Matthews Cafeteria: A Disappointing Breakfast

In the late 1990s, I worked at a company in Tucker, GA. We would make almost-weekly visits to a local landmark: Matthews Cafeteria. In business since 1955, everyone in the area knew about Matthews. It was a meeting place for locals, and it drew diners from all over the area, because the food was wonderful. And when I say “food,” I mean real, Southern food. Wide, flat green beans, seasoned with ham hocks. Corn seasoned with bacon grease. Fried chicken, battered and fried by hand. Really, really good Southern food. I had not had a chance to get back over there since I left that job in 1999.

About two years ago, Matthews was featured on the Food Network show, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” with Guy Fieri. Guy was shown around by, I presume, one of the owners. The guy showed him how they make their biscuits from scratch, by hand, and how they lovingly make their sausage gravy to slather on top of their biscuits. Upon taking a single bite, Guy loudly declared, “O! That’s money, right there!” I had seen this episode before, but I saw a rerun of it on Sunday, and it flung a cravin’ on me to go. So this morning, I arose at 5:00 AM, was out of the house by 5:25, and was walking into Matthews at 5:50.

This is an old-timey cafe, that I imagine looks pretty much like it did when they opened in 1955. There are no frills, but that’s fine. You don’t need frills for good food. I’ve long felt that the hole-in-the-wall, sparsely decorated joints had the best food. Sadly, that mantra failed me this morning.

You first go through a line, telling the servers what you want and they hand it to you on a plate. I knew I wanted a biscuit with sausage gravy, but I was also thinking about the fried steak. The woman who was helping me didn’t seem to speak much English, since when I pointed at what I assumed was the fried steak and asked, “Is that the fried steak?” she didn’t answer. Instead, she placed two patties on a plate, and then proceeded to dump hash browns on them. I was able to stop her, so she raked the potatoes and onions back into the chafing dish, and looked at me for what was next. I said, “I’d like a biscuit and gravy, please.” She grunted, split a biscuit and ladled some gravy over it. I then got a glass of orange juice, bringing the total to $5-something. I took a seat on a terribly uncomfortable metal chair, and got ready to tuck in.

I should note that there were maybe 5 other customers in the place, two of which were older men (mid 60s to early 70s, maybe) seated together. The first thing I heard one of them say was, “… that skanky bitch…” which is not something you hear coming from an old guy all that often. I heard that same phrase at least three more times over the next ten minutes, along with “motherf**ker,” and an account of how drunk he was at some function. Keep it classy, gents, keep it classy.

On to the food. The biscuit was probably OK, though it was hard to tell. It seemed like, by itself, it would have been light and flaky. The gravy that was on top of it was horrible. It was the thinnest white gravy I’ve ever seen. It was basically water, with a dusting of flour, a dash of pepper and one piece of sausage, one thin, tiny, almost imperceptible piece of sausage, that was hardly worth mentioning. There was no flavor at all to this gravy. The fried steak was the highlight of the meal, but even it tasted like it came from a factory, via a deep freeze.

The orange juice was that particular gloop that hotels give you for free. You know what I mean; it’s from concentrate, tastes like it is still too concentrated, and leaves you wishing you’d actually had orange juice to drink.

Needless to say, I was terribly disappointed. I had gotten it into my head that the Matthews cafeteria food I remembered from 14 years ago was what I was going to get. That the owners still took pride in making quality food, and serving it for a good price. Sadly, that’s not what happened. This leaves me with two possible explanations for how Guy Fieri could possibly rave about the food during his visit. 1. What they served him was tailored just for him, and is not what they serve to the average customer. 2. Guy is contractually obligated to only rave about the food he gets to taste on his show, no matter how odious it might actually be. Or maybe even a third option: the food was still good when the show was filmed, but they’ve fallen off a cliff in quality since then. I don’t know which one is more likely, but it doesn’t really matter. I won’t be going back to figure out which is correct.

The Most Painful Thing I Ever Ate

Back before Christmas, I discovered a restaurant called Genghis Grill. It’s Mongolian BBQ, and it’s quite tasty. I eat there about once a week, because it is about a 10 minute walk from my office. Anyway, I was there today, and made the same bowl I always make. It had some thin-sliced beef, a metric ton of carrots and broccoli, some chickpeas, black beans and soybeans. As usual, I put a few dried red chile peppers on it. I never eat those peppers; I just like to have them mixed in during cooking to add some flavor.

While I was waiting for my food to cook, a few co-workers who were also there invited me to their table. Once the food arrived, I was talking and eating, and not really paying attention to what made its way onto my fork. You can see where this is going. At one point, I chewed up something that was kind of hard to chew up; sort of leathery. I thought to myself, “Man, they really burned that carrot.” It wasn’t a carrot.

