Is there a cardiologist in the house?
A week of down-home, Southern-style soul food has worked some serious damage on me. After all, just driving past these lairs of nutritional despair could give anyone a case of secondhand arterial hardening. Huge doses of lard, salt and oil have desecrated my bodily shrine as thoroughly as grave robbers looted Tutankhamen's tomb.
About the only thing passing my lips that wasn't deep-fried, pan-fried or gravy-smothered was dessert. My cholesterol level could get me a spot in the carnivore section of Jurassic Park. And I now feel a strange compulsion to trade my cat in for a mule, change my name to Zeke and head off to the lower forty.
Though currently repenting on rice crackers and an exercise bike, I look forward to resuming a life of nutritional crime. When I do, my first stop will be Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe.
It's unlikely that the editors of Architectural Digest will be joining me. Well-worn booths, tables and chairs do keep patrons from eating off the floor, but don't aspire to any higher aesthetic plane. Artwork of African scenes and Martin Luther King Jr. takes diners' minds off the bars over the windows. And the place has all the refrigerated, air-conditioned chill of the Florida Everglades in August.
The menu is inscribed on the wall. After a few bites, it will be inscribed around the waistline.
An Oklahoma-born companion initiated me into the mysteries of gravy-smothered chicken-fried steak, a flattened, breaded piece of beef that was not exactly a staple of my Brooklyn childhood. Wielding his fork like a precision instrument, he instructed me that first-class chicken-fried steak needed no additional cutting tool.
This enormous, crisply battered piece certainly didn't. My previous encounters with chicken-fried steak were in Texas. They left me thinking that the chain saw originated as a dining aid. But all you need to down this beauty is an appetite and a set of gums.
The two, man-size pork chops were rivetingly tender hunks of meat, surrounded by an addictive fried crust. This platter ought to come with an EKG and a cot: Even if your heart is still beating, you won't have energy to do more than crawl off and nap.
Southern-fried chicken opened my eyes, and belt. When you've been victimized as often as I have by scrawny, flaccid fowl, you learn to lower your expectations. But this half a bird arrived plump with meat and with crunchy, freshly oiled skin that made me wish I'd never heard of the new government nutritional pyramid. To my distress, Southern-fried chicken did not make it on the list of the four essential food groups.
Diners deep into self-delusion may think the halibut offers safe haven in a health-starved world. Nope. Two hefty, white-meat fillets came encrusted in the same luscious batter that destroyed the nutrients in the chicken-fried steak. I wonder why the Creator didn't drop fish fillets in the ocean already breaded like these. It would have saved a lot of time.
The side dishes have a real homemade touch. Finely chopped coleslaw sported a vinegary tang. The well-simmered red beans packed a pleasing zip. Best of all, though, was the cooked cabbage, slightly sweetened Southern-style, with a mouth-watering, buttery flavor.
Ordering dessert after a meal like this makes about as much sense as throwing a water pistol to a drowning man. Still, if you crave sweets, the coconut custard pie makes surprisingly good, light eating.
Why does this place style itself the Golden Rule cafe? Because instead of receiving a check, customers simply tell the trusting cashier what they had. When you leave here, both your conscience and your belly will feel pleased.
Joan's Kitchen, 7620 East McKellips, Scottsdale, 946-1849. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Wednesday through Saturday, 5:30 to 8 p.m.
Unlike the soulful offerings at Mrs. White's, the fare at Joan's Kitchen is country-Southern, white folks' division.
Joan, who hails from Oklahoma, does the cooking. At least she did. Her hardworking husband, who takes orders, serves, buses and chats, confided that she's taught the cook all her secrets. "Can't tell who cooked what, anymore," he said in an amazed tone, shaking his head. But Joan won't trust anyone else with the baking--the desserts are all hers.
It's a homey place, decorated in 1950s-living-room style. Pictures of the family, including one of young Joan in her teens from the early 1940s, line the far wall. The alcove by the front table has a stack of magazines. The only outlandish touch is the cow painted on the back wall, licking her lips.
Perhaps that's because she's just sampled the fine down-home cooking.
