Keith McLendon (Roadfood.com’s Chickenplucker) knows more than anyone about great places to eat in Georgia, especially in the Augusta area, so when he praised the lunch he had at Fat Man’s Cafe as “outstanding,” it automatically made my hit list. It is a unique location with fascinating history, located in the maintenance building of the old Enterprise Mill, which started in 1848 as a flour mill, went through many industrial lives, died in 1983, and was reborn in the 1990s as a mixed-use venue for office space, lofts, and retail stores.
Fat Man’s Cafe has its own history dating back to the 1940s when “Fat Man” Usry opened a restaurant / grocery store on Laney Walker Boulevard that also became a beloved Christmas tree shop. Today run by Fat Man’s Son, Brad, and grandson, Havird, the cafe is a charming enterprise that specializes in classic Dixie fare from smothered chicken to grilled pimento cheese sandwiches to banana pudding for dessert.
The list of vegetables is long and inviting, some its highlights being creamy, onion-sweetened squash casserole crowned with chewy cheese, sweet potato casserole, fried pickles, and field peas. Both collard greens and mac ‘n’ cheese are agreeably mild — more comfort-food than kick-ass — and sweet potato fries are big and hunky. The last time I ate here, fried okra was whole pods, their fresh-vegetable crunch enveloped in a crisp, salty coat. It is possible to have a vegetable-only meal (four of them) with biscuit or cornbread for under $8, but it would be a shame to miss Fat Man’s superb fried chicken, made according to a recipe of long-time employee Miss Pearl. If you like beef of the comfort-food variety, pot roast is a must, served in a gravy-topped heap of big-flavored chunks and shreds on a bed of rice.
As for dessert, when I first ate here, I whined that the banana pudding wasn’t as good as everything else. That has changed. What host Havird Usry calls “banana pudding 2.0” is buttery, from-scratch pudding leavened with a cloud of topping and sheaved with cookies and slices of ripe banana. It’s glorious!