxing meal. Instead, she’ll go to Niki’s when she wants a huge choice of Southern/Greek-inspired fare, an even bigger helping of people-watchin’, and a totally energized, efficient dining experience.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Death of Uncle Mort's Confirmed

This from a reliable source who shall remain nameless: "So Uncle Mort sold his restaurant to this guy, who made an agreement when buying Uncle Mort's that he would not tear down the restaurant building. (Because its kinda like a landmark in the area) Well, Uncle Mort lives right up on the hill by the restaurant, he went on vacation, came home, and Uncle Mort's was gone! It had burnt down. The dude that bought Uncle Mort's claimed it was an accident. Now he is going to build a Bingo building there on the property. Poor Uncle Mort."

R.I.P., Uncle Mort's.

Friday, August 15, 2008

NEWS FLASH! Uncle Mort's Reported Dead.

Edna Earl has just received, via a frantic text message, that Jasper, Alabama's Uncle Mort's, one of her very favorite eating establishments (see previous post), is no more. Edna Earl is awaiting confirmation at this time. It is true that on her last trip out that way she noticed a sign advertising Uncle Mort's for sale, and it is true that the new highway has completely bypassed Uncle Mort's, but due to the possible confusion caused by the bypass, EE is nervously awaiting confirmation that Uncle Mort's has indeed died. If this disturbing news is true, there's an obituary to write. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Sprayberry's Barbeque, Newnan, Georgia **

Nope. Never again. Edna Earl muses that if you’re going for a barbeque pork sandwich and an order of fries, you’ll be okay – but you won’t be excited – and you certainly shouldn’t expect anything much beyond the sandwich and fries. EE herself ordered the “barbeque chicken plate” which consisted of two boneless, mealy, rubber-chicken breasts grilled (She guessed.) and slathered with this barbeque sauce that just really did not go with chicken. It’s that dark, watery stuff that, EE thinks, was their attempt at North Carolina barbeque sauce. At any rate, it didn’t work – particularly with chicken. One of EE's sides was a “green salad” which consisted of the shredded inner (white) part of iceberg lettuce, with a FEW pieces of diced tomato and her choice of the cheapest of packaged dressings. The other of her sides was a baked potato, which came with one of those packets of sour cream and several packages of “butter.” (EE hates it when she has to open all sorts of packages at the table.) Those were the only sides offered, except that EE was offered a choice between French fries and a baked potato. Oh, and there was a “roll” which was the vilest kind of pre-cooked, packaged thing. EE left it alone, though she did pick it up and examine it. All in all, Edna Earl's meal would have been inedible had she not been so hungry. (It was 2:00 PM and she and her party hadn’t had lunch.)

Edna Earl's ol’ man ordered a barbeque sandwich (pork, of course; that’s what barbeque means down here) and onion rings, which Sprayberry’s touts. Well, he said that the barbeque sandwich was “okay,” that the sauce was “weird,” and he didn’t even comment on the onion rings, which he tasted but left uneaten. EE also tasted and found them to be a veritable exercise in grease retention.

One of EE's complaints with Sprayberry’s is that their menu offerings were just so slim. She simply could not help but compare them to Country’s in Columbus, Georgia, and to other barbeque joints where you can get all sorts of items other than barbeque. Of course, EE is all for those places where barbeque is the lone offering – IF the barbeque is damn good – and Sprayberry’s is definitely not.

And, oh yeah, the place is overpriced big time. Edna Earl's "barbeque chicken plate" of two boneless breasts with a medium baked potato and some dead lettuce and a vile roll was $10.95! The bill for Edna and her ol' man came to $22.43, plus tip -- way too much for a barbeque joint lunch -- especially when it's as lame as this was.

The physical space is alright, though not inspired, and the waitress was nice. (Reasons for the second star.)

Edna Earl's sage advice to Sprayberry’s: Come on down to Columbus and Phenix City to see what a REAL barbeque joint can be.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Country's Barbeque, Columbus, Georgia ****

A home-grown Columbus business that has several branches scattered about, Country's is a regional institution.

