It may not come as a surprise to nutritionists, but the standard Deep South diet took a real hit recently. A federally funded study launched in 2002 found that folks who consumed Southern food staples such as sweet tea and deep-fried food had a 41 percent higher chance of suffering a stroke. It labeled the Southeastern U.S. the "stroke belt."
Ouch. I can give up the tea, but fried catfish and chicken are hard to walk away from. I won't even get started on barbecue.
So it's with some trepidation that I visited Chat 'N' Chew, the new Southern food restaurant in the old J's Place location at the corner of Ming Avenue and New Stine Road. I'm hoping this place can overcome the bad publicity, or at least find a lot of skillful rationalizers like me who say, "Well, we all gotta die from something!"
I'm also hoping Chat 'N' Chew can overcome my apparent curse involving Southern food restaurants. In the past 18 months I wrote about two promising places, The French Quarter (just down the road on New Stine) and Chicken & Cakes on Stine Road. Both are now gone.
The people at Chat 'N' Chew are so nice, so welcoming, so humble that you hope they find the formula for survival. It's a small family operation, exceptionally clean and decorated in an inviting fashion. When you walk in, they greet you in a friendly way, like an old neighbor. When you pay the bill, they confidently invite you back with a "see you again soon." You hope good things happen for them.
The menu (lunch and dinner are similar but priced and proportioned differently) concentrates on familiar standbys: ribs, brisket, meatloaf, pork chops, links, fried chicken and catfish. On our first visit I ordered the chicken, all white meat, and waffles ($9.95) while my companion selected the catfish ($10.95).
The meat choices were the best part. The two wings and breast I was served with my waffles were fried in a fascinating dark brown batter. In a sense, it was thick, with a brittle outside, like a tempura but not as wispy. The breast was a tad overcooked and a bit dry inside. The three catfish strips were perfect -- fresh, simple cornmeal coating, not greasy.
For side orders we sampled some excellent muddy chili beans that had the tiniest morsels of ground beef for flavoring and a few specks of red pepper. These I'd order again. My companion's green beans, however, were overcooked, though the white onion strands mixed in were a welcome touch. The waffle was even more disappointing than the green beans.
I long ago was won over by the combination of waffles and fried chicken down at Roscoe's in Los Angeles, where I believe the distinctive dish was created. I have the fondest memories of a chicken and waffle place on Brundage Lane that drizzled butter over a crisp mahogany-brown waffle. It was irresistible. And I've been a big fan of what J's Place, on Rosedale Highway, is doing.
But the waffles here need work. I was served two squares from what looked like the product of a four-quadrant iron. They were pale, limp and not worthy to be on the plate with that chicken. I'll overlook the margarine served on the side. I realize that might help people avoid the issues raised by that anti-Southern diet study I mentioned above, but I don't think margarine helps unless you've got cholesterol issues.
On another visit, I had a chance to sample the barbecue rib platter ($12.95), with two sides (had to get the chili beans again, but this time I mixed them with the French fries, which were, like the waffles, a bit limp.)
But the three pork ribs were fascinating: untrimmed, which meant a thick outer layer of meat, some fat for flavoring that you need to trim away, then more meat closer to the bone. The exterior of the meat was crispy, telling me that sauce had been applied late in the cooking process to firm them up. If you want to start a fight among barbecue people, take a position (ANY position) on when the sauce should go on the ribs. It's like arguing about religion, politics or sports. Some good-intentioned folks believe sauce goes on at the table, or at least after the meat has been pulled from the grill. Others will scoff and argue that the sauce should be cooked into the meat, and that more sauce should be added at the end. It's obvious where Chat 'N' Chew stands on this vital issue confronting our nation today.
There's enough Chat 'N' Chew is doing right, from the meat to the friendliness, that you hope they can tweak the operation and keep the doors open.