Yet for all the angst of an unexpected assault, Tommy and his team performed remarkably well. Yes, service was slow, but it was unfailingly courteous. True, the vegetable selection had shrunk to about three items, the meat loaf was long-gone, and the grilled chicken had been eighty-sixed — along with the peach cobbler. But looking on the bright side of things, this allowed us to focus on the café’s extremely sophisticated setting, one you’d never expect from the modest exterior. One entire wall featuring Eastside dignitaries, history, sporting and cultural events would give the Institute of Texan Cultures a run for its money — in content and creativity. More-recent photos are beginning to accumulate on the opposite wall. And the framework for all this includes discreet carpet and slate flooring, subtle colors, a snazzy, corrugated metal ceiling, classy lighting, and tasteful wood chairs and tables — all this cheek-by-jowl with a typical Church’s Fried Chicken outlet.
There’s more here than may meet the eye, of course. Moore is also the publisher of The San Antonio Informer, a weekly “black information source and resource,” and as such has not only a finger on the pulse of the community but access to archived material for the displays, though he says he collected and received personal contributions as well. (He also designed the display himself.) In addition, Moore was once involved with Church’s, and it just so happens the café was previously a Church’s training facility. No, Moore doesn’t get his fried chicken next door. “They come to us,” he jokes.
Regardless of its source or inspiration, Tommy’s chicken is the real thing: just crusty enough from simple flour dipping (or double-dipping), really fried (not steamed inside an inpenetrable shell), and minimally fiddled with. The coating is less important on the fried pork chop, but it, too, is the essence of plain but good cooking. Even humbler, but maybe more appreciated for that, is the braised cabbage flavored with a little ham hock; it’s sensational.
Ham hock also studs the thick but earthy black-eyed peas, a dish every southerner and southern sympathizer needs at this time of year, along with cornbread and biscuits. The cornbread, in muffin form, is perfectly fine, stopping just short of being too crumbly. As for the biscuits, my momma beats your momma any time; they were a little sturdy, but nonetheless appreciated straight out of the oven (“not the microwave,” we were assured) with honey and a butter spread.
Returning for another lunch, the situation was back to normal: service was swift, all items were available, and a daily special (country meatballs) even put in an appearance. Now I can heartily recommend the moist meat loaf flecked with bell pepper and topped with a satisfying tomato sauce; I can put in a good word for the simple but moist grilled chicken breast; I can riff on the pleasures of real mashed potatoes, chunks and all, served with genuine gravy; and I can confess to almost liking the inevitably overcooked, but at least whole, green beans.
The macaroni-and-cheese side I can do without, and I would be disinclined to repeat the cloying and cinnamon-dominated sweet potatoes if another diner
hadn’t assured me they weren’t always thus. As for the delayed gratification of the peach cobbler, some things are just better in anticipation. The spicing was more subtle than the sweet potatoes, but the crust didn’t count for enough in the opinion of someone used to a more substantial, biscuit-like topping. My momma, again.
The next step is to return for breakfast, an exercise in combinations of eggs, grits, hash browns, ham, and the like. Or even for $8 dinner on Friday or Saturday, when ribs and chicken-fried steak put in an appearance and your pork chop can also be grilled. The adjacent deli isn’t quite up to speed yet, but sandwiches, salads, and some cheeses and deli meats — there’s even prosciutto currently on display — are said to become staples soon.