For its fun atmosphere, for its live country and bluegrass music on Friday and Saturday nights, for its Southern vegetables, especially its collard greens (YUM!), for its giant rocking chair, for its HUGE baked sweet potatoes, for its hilarious television ads, for its annual Midnight Run for good causes, for its mile-high meringue, Edna Earl gives Country's Barbeque a well-deserved four stars.

Notice that EE didn't say anything about Country's barbeque -- yet. While Country's definitely is a barbeque place, offering beef, pork, chicken, and all the trimmins, every local person Edna Earl knows of will tell you something like, "Well, now, Country's is not my favorite barbeque -- ya know, I'm talkin' about just the barbeque now -- I like Smokey Pig's (or Macon Road 's or Fat Freddy's or ...) barbeque better-- but I love Country's anyway -- and I go there all the time. It's a great place to take company."

One thing Edna Earl personally loves about Country's is its choice of three barbeque sauces -- one red, one yellow, and one in between. These three sauces are very true to local tradition -- not that all places serve all three -- They don't. Usually a place offers only one. Country's gives you a choice, EE guesses, as a sampling of local fare.

The yellow mustard-based sauce, unfamiliar to some outsiders, is native to Phenix City, Alabama, located just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus. And it's an acquired taste. Edna Earl knows a certain young woman who, when she brought her fiance home to sample "yellow sauce" and he didn't take readily to it, seriously considered dumping him on the spot. But said fiance did eventually acquire the required taste -- or, at the very least, he's doin' a good job of fakin' it -- and now, seven or so years later, the couple appear to be happily married.

Another thing Edna Earl likes about Country's is that, unlike most barbeque joints, Country's also offers a full array of vegetables, some good cornbread, some mighty fine fried chicken, and several spectacular homemade pies.

And all the above details illustrate what makes Country's unique among barbeque restaurants: It doesn't really focus on one distinctive pork recipe; instead Country's gives the customer a well-rounded "This is what we're about down here" experience. Thank you for that, Country's. Edna Earl'll be back many more times.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Marie's, Oxford, Mississippi ****

Mississippi Lebanese food, and excellent in this case. The six people in Edna Earl's party ordered all sorts of different dishes, and all were terrific. They had hummus, and stuffed grape leaves, and kebbeh (a sort of meat loaf), and a dish that was green beans and rice, and "Marie's casserole" (a little similar to moussaka), and baklava and Lebanese cheesecake, and Turkish coffee and several other dishes the names of which Edna Earl doesn't even know! (Edna Earl does love a mystery!)

EE understands that Marie's had a previous very successful incarnation in a building on the Courthouse Square, but that it has recently re-opened, after a several-year haitus during which time Marie, the Lebanese owner, went back to graduate school and got a graduate degree in math, somebody said. Oxford locals seem very happy to have Marie's back in business. We arrived about 11:30 AM on a Friday, and before we finished our meal the place was full.

The present location is a not very interesting building in a not very interesting strip mall. In fact, the strip mall location and a not very friendly waitress (We decided she was depressed.) are the only reasons Edna Earl is not giving Marie's five stars.

The interior of the place is tastefully decorated, with white tablecloths and white paper on top of the tablecloths. Marie's could work well for a "ladies' lunch" spot, or for a business lunch, or for a group of friends, or for a well-behaved family meal.

Oxford, Mississippi, already boasted a number of good eatin' places. Now it has one more. Thanks, Marie's, for an exceptional lunch.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Farmer's Market Cafe, Montgomery, Alabama *****

Located in the shadow of the Alabama State Capitol, the Farmer's Market Cafe is one of those places that make me glad to be alive. Yep, it's a winner -- for the scene at least as much as for the food. I mean, the food's fine, and some of it is really good, but it's the scene that steals the show. Housed in a long, low concrete block building, The Farmer's Market Cafe features one big dining room that seats probably a hundred folks. And those folks -- well, this is what makes the place so interesting -- those folks include scores of Alabama senators and representatives, lots of people who work in the various government offices, the guys who work in the nearby machine shop, blue-haired ladies from across town, and 'most anybody else -- maybe even the Governor hisself! The Farmer's Market Cafe is a veritable study in the population of Montgomery, Alabama. You'll find there the bluest of bloods, seated right next to the bluest of collars.

