By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
The casserole turned out to be a bland square of white chicken meat layered with corn tortillas, with lots of melted cheese on top. "It tastes just like the King Ranch casserole at my school cafeteria," Julia said as she pushed the dish away. "Bleech." While I have never eaten the version at her cafeteria, I had to agree that this one was terrible. It was so tasteless you could barely tell what you were eating. A few layers of green chiles certainly would have helped. I should have held out for a better description from the waitress.
Katie's crab cake sandwich was equally bad. The cakes had no crunchy exterior, next to no spice, and they were soggy and undercooked. They made the worst sandwich filler imaginable. Nobody at the table even wanted to eat the crab cakes, let alone the sandwich.
I ordered the "aromatic chili and cinnamon crusted pork chop." I asked that the chop be cooked a little pink, which sent Ms. Vegetarian into a definitional tizzy. "You mean medium rare?" she asked. "Or rare?" Explaining to her that the rare/medium-rare system generally wasn't applied to pork would have been too much of a lecture. So I tried to get the idea across as simply as possible.
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
"Just tell the kitchen I want the pork chop 'a little pink,' " I reiterated.
The spinach and cheese grits were great, and the chop was juicy, though not pink. But the chile and cinnamon topping ruined the whole thing. When you were a kid, did you ever grab the cinnamon tin out of the spice rack thinking that since you liked cinnamon rolls and cinnamon toast, you would most certainly like cinnamon right out of the shaker? I did. The lesson about cinnamon sans sweetness has stayed with me ever since.
Pork is well paired with sweet flavors, and so is cinnamon. With a little applesauce (a shaved pork loin sandwich with pear chowchow appears elsewhere on the menu) or with a tiny bit of fruit, this dish would really shine. But as it is, the cinnamon-and-chile-flavored pork is far too bitter.
Barbecued black grouper with black-eyed-pea relish and lump crabmeat was the winner. The firm and meaty fish was perfectly cooked, and the crabmeat provided a few high notes. The fish was served with cheese grits and spinach. The menu promised greens, so spinach was a bit of a disappointment in a restaurant noted for Low Country cooking. But the grits more than made up for the substitution.
Fox Diner's chef-owner, Tom Williams, doesn't serve the kind of powdered grits that most of us are familiar with. He extols the virtues of fresh grits, which contain so much corn oil they must be stored in the refrigerator. (See "True Grits," by George Alexander, April 12.) With a rich corn flavor and a smooth texture, they are the best grits I have ever eaten. Williams preaches that grits can be seasoned in a wide variety of ways, but regular grits and cheese grits are the only variations I saw available.
I wish more of the menu were devoted to the Low Country cooking that Williams knows so much about. The Low Country encompasses the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, according to the area's foremost cooking authority, John Martin Taylor. This region has developed a cuisine distinctive from the rest of the South, mostly as a result of its geography. From the beginning, this cradle of Southern culture had access to the freshest seafood and the best imported goods when inland plantations had to make do with what they could grow. I have read great things about Low Country roasted oysters, shrimp grits and the legendary Frogmore stew, a seafood boil with smoked lamb sausage.
Fox Diner's menu wanders away from the theme of Southern cooking. Tex-Mex dishes like Frito pie and King Ranch chicken casserole are perfectly acceptable fringe elements here in Texas. But it's the keep-everybody-happy meals that muddy the waters. Roasted salmon isn't very Southern, and neither is grilled tuna or baked goat cheese salad with balsamic vinaigrette. Thematic purity doesn't pay the bills, but does a traditional Southern diner with an emphasis on Carolina Low Country cooking really have to serve a "classic corned beef Reuben"?
Perhaps we are holding Fox Diner to an impossibly high standard, but it's a standard they have set for themselves. The short menu of Southern classics and the joyful sounds on Sunday have shown us just how fabulous this place can be when it focuses on what it does best.