"You eat oxtails?" she asked. When I replied in the affirmative, she said with a grin, "Then you have to have the oxtails." And she was right: I have to have the oxtails. Again. Soon. As often as possible, with yams and cabbage and rice, with cornbread and a quick trip through the nothing-fancy salad bar.
Down on Cullen Drive, south of the Loop and north of Reed Road, Carol and her husband, the Reverend Ray Swanson, are on a mission. In the sparkling new building they opened last December, all that is right about franchise-style fast food -- an efficient floor plan, quick order processing, self-service sodas, sparkling cleanliness, a food preparation area visible to the customer to ensure that the cleanliness is restaurant-wide -- mixes incongruously, but effectively, with that which is inevitably missing from franchise joints -- food with soul. Food for the soul. Soul food. And if Ray and Carol -- devout Christians, as evidenced by the "Back to the Basics -- God First" neon sign outside their establishment -- save a few souls while they're at it, that's just part of their plan to "serve the best food on this side of town."
That's a lofty ambition, as anyone who has toured Sunnyside's cafes and diners and joints can attest. This is a neighborhood in which the rural influence on the food is as obvious, and delightful, as the sight of African-American cowboys trotting their quarter horses down esplanades on weekend afternoons. But the Swansons have an impressive lead on the competition; many of the local purveyors of boudin and neck bones and turkey wings are in venerable, unassuming, occasionally decrepit structures whose exteriors do little to excite the uninitiated. Heaven-N-A-Blanket, with its bright purple neon and corner location, is a highly visible, inviting and modern cafe with plate lunches to rival those of the best plywood and tarpaper shacks in the South.
The decor and layout of Heaven-N-A-Blanket is unmistakably Fast Food Modern, although the usual sterility of that function-over-form atmosphere is here considerably enlivened by a sound system that indicates the Swansons' taste in recorded gospel music is, well, divinely inspired. Orders are placed at the front counter, and "to go" and "eat here" determines whether your Styrofoam box arrives at the counter in a sack or on a tray. But oh, the contents of those boxes, when their lids are lifted and a quick gust of steam clears to reveal prodigious helpings of home-style entrees and vegetables overflowing their compartments! And at Heaven-N-A-Blanket, "home-style" -- a much-abused phrase used all too often to glorify assembly-line blandness -- is, if anything, an understatement. If we'd had food like this at home, none of us would have left. This is, as those from an agrarian background will quickly recognize, food worthy of a hay-hand lunch. In a less mechanized age, those banquets were the culinary highlight of an agricultural year. Teams of sweaty, famished teenagers who had been throwing heavy cubes of clover and alfalfa onto flatbed wagons since dawn would descend on the farmhouse at noon; the culinary reputations of rural housewives -- and their husbands' ability to secure a top-notch crew for the next harvest -- rode on that one, gargantuan meal. If the Swansons had been farmers where I came up, their hay would have always been in the barn before anyone else's.
The Heavenly Platter, a catchall name for one steam table entree with three side dishes, cornbread and salad, is Heaven-N-A-Blanket's retail equivalent of those rural extravaganzas. There is no more chance of finding the meat loaf dry or flavorless than there is of considering the serving stingy; this is a firm, moist, well-seasoned slab adorned with a rich, red gravy that goes beyond being a condiment to become an essential component of the recipe. And if thick, rich brown gravy with large chunks of tender beef served on a towering bed of steamed rice is something you appreciate, you can choose the oxtails. In truth, the difference between a soul food joint worthy of the name and an uptown swankeria known for its robust, hearty beef stock is that the uptown chefs remove the small bones that identify their cut of beef as one that went through the gate last. Heaven-N-A-Blanket takes the honest approach, and the result is their oxtail entree, a simple-yet-profound broth, laden with bones, that needs only a mound of rice to become an entree that can insulate both body and soul.
Heaven-N-A-Blanket's loving, hands-on preparation results in side orders that similarly transcend their humble image. Even such a simple side as cabbage has been steamed just to that point where the leaves are warm and tender, yet firm and crispy. The made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes are cooked as though ersatz instant substitutes had never been invented. It seems silly, and is incredibly difficult, to wax poetic about such simple, basic dishes -- and yet Heaven-N-A-Blanket's no-shortcuts approach to even the humblest of steam table side orders calls for sonnets. And while some might find the almost-an-afterthought salad bar lacking, limited as it is to a bowl of iceberg lettuce and perfunctory tubs of chopped broccoli and tomatoes, I can't. Exotic stuff such as romaine and red-leaf and bean sprouts placed alongside this exquisitely traditional menu would be as pointless and silly as whole-wheat bread with barbecue. At Heaven-N-A-Blanket the salad is, as it should be in Texas, a side dish that will serve its purpose without distracting the diner from more important issues at hand -- such as the chicken fried steak with cornbread dressing.
The Swansons' treatment of round steak done Southern style results in a thick, tender, softly breaded treat that bears only a superficial resemblance to the extra-crispy assembly -- line product that has become all too common. Equally uncommon, and welcome, is the basil-infused brown beef gravy that is both a delightful refutation of cream-gravy orthodoxy and a perfect counterpart for the unscheduled holiday of a cornbread stuffing -- yet another example of the time-tested culinary truth that nothing satisfies like simple, familiar things done with enthusiasm and respect.
One of those simple things is a traditional Southern breakfast, which satisfies both stomach and soul like little else. Perhaps only those raised to believe such a morning meal was their birthright -- and then suffered a winter or three in godforsaken climes where farina is regarded as edible -- will appreciate this in its fullest, but it must be said: Heaven-N-A-Blanket has good grits. Good grits, of course, come swimming in butter and begging to be liberally anointed with black pepper, which these do. The grits are perhaps the centerpiece (though they're served on the side) of the breakfast buffet. The buffet label is actually a minor misnomer: order the buffet and receive a plate (Styrofoam, of course) bearing a fluffy, evenly browned, from-scratch pancake covered with bacon slices and sausage patties and toast. This assortment is accompanied by matching bowls of grits and scrambled eggs. A dash of hot sauce here, a dollop of syrup there, and that, as the Texas Playboys sang, is what I like about the South.
The only decision that I made at this counter that I even slightly regretted was passing up a plate lunch to sample the half-pound cheeseburger. While it was served -- as a burger should be -- with grilled onions, the sandwich seemed somewhat uninspired. Upon reflection, I realized that my favorite places for grilled patties are joints where the grills have cooked hundreds of thousands of hamburgers over the decades. No one would expect perfect cornbread from a brand-new cast iron skillet; I realized that this must also apply to burgers from commercial griddles. Given time, the griddle at Heaven-N-A-Blanket will no doubt season and cure until it produces burgers that will satisfy even the most demanding of perfectionists.
In the interim, those seeking perfection should look to the Heavenly Platter, and you have to try the oxtails.
Heaven-N-A-Blanket, 8903 Cullen Boulevard, 733-4848.
Heaven-N-A-Blanket: breakfast buffet, $3.99 (Monday-Friday), $4.59 (weekends); steam table buffet (meat, threeside dishes, cornbread, salad), $5.99.