The Highs and Low Country

Fox Diner is fabulous when it sticks to what it does best

Diunna Greenleaf launches into a stirring rendition of "Amazing Grace" as we nibble on mini biscuits and corn bread squares. Judging by the crowd, it seems the gospel brunch at the new Fox Diner on Shepherd is extremely popular. We are seated at the farthest table from the stage, but we can understand the lyrics better back here than we could up front. The acoustics of the huge high-ceilinged room aren't very good. In fact, this space is a strange choice for the diner, my girlfriend Red opines, sipping her Bloody Mary through a straw.

I never had a chance to eat at the original restaurant on Taft, so I don't have much perspective on the subject. Evidently it was a little house with two rather cramped dining rooms. The new location has the opposite problem: too much space and an ambience somewhat at odds with the homey simplicity of the old-fashioned Southern cooking that the restaurant strives to preserve. The new space used to house Monarch Cleaners; it's a handsome art deco industrial structure that still feels half empty despite all the tables and chairs.

Red orders grits and grillades with poached eggs, one of my favorite Southern breakfasts. Grillade means "grilled" in French, but the Creole version is pounded and breaded meat strips (pork loin, in this instance) seared in hot fat and simmered in a spicy sauce until they develop a stewlike consistency. The tender meat in gravy and the smooth yellow cheese grits each occupy half of the giant white plate; two poached eggs are then perched on top. The dish is so big, Red is only too happy to share. With a basket full of bite-sized breads to dunk in the gravy and egg yolk, this is one of the best versions of the classic breakfast that I've ever sampled.

Praise the Lord and pass the grits: The Sunday gospel brunch is not to be missed at Fox Diner.
Troy Fields
Praise the Lord and pass the grits: The Sunday gospel brunch is not to be missed at Fox Diner.
Praise the Lord and pass the grits: The Sunday gospel brunch is not to be missed at Fox Diner.
Troy Fields
Praise the Lord and pass the grits: The Sunday gospel brunch is not to be missed at Fox Diner.


713-523-5FOX. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday gospel brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday Carolina gumbo night, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Grits and grillades: $11
Sunday fried-chicken dinner: $13
Cornmeal-fried oysters with green tomato relish: $8
Crab cake sandwich: $11
Seared jumbo shrimp with crabmeat: $20
Barbecued black grouper: $21

2815 South Shepherd

My daughter Julia gets the Sunday fried-chicken dinner, which features tender pieces of chicken coated in crispy corn flakes and served with mashed potatoes and a pile of sumptuous greens. Her sister Katie gets the ecumenical special -- scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and bagels.

There are only five dishes on the brunch menu, and the other two are similar to what we've already ordered, so I try something off the regular menu: the seared jumbo shrimp in tasso gravy with lump crabmeat and cheese grits. The shrimp are huge, exquisitely fresh and cooked not a second longer than necessary. The Creole-style sauce -- tomato, green and red peppers, and big chunks of the Cajun-smoked ham called tasso -- melts into the cheese grits, which are mounded in the center of the plate and crowned with crabmeat. It is an incredibly rich dish, and a fabulous combination of authentic Southern flavors.

As we order dessert, Diunna works her way through the restaurant singing another gospel number. We share the key lime satin with key lime curd and raspberries, doing a quick Jack Sprat number on the pale green and yellow goo. I love the sauce but find the pudding too sticky; my daughters say the sauce is too tart but love the satin. Red just wishes the whole thing had a graham cracker crust like a key lime pie.

It's been a wonderful meal, and we are among the last to leave. If you have never been to Fox Diner, I highly recommend the Sunday gospel brunch as a way to get acquainted. The restaurant's best chefs and waitstaff appear to be in place for the festivities. I only wish this had been my introduction. Unfortunately, my first meal at Fox Diner was a few days earlier at dinnertime, and it wasn't nearly as pleasant.

Maybe it was an off night. It started out well enough, with the same basket of excellent mini biscuits and corn bread squares. And the starter we shared -- a large pile of cornmeal-fried oysters with crisp green tomato relish and a sweet and savory mustard seed rémoulade -- was absolutely terrific. Of our four entrées that night, however, one was excellent, one needed help, and two were very disappointing. And the waitress was one of the most annoying I've ever met.

"This is only my second day on the job, and I'm a vegetarian," she told us when we asked which appetizers she recommended. The sweet potato soup seemed to be the sole item on the menu she could talk about from experience. The issue of vegetarian waitpersons has been dealt with before in these pages. (See "Dumb Waiters," by George Alexander, April 19.) In a letter to the editor, longtime vegetarian waitress Marilyn Gerber responded that vegetarians are perfectly capable of doing a fine job waiting tables. She is right, and we probably don't give such waitstaff enough credit, because when they perform well, we never suspect they're vegetarians. It's the other kind we notice.

When I asked how the King Ranch casserole was prepared, all I really wanted to know was whether there were layers of roasted green chiles in it. But the waitress launched into a long explanation of how she had to learn about the meat dishes from other people, since she couldn't taste them herself. She seemed to expect sympathy -- a modern-day Helen Keller -- for overcoming all odds to master the intricacies of describing a chicken casserole. This is the kind of vegetarian waitperson that gives the whole bunch a bad name.

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