About ten seconds later, it felt as if I were sucking on a blow torch. The entire left side of my mouth felt as if it were melting. My nose started running. My eyes started watering. I’m sure I was turning red in the face. One of my table mates asked, “Eat something hot? Need some more water?” I replied, “Yes. And the only thing that will help this is milk. Or vodka.” As I was chugging my water, knowing that it only provided momentary relief, I was poking around the bowl with my fork, looking for the other two peppers. They were not there. Apparently, all three peppers had gotten stuck together, and I’d chewed them all up at once.

It took a good fifteen minutes before my mouth started to calm down.

Review: Still Waters Restaurant

My friends Tim and Meg told me about a new place in Grayson called Still Waters Restaurant which had, they said, “pretty good bar-b-que.” I decided I needed to check it out, so my wife, Tammy, and I went on Friday night.

For those in the Grayson area, it’s in what used to be the Grayson House restaurant. Parking is in the rear, and as we parked, I was delighted to see a smoker, with smoke billowing out of it. That is a very good sign when you go for BBQ. The smell of the smoke was wonderful, and that smell continued into the house, as we entered the front door.

The restaurant bills itself as “A Chic Bar-b-que Joint,” but I’m not really sure what they are going for with that. The decor is mostly “old house” with various for-sale paintings by, I assume, local artists hanging on the walls. This is not to say that the decor is unappealing; I happen to really like old houses. I just don’t see anything particularly “chic” about it.

The menu is split into two parts: Bar-b-que, and everything else. The non-bar-b-que menu has steaks, fried grouper, grilled salmon, chicken, shrimp and some pasta dishes. There is also an appetizer that sounds heavenly, though we didn’t try it this time. It’s called a “Butty Roll” and this is its description

Smoked Tender Pulled Pork Wrapped in a Tortilla, Deep Fried Golden Brown and served with our Special BBQ Sauce

Oh, yeah. That sounds delicious. Next time, I will have you.

We were there for Q, so we went to the second section of the menu. They have smoked beef brisket (my favorite), pulled pork (my wife’s favorite), ribs, chicken, smoked turkey and house-made sausages. I wish they had a sampler platter, or a “build your own” type of thing, because I would have loved to get some brisket, pork and sausages. Alas, they did not. Tammy got the pulled pork, and I got the brisket. Each comes with two sides; she got potato salad and Brunswick stew, and I got fries and BBQ beans. The price for hers was #13, and for mine was $15.

The food came out pretty quickly, and was absolutely delicious. The only complaints we had were the Brunswick stew had far too much sweet BBQ sauce in it, and was nearly inedible, and that the fries were obviously frozen instead of house-made. Everything else was wonderful. The beans were a perfect balance between BBQ sauce and beans. The brisket was tender and moist, and had the smoke deep into the meat. Tammy’s pulled pork was heavily smoked, juicy and delicious. She also said the potato salad was very good. They have two sauces to choose from; sweet and spicy. I only ate the spicy, but I thought it was a nice spicy sauce, with a bit of a kick, but not mouth-scorching. Tammy said the sweet sauce was good, too.

When they first brought our food out, we were both a bit disappointed at how much was on our plates. But after we finished, we both agreed that the portions were just right; it was the prices that were wrong. For $15, I got three strips of brisket (two of which had significant fat I had to cut off), a decent portion of fries, and a coffee cup (really) of beans. For what I got, I think somewhere in the $10 – $12 range would have been more appropriate. Tammy got a sandwich-sized portion of pork, a large-spoon portion of potato salad and a coffee cup of stew. This really was more of an $8 – $10 meal, instead of the $13 they are charging. Both also came with a piece of Texas toast that had been toasted on the smoker with the smoke flavor deep into it. I do wish they had put a bit of butter on them, because they were a bit dry. The clearly frozen fries also bothered me, given the prices. For that kind of money, I expect house-made fries. It’s not that hard to make them, and they make the meal that much better.

Their dessert menu includes cheesecake, Key lime pie, Oreo cheesecake and something that sounded so good, we just had to try it: Fried Pound Cake. Here’s the description from the menu

Our version of strawberry shortcake, sautéed in butter to golden brown, and served warm with ice cream and strawberry sauce topping

What came out on the plate was an entire segment from a bundt cake pan, probably 4″ x 3″ x 2″; it was a big piece of cake. There was a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, a few strawberries, and a drizzle of strawberry sauce on the cake. Was it good? To quote a friend of ours, it “was so good, you want to slap your momma!” And it was. The cake itself was moist and tasty, but where the butter had soaked into it was a little slice of heaven. It was $8, but I would say that was actually a fair price, given how big the piece was, and how unbelievably good it was. The vanilla ice cream was just standard, but it was fine. This dish alone is reason to eat here again.

