Southern Comfort

Homestyle Eats in a Post-Virginia's World



cover photograph by John Anderson

No matter how many new businesses may occupy the quaint little frame building at 2809 S. First Street, in my heart it will always be Virginia's Cafe. It had been Virginia's for nearly 10 years when I discovered it in the early Seventies and remained so for almost 20 years afterward. Virginia's was a classic, the quintessential home cooking joint, where a working man (or woman) could get respectable, rib-sticking victuals consisting of meat and three vegetables for a very affordable price. The proprietor/cook is a certified Austin legend, renowned for her handwritten signs and blunt conversation, what little there was of it. There was no nonsense about her and none about the prodigious servings of her Southern homestyle cooking. Everyone from Eddie Wilson to Danny Young to Max Nofziger has a favorite Virginia's story. One of my most treasured mementos is a faded snapshot of a much thinner me standing in the doorway of Virginia's, fantasizing about having a restaurant of my own one day.

Remembering Virginia's Cafe got me to wondering about where her customers must be eating these days. Lots of them are probably at Threadgill's, which is certainly understandable. I mean no disrespect to Eddie Wilson's eateries -- they're still the only places in town that make cornbread just the way I like it -- but I was thinking more of the smaller neighborhood joints where iced tea might be served in Mason jars and signs advertising the blue plate special would be handwritten. I looked all over the greater Austin metropolitan area, from Hwy 71W and 620 to Orchard Lane near Pflugerville to E. 11th Street and all the way to Manor. What I found out is there's still plenty of good home cooking around Austin, and the new reigning queen of the homestyle kitchen is a second generation cook named Dot Hewitt.


Dot's Place

113805 Orchard Ln., 255-7288
Mon-Fri, 11am-2pm



Dot's Place

photograph by John Anderson

The overflowing parking lot and legion of pick-ups parked up and down both sides of Orchard Lane at 11am every weekday are the first tip that something wonderful is happening in the kitchen at Dot's Place. Working men and women make convivial conversation as they patiently wait for their turn at the cafeteria line that spans one end of the restaurant. Most everybody is a regular, and many of them eat at Dot's more than once a week. Why not, when a meal and two vegetables with a roll or cornbread will only set you back $5? It's not just the price, though. I'm convinced the crowds would make the trek out to Dot's even if the prices were higher. This is Southern homestyle comfort food as an art form, and it just doesn't get any more comforting than this.

Every time I visit Dot's, it is with the best intentions to order something besides the fried catfish. But it's always a tough choice. I know from experience that the huge fillet was probably hand-fed at her family's place, Catfish Hill in Garfield, and will be a delicate, flaky treat in a perfect, crunchy cornmeal crust. For the sake of inquiry, on my most recent visit I insisted that we order something new and was amply rewarded. The daily special of chicken and rice sounded simple enough, but it was a revelation, a moist, tender, lightly peppered chicken breast served atop a creamy mound of vegetable-studded rice dressing. The rice was simply divine, a genuine working man's risotto. Paired with green beans, okra stewed with tomatoes, and a huge, barely sweet cornbread muffin, it was a heavenly meal.

The cafeteria line at Dot's is consistently loaded with equally wondrous offerings. Once you pass the salad section with six or seven options (99cents to $1.25), the real meat and potatoes come into view. There may be huge tender beef tips in savory gravy, chicken with dressing, sturdy enchiladas, thick juicy slices of meatloaf... just take your pick. Then slide on by to pick some vegetables such as green beans, collards, stewed okra, corn, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, yams, or glazed carrots. If your eyes are really bigger than your stomach, choose a big bowl of peach or cherry cobbler ($1.50) or one of the enormous slabs of fruit or icebox pie ($1.50), then see if you can carry the tray to one of the long dining tables. Seating is sort of a free-for-all at Dot's, which just adds to the family atmosphere.

