By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1996 Gourmet Magazine
We venture off the road this month for another in an occasional series of city guides. Our goal is to direct you to restaurants plain or fancy, famous or little known, that provide a memorable taste of America ‘s good-eating towns.
Do you want corn or flour tortillas with your eggs?” asks our waitress at MECCA, a highway café in Dallas with a sign outside that boasts “Breakfast served all day.”
“Corn,” we answer.
“I’ll bring you flour,” she says. “They’re better. And what about gravy? Do you want an extra bowl?” While we consider the question, she answers for us. “Of course you do. For your biscuits. You do want biscuits, don’t you.”
Sassy service is a hallmark of cheap-eats cafés, with which Dallas is particularly well endowed. We don’t want to slight the Big D’s other culinary assets, including majestic barbecue at Sonny Bryan’s, the all-American bounty of the Highland Park Cafeteria, true Mexican food at Javier’s, and cutting-edge Southwestern novelties from Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek and from Stephan Pyles at his stylish Star Canyon. We love those places, but a less-appreciated aspect of Dallas cuisine deserves recognition too: cafés where homey food is dished out by good ol’ gals who call you dear, hon, slick, or bud. At Mecca, a squad of such practitioners speeds breakfast from the kitchen while slapping down a check with every meal so as not to waste time.
The walls of the happy-go-lucky roadhouse are plastered with Dallas Cowboys souvenirs, a mounted jackalope, glossies of celebrity patrons, and wisecracks in the form of bumper stickers (Will Rogers never met an auditor) and photocopied declarations of policy, principle, and state of mind. (“Old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill,” says a framed observation.) In the loose-jointed dining room, among the scattered tables and at the counter, the waitresses reign; and, though they never hesitate to share a piece of their mind, they also take care of you like mother hens.
“You see that part of your chicken-fry?” says ours, pointing to the breakfast steak on the plate she has carried to our table. It is enveloped in a golden crust, but one bit along the edge is crustless. “That worries me,” she says, cocking her brow and giving a fish eye to the offending area. “So I asked the cooks. They said the flour fell off. I told them I didn’t like its looks. They said it would taste just fine. Here,” she says. “You tell me if it tastes fine. If not, I’ll raise hell.”
The steak tastes delicious, even the crustless part: a quintessential Lone Star delicacy, tender and beefy, sheathed in a breading that cracks into flakes when pressed by fork or knife. Its natural companion is gravy, which comes in a bowl to be spooned on and also used as a dip for shreds of Mecca’s proud, puffy biscuits. Like the steak, the gravy is a country paradigm: ivory white, peppery, and rib-sticking thick.
Most Americans don’t think of migas as comfort food. Those outside the sphere of Tex-Mex cookery may have never even heard of this regional home-kitchen staple. It is vaguely similar to French toast, yet closer in nature to Jewish matzo brei because it combines an unleavened bread stuffed with eggs. But migas has a character all its own; and you will find none better than Mecca’s. Large pieces of corn tortilla are scrambled with eggs, cheese, tomatoes, and hot peppers. Cooking tends to soften the crisp wafers of fried corn, but not entirely and not uniformly, so some pieces, veiled with egg, are limp and steamy while others retain their crunch amidst bits of bombshell pepper that work incendiary wonders on the tongue.
With migas you need beans. Hashed-browns are also available, and they are good—lush and crusty, a fine companion for sunny-side up eggs—but migas demands a side dish with powerful character. Mecca’s refried beans fill the bill with their intense flavor, mashed thick but with a scattering of bean chunks to make the texture interesting.
Cinnamon rolls are a house specialty. Each one is a coil of sweet baked dough, about six inches across and two inches high, veined with cinnamon, frosted, and served hot and sopping with melting margarine that forms a golden pool on the plate. Immense and ungainly, one roll calls for a half dozen cups of coffee to wash it down. No problem: At Mecca, waitresses tote coffee pots with the proficiency of a quick-draw artist twirling a Colt .45 pistol.
Of our prices were higher, we’d be famous” says the movable-letter menu above the buffet line at GENNIE’S BISHOP GRILL in the Oak Cliff part of town. The management is being disingenuous. Since opening in 1970, Gennie’s has become quite famous, at least among American café connoisseurs, to whom this modest lunchroom is a blue-plate shrine. It isn’t only the baked garlic chicken and the banana pudding that make it so beloved; Gennie’s has an alluring atmosphere that is at once incorrigibly déclassé but also as decent as church.