I did happen to notice that the clientele of The Farmer's Market Cafe is decidedly more male than female. While there were a few women customers, there were by far more men in attendance on the day we were there -- which leads me to wonder that if a woman were, say, looking for an Alabama husband, a few lunches at The Farmer's Market Cafe might not be a bad investment of time and money.

The arrangement of the interior of the place is a definite contributing factor to the scene. There are booths around the walls, but the backs of the booths are very low so that nobody's view is obstructed. There's absolutely no privacy in The Farmer's Market Cafe. There's no place for a couple of folks to hide and engage in an intimate conversation. No, no. Everything's completely out in the open. And I have a sneakin' feelin' that that's completely by design. The space in the middle of the room features a few big round tables that seat eight or people, but far more of the middle-of-the-room space is taken up with rows of rectangular four-top tables pushed almost together to make eight-tops, producing a result that winds up being more or less communal seating. There's a lot of friendly talk in The Farmer's Market Cafe, all of a decided Southern variety. There's talk among folks at individual tables, talk between the customers and the very friendly and capable waitresses, talk from table to table. And, I strongly suspect that, what especially with all the lawyers and politicos that frequent the place, The Farmer's Market Cafe is a place where, you know, "The deal gets did," if ya know what I mean. I could be totally wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a good bit of Alabama law got decided in The Farmer's Market Cafe.

Here's a conversation we heard at the other end of our table where two three-piece lawyers were having lunch: The waitress walked up and one of the men introduced the waitress to the other man. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
Lawyer Number One: "Harold, this is Barbara Gordy. Barbara, this is Harold Dempsey."
Lawyer Number Two (Harold Dempsey): "Barbara Gordy? Nice to meet you, Barbara. Gordy? You kin to Al Dozier?"
Waitress (Barbara Gordy): "Yes. I married into the Faulkner side of the family."
Both Lawyers: "Oh, yes, sure." and "Uh-huh. I see. Yes."
At this point all three parties expressed complete understanding and agreement. The two lawyers seemed to know exactly what the waitress's comment had meant, and the conversation quickly moved to another topic.

I was intrigued.

The place is not pretentious. It has plywood paneled walls decorated with photographs of Alabama sports teams and athletes. There's a big map of the State of Alabama, and a replica of the Alabama State Seal. Hell, for all I know, it's the REAL Alabama State Seal! There's a hand-lettered sign at the beginning of the cafeteria line that reads, "Just hang up!" There's another similar sign at the check-out counter.

Now to the food: The cafeteria line serves an especially bountiful array of traditional Southern specialities, among them numerous homemade desserts. We had a blackberry cobbler that was particularly outstanding. Plastic, divided plates are the order of the day, and (thank goodness) stainless steel utensils and paper napkins. Pitchers of sweet and unsweet tea, and ice-filled plastic glasses (two each person, the reason for which I'm not quite sure) are brought to your table. A little surprise comes at the end of your meal when a waitress comes by to ask what flavor of ice cream you'd like -- on the house. We asked for vanilla and were each brought a little round, old-fashioned, cardboard container of vanilla ice cream.

So, for its food, for its friendly and capable waitresses, for its scene, for its "Hang up the phone!" signs, for its little free ice-creams, for its so proud display of the Alabama State Seal, I hereby declare The Farmer's Market Cafe a five-star institution. So said this nineteenth day of June, two thousand and eight. Long may the Alabama Farmer's Market Cafe prevail!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Uncle Mort's, Jasper, Alabama *****

NOTICE: This review was originally written before Uncle Mort's mets its untimely demise. Alas, Uncle Mort's no longer exists -- except in Edna Earl's fond memories.