For a downtown Austin dweller like myself, the only drawbacks about Dot's are the far north location and the fact they are only open for lunch. Dinner used to be available a few nights a week, but these days the hardworking Dot has about all she can say grace over just trying to feed the hungry hordes who show up for lunch every day. To get the most out of a long drive to Dot's, join the crowd for lunch and get a to-go box for dinner.


Flo's

1209 E. 11th, 482-9840
Tue-Sat, 11am-4:30pm



Flo's

photograph byJohn Anderson

The redoubtable Flo Williams is no slouch in the home cooking department herself. Hungry folks have been searching out her phantom cooking trailer at one destination or another in East Austin since 1979. Great news, Flo fans: Since early this year, she's been firing up the stove in a small storefront on East 11th, just past the intersection where it makes a "Y" with Rosewood. No more al fresco or in-car dining; there are long rows of tables and chairs. The muggy day when I finally found Flo's most recent incarnation, there was no air conditioning, but the sweltering heat was offset somewhat by the sweet strains of piano music supplied by a family friend.

Flo waved from behind the stove while Mr. Williams greeted me and stepped to the small steam table. That day the impressive bill of fare included fried chicken, chopped steak smothered in savory onion gravy, and a substantial meatloaf with spicy creole sauce. A choice of meat plus three vegetables (or two vegetables and a salad), bread and pie, plus cobbler or cake for dessert was an incredibly cheap $3.99. Rice was a great option with the smothered steak, the better to soak up all that good onion gravy and the collard greens with a dense, golden wedge of cornbread, bringing back memories of summer meals at my grandmother's table. A cinnamon-scented bowl of peach cobbler topped off a mighty good meal. This little jewel has just got to be in the running for the most filling meal deal in Austin.


Big Earl's Homestyle Cooking

1804 Briarcliff, 926-2285
Mon-Fri, 11am-7pm; Sat, noon-5pm



Big Earl's Homestyle Cookin'

photograph by John Anderson

Friends who work in this neighborhood tipped me about this place and the first thing I found out is the "Big Earl" of the name is not Earl Campbell. Restaurant owner Erma Franklin named her Northeast side restaurant for her beloved son Earl, a promising LBJ High School football player who died in 1992. For the past several months, Erma and her mom, Ginny, have been busy six days a week, serving up the homestyle meals that were her son's favorite. Customers order a plate lunch at the window and sit at tables in the sparsely decorated dining room dominated by a large TV. The Saturday afternoon I was there, there was a spirited discussion of the possible outcome of the basketball play-offs.

It seems the Franklin family has several serious cooks. Erma and Ginny prepare family recipes at Earl's while Erma's brother Don Franklin serves up home cooking and finger-lickin' barbecue at his own joint a few miles away. The menu at Earl's changes daily, but a meat and two vegetables are always $5.99 (daily specials $4.99) and come with fragrant squares of sweet, warm cornbread. Choices range from salisbury steak, meatloaf, and pork chops to chicken and dumplings, baked chicken, and, on Fridays, fried catfish. Delivery of four or more meals is now available in their neighborhood, and for her Juneteenth (6/19) promotion, Erma will be offering the Elgin Sausage plate at the one-time price of $3.99. These friendly ladies know their stuff.


Finger-Lickin' BBQ and Homestyle Cooking

7105 Springdale, 926-6460
Mon-Sat,11am-midnight; Sun, noon-10pm

Don Franklin attributes his cooking inspiration to his grandmother in Brownwood. He features many of the family homestyle recipes as lunch specials in this small, pleasant restaurant in Springdale Shopping Center (Springdale & 183S). However, on my recent visit, Don made it clear that his true goal is to become a barbecue master. But for the purpose of this exercise, I insisted on trying the home cooking. At $5.99 for a meat and two vegetables, the list of options was impressive: chicken and dumplings, salisbury steak, pork chops and gravy, baked chicken, roast beef with carrots and potatoes, and, on Fridays, pig's feet with cornbread and chitterlings.