We left full and happy, both agreeing that we would come back. I do hope they will adjust their prices down to more accurately reflect the portion sizes. For flavor, I’d give them 4.5 stars out of 5 (I take off a half for the stew). Price-wise, it’s more of a 3.

My Grandma’s “Orange Stuff” Recipe

We don’t have a name for this, so we just call it what it looks like. My wife calls this a “congealed salad.” I call it a dessert. We both call it yummy. Here’s what you need.

  • 16oz tub of Cool Whip
  • 16oz tub of small-curd cottage cheese
  • Small package of orange Jell-O
  • Small can of crushed pineapple
  • Small can of Mandarin oranges

And here’s what you do.

  1. Put Cool Whip in large mixing bowl
  2. Mix in the orange Jell-O
  3. Mix in most of the cottage cheese. (Based on how well you like cottage cheese.)
  4. Drain the pineapple and oranges and mix them in

Refrigerate it until it is cold and then wolf it down. I don’t know if my grandma invented this or read it somewhere, but I learned it from her. I make it frequently, since it is so yummy. And the cottage cheese gives you protien! 🙂

Real Southern Cooking. Oh, Yes.

Friday we made one of our few yearly adventures into that most fearsome of places, the city of Atlanta. We live about 30 miles outside the city, but we only venture in a few times a year. This time, it was to visit the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola.

As we were planning the trip, we decided to have dinner at Mary Mac’s Tea Room. This place has been an Atlanta institution since 1945. I’ve known about it all my life, but strangely enough, I’ve never eaten there. Tammy had just seen a piece about it on some food show on TV, so I suggested we go there, since we were going to pass it on the way to the Aquarium. She agreed, and we did.

After dining there, I really wish we had not waited so long to go. This was, quite possibly, the best not-cooked-at-home Southern food I’ve ever had. The first thing they bring you is a basket of bread. Hot homemade yeast rolls, delicious cornbread and sweet & sticky cinnamon rolls, with real butter to slather on them. Oh my. Since it was New Year’s Day, they were giving everyone a little dish of black-eyed peas, because eating those on NYD is supposed to bring good luck. I love black-eyed peas, and these were delicious.

For my meal, I had the country fried steak, fries and spiced apples. I was expecting a piece of cubed steak, with a heavy, fried chicken-like crust, and a white gravy. What I got was like what my mother-in-law makes; three pieces of cubed steak, lightly dredged in flour and fried, smothered in a heavenly brown gravy. It was so amazingly good. I was a bit disappointed in the fries; I was expecting either steak fries or hand-cut fries, but what I got was straight from a bag. The apples were OK, but needed more sugar. These deficiencies were more than made up for by the deliciousness of the steak.

Tammy had chicken & dumplings, macaroni & cheese and collards. I don’t normally like chicken & dumplings, but I had several bites of hers. I would order those again, that’s how good they were. The mac & cheese, again, tasted like homemade; a thick, rich cheese smothering the macaroni, with just a hint of hot pepper sauce. Nothing like the Kraft “cheese and macaroni.” I also tried the collards. I don’t like collards, but these were the best I’ve ever tasted.

Thomas got a burger. It was a huge, hand-made burger that was one of the best I’ve ever tasted. I had the leftovers the next day. 🙂

Then came desert. Thomas had a scoop of chocolate ice cream and Tammy and I both had the banana pudding. Oh yes, the banana pudding. Its deliciousness is almost beyond words. This was not vanilla Jell-O pudding with banana slices and vanilla wafers. This was real banana pudding, with loads of banana slices in it, a heavy bread base and a light meringue  on top. Yeah, it was awesome.

The place is a little pricey, so it can’t be a regular dining experience for us. But I hope to go there at least a few more times this year. 🙂 It will at least become a once-a-year thing for us.

Holy Clogged Arteries, Batman!

I love Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I mean love. Love, as in, if they were alive, I’d marry them. Love, as in, if I were on a desert island and a plane flew overhead and accidentally dropped something, I’d wish it to be a dozen or so Krispy Kremes. Thomas and I both refer to our local Krispy Kreme store as “Casa del Sugar Coma.”

I also love hamburgers. With cheese, preferably Swiss. Chili’s has a really good burger.

But never, ever, in my wildest, weirdest dreams, would I want to combine them. Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a cheeseburger. Ugh. But apparently the people at Google thought that was a good thing. I hope the plate they put those on has the phone number of a local cardiologist enscribed on it. Eaters of those things are going to need one.