Okay, Edna Earl's ol' man and her children think she's absolutely CRAZY for lovin' Uncle Mort's so much, and EE herself can't figure out exactly why she does, but she does. It's one of those mysteries of the universe, EE guesses. Okay, Edna Earl will try to explain. First, she loves the downright funkiness of the place. Uncle Mort's is located in an ol' barnlike building with an "antiques shoppe" attached. The inside of the restaurant has wood paneled walls with a locally painted (EE assumes.) mural and with autographed photographs of various Alabama celebrities (members of the band Alabama, others whose names escapes EE right now). Uncle Mort's specializes in smoked meats, which makes it even weirder that EE likes the place, since she's not much of a meat eater. But again, EE loves the sheer funkiness of the place. Oh, EE forgot to tell you that the expansive grounds feature some abandoned animal effigies that appear to have been part of some previous incarnation of the place -- concrete pigs, a carousel pony, that sort of thing. And there's a big house up the hill, still on what appears to be the grounds of the place, and EE has always assumed that that's where Uncle Mort himself lives. Therein lies part of the mystery, too.

Now for the food: Uncle Mort's serves very good ol' Southern breakfasts -- eggs and grits and biscuits and the works, and also pancakes. Edna Earl is usually there at lunch, for a roadstop, so she doesn't usually do the breakfast thing, though she certainly has and found it fine. EE's favorite lunch order is: cold sliced turkey, baked potato, salad with bleu cheese dressing, bread. Now, this doesn't sound very adventurous, but it's a great taste combination. They have really good bleu cheese dressing, something EE don't regularly order because the lame imitations at most places so turn me off. Not Uncle Mort's, though -- His bleu cheese dressing has big ol' chunks of real bleu cheese in it. Also, EE likes the simplicity of the plate. So often when you order a "plate lunch" at a Southern restaurant you get a whole bunch of soggy, overcooked, under-seasoned vegetables. Not so at Uncle Mort's. EE doesn't know that they have a single vegetable on the menu! (Again, this is a real reversal for me; Edna Earl is a vegetable lover. But there's something about Uncle Mort's ...) And, oh, the "dinner salad" is a little unusual. No limp iceberg and chopped tomatoes for Uncle Mort -- no, no. Uncle Mort's salads do have iceberg lettuce, but said lettuce is crisp and cool, and it's imaginatively accompanied by a piece of watermelon rind pickle, a piece of spiced, pickled crabapple, and several black olives. Yum -- and definitely NOT same-old, same-old.

Uncle Mort's clientele is comprised largely of older folks, with an occasional family in for Sunday dinner. EE can't recall ever having seen a teenager or twenty-something or thirty-something in there, and she's visited Uncle Mort's many a time.

Long live Uncle Mort's, if only for folks like Edna Earl!

Durbin Farms, Interstate 65, Clanton, Alabama ****

Durbin Farms is a great place to stop and take a break from the road. A right spiffy produce market with a nice little soup/sandwich/ice cream cafe attached, Durbin offers plenty of space for you to stretch your legs in the produce market and on the expansive grounds before or after your meal. The place is locally owned and operated. There are picnic tables and lots of other places to sit outside as well as tables inside, so it's a good place for those traveling with dogs and kids to give some run-around time. Durbin's sandwiches are delicious, and the whole place most pleasant. Folks LINE UP for the ice cream. It must be good. (Alas, I love ice cream, but, ya know ...)

Go Durbin Farms! Wish there were more like ya!

Oh, Durbin Farms is located between Birmingham and Montgomery, at exit 205 off Interstate 65. It's a little nearer Montgomery than Birmingham.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Four Winds, Cusseta, Georgia ***

Oh, Lordy. Let's just put it this way: The Four Winds, located on the edge of Fort Benning, home of the U.S. Army Ranger Training School, is the home of the world famous Ranger Burger ... and the Master Gunner Burger, and the Sniper Burger and the Special Forces Burger ... You get the idea. These burgers are HUMONGOUS -- real heartstoppers. Should you want to know, there's an annual Ranger Burger eating contest.