Meals start off with soup or salad, and neither tastes as if it came out of a ten-gallon can or a ten-pound shredded-iceberg-lettuce package.
The day's broccoli soup, with thick chunks of broccoli floating in a creamy broth, was good enough to change George Bush's ideas about this vegetable. The salad showed some effort, greens surrounded by carrots, a wedge of tomato, olives, beets and croutons in a serviceable commercial poppy seed dressing.
And they came with a basket of fresh, steaming biscuits, thick and dense as hockey pucks, and a squeeze bottle of honey.
The main dishes made us understand why Joan's hubby sings her praises with such enthusiasm, even after 40 years.
Chicken and dumplings arrived with chunks of white meat in a velvety, rich sauce. The dumplings, large, light and puffy, floated serenely, and went down real easily.
The two medium-size pork chops, breaded and pan-fried, turned one of my kids into a raging, meat-eating beast. After I reluctantly granted permission, she hoisted them up by hand and gnawed away. Then she accusingly asked me why my home cooking didn't meet this standard.
The meat loaf is another winner, two hearty, beefy slabs slathered in an appealing tomato gravy. I pictured the Joads eating this at a truck stop on their way to California from Oklahoma.
About the only thing that didn't make us quiver with delight was the chicken-fried steak. The tasty, breaded and gravy-smeared cube steak couldn't quite meet the fork-tender guideline I've now adopted as the measure of quality.
The mashed potatoes that accompanied all the dishes passed every test, however. They're thick, lumpy and salty, a monument to starch and sodium.
Joan's territorial feel about her desserts is merited. The chocolate cream pie got my kids' eyes rolling with pleasure. Pineapple crunch was terrific, a sticky, sweet, crunchy, fruity confection that requires at least two cups of coffee. And the fresh, moist bread pudding had a lovely, thick texture, without being chewy.
Joan's Kitchen doesn't conclusively prove that happy folks who take pride in their work are more likely to prepare tasty fare than those who don't. But it's a good working hypothesis.
Bev's Kitchen, 7 West Monroe, Phoenix, 252-1455. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
Bev's Kitchen, newly ensconced downtown after a run on South 16th Street, lacks the funkiness of Mrs. White's and the family charm of Joan's Kitchen. It seems to have created its own genre--soul-food fern bar.
It's a bright, airy place, a welcome addition to the grungy downtown eating scene. Lots of artificial plants, comfortable Breuer chairs and glass-topped tables banish any suggestion that this is some greasy-spoon dive.
Dozens of tables indicate it's not a one-person operation, either. Somehow, though only recently opened, the operators have managed to put together a particularly polite, friendly crew of servers.
Bev's strength resides in some unusually good side dishes, most of which are more appealing than the chicken-fried and gravy-topped platters.
You'll wish Southern-style cabbage came in a vat instead of a small bowl. Perked up with pork, it tastes almost Germanic. The dreamy, smoked-pork flavor blends perfectly with the sharp cabbage smack.
The candied yam will leave you shaking your head with admiration. This sweet, mashed-up beauty emphatically says, "This spud's for you." The okra gumbo, mixed with corn and tomatoes over rice, is equally alluring. And it has the added benefit of being one of the few things here that doesn't require a Surgeon General's warning.
The red beans and rice, buttery, canned string beans, corn and macaroni and cheese don't merit such admiration, however, meeting only institutional standards.
The main dishes lack a certain je ne sais quoi, as the folks back home might say. I'd no more tackle the leathery, peppery, chicken-fried steak without a knife than tackle Superman without Kryptonite. And the fried chicken--a leg, a thigh and wing--couldn't convince me it was fresh out of the fryer.
The smothered pork chops, though, would have been fine, except for the bucketful of salt that I could actually hear narrowing my arteries as I chewed.
The fish turned out best. Hoki fillets are mild-tasting slabs of white meat in a thick, cornmeal-dusted breading. But the catfish, with more flavor and thinner breading, is a better choice.
Bev's Kitchen takes you in sight of the soul-food mountaintop. But for the moment, it won't take you over to the promised land.