Dessert options here include cobbler, pound cake, and banana pudding. Catering is available, and Don offers delivery with a $15 minimum order. Because this joint is a genuine two-fer, invite a group and try a little of everything. The barbecue and fixins are available as sandwiches and by the plate, pound, and picnic pack. Be advised, the homestyle meals are so popular with the neighborhood regulars that they usually sell out by mid-afternoon.


Cafe 290

11011 Hwy 290E, 272-4212
Mon-Thu, 6am-10pm; Fri & Sat, 6am-10:30pm; Sun, 7am-10pm

Some folks order off the sizable menu, but the knowledgable lunch crowd at Cafe 290 bellies up to the steam table buffet to fill a plate with the homestyle delicacies for a mere $4.95 on weekdays and $5.95 on Saturday. The popular buffet runs from 11am-2pm and has many devoted fans. Who wouldn't be loyal when the choices are baked ham, chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie, enchiladas, fried pork chops, smothered pork chops, meatloaf, beef tips, stuffed peppers, fried catfish, liver and onions, and King Ranch chicken? Three or four selections are offered every day, so call ahead if you're partial to something in particular.

Meals come with two vegetables and a roll or cornbread, and portions are substantial. The cafe boasts a serious selection of classic diner pies ($1.95 or $2.70 à la mode) and they always have cobbler ($1.25, $1.95). Cafe 290 has the distinction of serving the chicken and dumplings that most closely resemble my grandmother Walden's, and the green beans and corn off the cob were definite renditions of the Southern style of vegetable cookery. Everything I tried tasted like more, more, more.


Laura's Bluebonnet Kitchen

5408 Burnet, 467-9552
Mon-Fri, 6:30am-9pm; Sat & Sun, 7:30am-9pm



Laura's Bluebonnet Kitchen
photograph by John Anderson

The decor in this cute little spot would be worth a trip even if it didn't have a big menu packed with traditional Southern cafe specialties. The place has a couple of strategically placed antique enamel ranges, the booths, chairs, and stools are all done in shades of blue that don't quite match, and there's a wonderfully kitschy collection of stainless steel toasters displayed along one wall. Somehow it all just works. Breakfast is the really big deal at Laura's, but check the blackboard for the daily hot homestyle lunch offerings ($5.75-$6.75) that come with two vegetables and a whole wheat roll. They do not disappoint.

On my first visit, I sampled fork-tender slices of pork loin arranged over a serving of savory cornbread stuffing with sides of a good baked spinach casserole and creamy cheese mashed potatoes that left no room to try dessert. Another day, it was a moist breast of chicken over long grain and wild rice with pork-flavored green beans and a naturally sweet, very dense corn custard. The homemade dinner rolls here are a special treat, warm and tender with the sweet, nutty taste of whole wheat. Ten to one there's an old hippie somewhere in that kitchen.



Barbara Ellen's Hill Country Restaurant

Hwy 71W & RR 620, 263-2385
Mon-Thu, 7am-9:30pm; Fri & Sat, 7am-10:30pm; Sun, 8am-9:30pm

Even a catastrophic fire couldn't keep the good folks at Barbara Ellen's out of the kitchen for long. They've long since recovered from the terrible arson and are once again serving up substantial home-cooked meals to any hungry travelers who stop in on their way to and from Lake Travis or the Backyard. When I first reviewed this place a few years back, the mismatched chairs, tables covered with brightly patterned oilcloths, and Mason jar drinking glasses evoked memories of trips to a country grandmother's kitchen. Nothing much has changed; the style is still casual country comfort.

While everything on the menu here is pretty down-home, the daily specials ($6.95) are always worth the trip. The Sunday chicken and dumplings are bound to satisfy any cravings for that definitive Southern dish, and Monday's pork roast is truly fork-tender. Later in the week, there's melt-in-your-mouth meatloaf and an 8oz sirloin on Fridays. The specials come with two vegetables and your choice of a roll or cornbread. They'll provide the friendly service, though you'll have to bring your own grandmother.

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