The Ranger Burger also serves a very good fried catfish plate, and they serve steaks and a few other items.

The place is a weird mish-mash of put-together rooms and buildings that have evolved over time. What some folks don't know is that down underneath all that is a plastic log cabin. I kid you not. At one point, in one of its incarnations, the Four Winds (I think it had a different name then.) had an exterior that was a plastic log cabin. But, alas, the plastic log cabin has been covered over with something more, well, tasteful.

Do not, however, despair that the place has been too gentrified. It has not. Case in point: My favorite element of The Four Winds -- their sign out front. Mounted very high on a pole in the middle of the parking lot is a big plastic sign that sports a huge hamburger from one side of which a paratrooper is parachuting, and from the other side of which a soldier (My guess is it's a Ranger.) is rapalling. I guess the owners had the thing custom made, 'cause I seriously doubt that there's another one like it in the whole wide world.

Mel Gibson has eaten in the Four Winds. Yep. He was in town for the filming of the movie We Were Soldiers, and he stopped in at the Four Winds. I hear that the waitresses weren't even impressed. One of them was quoted in the newspaper as having commented, "He was just another customer to me."

Speaking of service at The Four Winds, it needs help. There's this one terrific waitress there, but she's so overworked it's pitiful. I think the place lacks in the management division.

The clientele is as interesting as the food. The dining room is huge, and it's occupied by a combination of Rangers just in from the field, deer hunters, and all sorts of other locals, including the Chattahoochee County High Sheriff who's usually perched at the table near the door, overseeing the speed trap his deputies operate out on Highway 26. (Don't say you ain't been warned.)

So, long live places like The Four Winds. It's just that I don't wanna go too often -- ya know?

Po, West Village, Manhattan ****

Last night was Edna Earl's second trip to Po. Edna Earl likes Po. It's a bit costlier than what EE likes to spend for a meal (She dropped sixty bucks for two courses -- a salad and an entree -- and two glasses of wine.), but the food was good and the waiters were nice and she likes the European feel of the place, and she likes the neat little street, Cornelia, where Po is located. And every now and then, ya know, Edna Earl just loves a little session with a white tablecloth.

The "roasted guinea hen" was good and certainly not something Edna would fix (or even be able to buy) at home, so that was a treat for EE. Her other course was a beet salad. It was okay, but nothing she'd write home about -- and the greens of the salad were so unwieldly that they were impossible to wrangle into her mouth -- so she left 'em be.

EE understands that Po's real specialty is its pastas. She did not have a pasta last night, but she did have a pasta on my first visit to Po and found it superb -- better, probably, than what she had last night. So, Edna Earl will definitely go back to Po, soon as she saves up some $, but she'll likely order a pasta next time.

Oh, one thing about Po: She wishes the place had been a little quieter. EE's dinner partner and she could barely make conversation across our small table. But, it's New York, where finding a quiet restaurant is a challenge.

Some Thoughts About Restaurants In General

UTENSILS: Call her a snob, but Edna Earl hates to be asked to "Keep your fork, please." Anytime a waiter asks her to keep her fork, EE wants to say, "No, thank you." But she doesn't. She's polite and keeps her fork. Problem is, where is one supposed to keep it? Your plate is at that point in time being taken away (else you wouldn't be asked to keep your fork), so the only place left to keep said fork is on the table -- right? Well, Edna Earl says "Yuck!" -- on two counts: First, food from the fork could well soil the tablecloth or tabletop; second, the table might well contaminate the fork! EE just does not think it would be too much trouble or expense for restaurants to provide replacement utensils when some are taken away.

