The Highs and Low Country

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

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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