Gennie’s is not a culinary experience that will appeal to the raised-pinkie set, although it does attract a diverse clientele, including chic Dallas ladies with well-tended hairdos and executives who could afford a pricey power lunch. They come to this out-of-the-way location and pay five dollars, cash, because Gennie’s has soul that the most exclusive tables in town cannot match. For anyone who craves the fundamental joys of old-fashioned Texas café cooking, Gennie’s is home sweet home.
Service is cafeteria style; the line is short and functional. Grab a tray from a pile that includes some plain ones and some with the insignia of an apparently defunct Sirloin Stockade, take a sheaf of silverware wrapped in a paper napkin, then slide on down toward the food.
First in line is dessert. Pick yours from a selection of plates that always includes wedges of peanut butter pie made by Rosemarie Hudson, Gennie’s daughter and current owner. A tan ribbon of peanut butter filling splays out beneath the cream top, which lists precariously. It may not look pretty, but it sure is good: silky, smooth, cool, and sweet. The other memorable dessert, banana pudding, is crowded with softened vanilla wafers and is as close as we adults can ever get to the primal pleasure of baby food.
At the next station, tell the server which of the day’s three or four entrées you want. When available, garlic chicken is a must: oozing juice, slipping off the bone, fragrant with spice, it is a deeply sensuous eating experience. On the side, you want the soft and sweet corn-bread stuffing. You also want greens, limp and heavy, sprinkled with peppery vinegar. As for potatoes, Gennie’s sweet ones are brightly flavored and cooked until all tooth resistance is gone; mashed potatoes are glorious—whipped smooth, crowned with a spill of well-peppered cream gravy. Other frequent main courses include spicy beef and macaroni, chicken-fried steak, meat loaf, and liver and onions. All meals are accompanied by your choice of a crisp corn-bread muffin or a yeasty round-topped dinner roll that is excellent for mopping up the last streaks of gravy. Meals are served on thick, indestructible plates that are divided into sections so meatloaf drippings and the like don’t mingle with the tart pot Bicker of the greens.
A low-slung stone ranch house in a residential neighborhood, CELEBRATION is not like other restaurants and is especially unlike most joints that specialize in home-style cooking. There are no sassy waitresses in this establishment; the staff is enthusiastic, helpful, and impeccably polite. “I’ve been coming here since I was a child,” the young hostess volunteers as she leads us to a table. “I love it when people discover this place.” As for decor, there are no jackalopes, football pennants, or rude homilies. The handsome, wood-paneled walls are decorated with Native American rugs and evocative black-and-white photographs of contemporary Texas ranch hands, cattle, and life on the range in general. In the small dining rooms throughout the building, a surprising calm prevails as gentle country-western music plays quietly in the background. Three and four generations occupy some tables, especially on Sundays, but, even when there are herds of kids in attendance, the mood seems more like that of an art museum than of a raucous family restaurant.
In this gracious environment, Celebration serves magnificent home cooking. We don’t mean the meals are fancy or unusual; they are simply fresh, expertly prepared versions of the classics. Pot roast is cooked until ridiculously tender: Its profound meaty juices arrive in a little bowl alongside mashed potatoes that are still a little chunky and freckled with potato skin. Meat loaf is perfumed with spices, lean and beefy. Each piece of fried chicken is massive, nutty-crusted on the outside and dripping moist within. Don’t worry if you find it hard to choose from among the dozen entrées; house policy is that you can have seconds of any other equally priced meal.
Vegetables keep coming, too: The day’s choices vary with the season. Last September, We enjoyed a glorious yellow squash casserole. Its mantle of crumbs was rich and savory, but the real pleasure was the squash itself. Sweet, bite-size morsels were cooked al dente and retained a bracing harvest flavor in their veil of garlicked cheese. Spinach came glistening with butter and seasoned just enough to highlight its natural vigor.
Waitress Stephanie offered her advice about dessert. “I’ll be honest with you. The coconut cream pie is the best,” she said. We wouldn’t call her wrong, for this pie is a beauty with a deliriously coconutty filling; but the chocolate cake is equally awe-inspiring. It is a double-layer one, moist and thickly iced, and so tall that cutting into it can be difficult without carefully positioning the fork on top and gliding it down through six inches of devil’s food. The only conceivable accompaniment is a glass of cold milk.
“I have traveled for more than thirty years,” declared a salesman at a nearby table with whom we struck up a conversation about the best restaurants from New Orleans to Phoenix. “I have survived by eating where the locals eat. That’s what I like about Celebration. Nobody accidentally finds it,” he said with a wink. “It is just for those in the know.”
Gennie’s Bishop Grill (permanently closed)
321 N. Bishop Avenue Oak Cliff
Mecca (permanently closed)
10422 Harry Hines Boulevard