Further ruminations in the utensil department: Edna Earl hates plastic utensils. I mean, come on, folks -- stainless steel utensils are cheap. Edna Earl knows, because she admits to having bought them herself. Plus, they're reusable -- for years and years and years! EE just find it hard to believe that it's cheaper to buy, store, and continuously replace plastic utensils than it is to invest in some stainless utensils and a machine to wash them. Okay, EE realizes that a person will have to be employed to wash utensils, but she understands that dishwashers don't cost much.

Same goes for styrofoam "plates." And, on an ethical note -- Edna Earl is afraid that you're killing the universe with those plastic and styrofoam things.

DECOR: Please, no carpet on floors of restaurants! Nasty! Edna Earl doesn't even want to think about what might be lurking therein. Also, get rid of fluorescent lighting. Right now. Do it. And hide your &*%$ cleaning supplies. EE can't get over how many times she's been in a restaurant and cleaning supplies were in evidence. Except for those few rules, Edna Earl is very open-minded when it comes to restaurant decor. She likes everything from spartan to rococo -- provided the place is clean and friendly, and the lighting is appropriate.

SERVICE: Edna Earl wants a waiter who's nice. He or she doesn't have to be overly friendly -- in fact, EE would prefer that they not be -- she doesn't want a lot of apology, and she doesn't care to hear about said waiter's personal troubles. (There is a time and a place for that, EE opines, but when you're waiting her table is not the time.) What Edna Earl does want in a waiter is somebody who's nice to her. She absolutely does NOT want somebody who acts all snotty -- like EE's a stupid fool because she's not familiar with the place or might not know what some obscure menu item is.

Several of EE's own children have worked off and on in the food industry, so she knows that the life of a waiter is a difficult one. She appreciates the challenge. Believe me, she does. But she also appreciates, as the customer, being treated with respect. Most of the time that is exactly what she gets, but occasionally ...

NOISE LEVEL: Edna Earl really doesn't know what a restaurant can do, exactly, about its noise level, but often she's in a restaurant where the noise level just seems to her to be "off." Usually the place is too loud. EE likes to be able to carry on a conversation with others at her table, ya know. Very rarely she's in a place where the noise level is, weirdly enough, too low. That is, nobody's talking -- everything's all uptight and there's so little conversation that if EE does say something she feels as if everybody in the place hears her. Again, EE doesn't know exactly what a restaurant can do about this (except maybe consider "background music" and its effect?).

Now, one more thing: Unless this is a sports bar or some other special place, TURN OFF THE FRIGGIN' TV!

No matter how formal or informal the restaurant, no matter how expensive or how inexpensive, no matter whether the decor is simple or elaborate, no matter where the restaurant is located, it should be obvious to any customer that the folks who run the place actually know something about food. Edna Earl is totally amazed that sometimes somebody throws up a restaurant, and opens the doors and starts serving something without knowing very much at all about food. Now, EE is not saying that one must be formally educated to know about food. No, no. A diploma from The Cordon Bleu School is absolutely not one of ol' Edna Earl's requirements. The very best cook EE ever knew probably didn't go to school a day in her life. She grew up in the backwoods of rural Georgia. But she knew more local ingredients and how to prepare them than anybody Edna Earl has met before or since -- and that knowledge revealed itself loud and clear in Mary Eva Ward's beyond superb cooking.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Smokey Pig, Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama *****

Okay, let it be said right now, and in no uncertain terms: SMOKEY PIG BARBEQUE in Columbus, Georgia, and Phenix City, Alabama, serves the absolute hands-down BEST barbeque sandwich in the world. In fact, it serves the QUINTESSENTIAL barbeque pork sandwich. Don't let anybody tell you different. Trust ol' Edna Earl. Or, if you don't trust her, go try a buncha other barbeque sandwiches. It won't be long before you'll find yourself trottin' your two little hooves right on back to The Pig, as she's lovingly known -- and you'll walk right up to that counter (or drive right up to that window if you're in Columbus) and order, "One sliced pork sandwich, please." And the rest is heaven.

The stew (Brunswick stew, for those readers who might not know) is good, too, as are the fries and the slaw and the tea. But it's the sandwich that truly rises to the occasion. Now, Edna Earl's not going to reveal exactly where she's from, but she will let you know that she's from a place where, well, there's a LOT of competition when it comes to barbeque. And Edna Earl's tellin' ya right now -- When it comes to the quintessential barbeque sandwich, there IS no competition. It's SMOKEY PIG, all the way.

Minnie's, Columbus, Georgia ***

Minnie's is a local institution in Columbus, and deservedly so. It's cafeteria-style -- You carry a tray through a line where the women servers behind the line ask you "Whatchoo want, Darlin?" "You want some gravy on that, Sweetie?" "Cornbread or biscuit, Honey?" This kinds talk gets on ol' sweet Edna Earl's nerves, to tell you the truth, but some folks seem to like it. And, oh yeah, it don't matter WHO you are -- you're gonna get the "Honey" and "Sweetie" and "Darlin" bit.

Food is good but not great. It's traditional Southern, cooked by somebody who is an okay cook but not one of the masters. (There are those whose Southern cooking is, somehow, by some mysterious stroke, a cut above the others. Minnie's is not one of those.) That is, it's okay, but it ain't inspired. Edna Earl suspects that many of the vegetables are of the canned or, at very best, frozen variety.

Minnie's dining room is huge, with several different rooms, actually, and you're liable to see anybody in there. Since Minnie's is near the courthouse, it's a favorite of the legal crowd.

Edna Earl has recently several times been put off by the fact that the place often smells of Lysol.

One thing Edna Earl does like about Minnie's is the fact that you get your own little pitcher of tea, so you don't have to depend on somebody to come fill your glass.

One thing Edna Earl doesn't like about Minnie's is the PLASTIC UTENSILS! Would it be too much trouble to have real forks and spoons and knives?! And styrofoam plates give Edna Earl the heebie-jeebies, too.

Still, Minnie's is a great place for a local experience.

Caroline's, Apalachicola, Florida ****

In recent years Edna Earl has only eaten breakfast at Caroline's -- but what a breakfast! Their breakfast menu is amazing! There are so many offerings that EE can't begin to list 'em -- and each one sounds absolutely delectable -- too much for breakfast, really. Okay, on second thought EE will try to list some of what's on the menu: There's bountiful omelettes of all varieties, a number of other egg dishes (Benedict, etc.), homemade pancakes with tempting sides, fruits galore, homemade breads, grits, various seafood dishes ...

Okay, Edna Earl is going to do something she usually doesn't do. She's going to include a link to the menu:

Now, see why Edna Earl is impressed?

EE's recent trip to Caroline's was with three other people. Each of EE's party ordered something different, and all loved their food. Service was great, too, and you can't beat the setting there on the shaded deck overlooking the very place where the Apalachicola River flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

At a table near EE's group were seated a party of Europeans who were obviously having trouble ordering in English. The waitress could not have been more helpful, and the European visitors left Caroline's with stories of a very pleasant American (and Southern) experience, Edna Earl suspects.

The only reason Edna Earl is not giving Caroline's a fifth star right yet is that in recent years she's only eaten breakfast there, and just the once. She's going to try to go back soon and have lunch or supper so that then she'll feel confident about that very hard-to-get fifth ol' Edna Earl star! In the meantime -- You go, Caroline's!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pirate's Cove, Colquitt, Georgia **

Edna Earl and her ol' man have eaten here a couple of times, only because they were on the road, hungry, got to Colquitt and their favorite, Tarrer Inn, was closed. Pirate's Cove is a make-do sort of place. Meat and three, served in a right depressing space that reminds EE of a dank, humid church social hall. Food (the usual -- fried chicken and vegetables, banana pudding ...) is served from one of those buffet "food trough" lines. Local folks in there seem to be having a good time, but the food and the place are both a little too "subsistence" for Edna Earl, who's always ready to get outta there and hit the road.