Rachel Feit steps out of time to sample the soulful fare at a longtime Eastside lunch counter.
Reviewed by Rachel Feit, Fri., Dec. 20, 2002
Arkie's Grill4827 E. Cesar Chavez, 385-2986
Deep in the heart of East Austin, there's a little lunch counter that time forgot. Since 1948, Arkie's has stood as a lone outpost of American-style gastronomy amid an increasing proliferation of rickety warehouses, lumber mills, tire stores, and light industrial development. A trip to Arkie's is like a step out of time. A low lunch counter guards the kitchen and server work area as you enter. Booths line the opposite wall, while well-used tables fill the spaces to the rear of the restaurant. The wallpaper looks as if it has not been replaced since 1977. The photos and awards on the wall belong to the restaurant's first owner, Faye "Arkie" Sawyer, who died in 1998. It is the type of place where manager Eddie Thesson greets his customers by name, and middle-aged waitresses make a fuss over babies.
Most of the staff have been working at Arkie's for years and take a certain measure of ownership over the food they serve. On one occasion, a waitress recommended that we not order the Swiss steak special that day. She matter-of-factly informed us that she had already served two, and both customers had complained that they were tough. Instead she recommended the other daily special, baked pork ribs with warmed sauerkraut ($5.89). These were done Midwestern style -- not smoked or barbecued over an open flame but baked in a low, slow oven until the rib meat practically fell off of the bone. Generously seasoned with salt and pepper, supported by a mountain of kraut, the ribs were outstanding. They were tender and flavorful, with a crispy skin and moist interior. Sides that day included a peppery boiled cabbage redolent of bacon and buttery mashed potatoes: a luscious trip into America's heartland.
At breakfast or lunch, Arkie's always overflows with a rare collection of types. Eastside artists, engineers, city officials, and blue-collar laborers all dine at Arkie's. Dieters, grazers, and inveterate salad-eaters may feel their arteries harden by simply driving by. But for those willing to wallow in homestyle Americana, Arkie's serves nothing but kindness. Head cook Eddie Marshall has been pouring his soul into the food at Arkie's for more than 40 years.
Breakfasts feature homemade, fluffy pancakes, biscuits & gravy, hash browns, and grits. Daily lunch specials typify the genre. The staff spends all week preparing the Thursday lunch special ($5.89) -- turkey and dressing -- which generally disappears from the menu by about 1pm. Other daily specials (all $5.89), such as the homemade meatloaf, chicken & dumplings, or grilled strip steak, float out of the kitchen enveloped in a savory cloud. Their hand-battered, bone-in fried chicken ($5.89) tastes like a Sunday picnic. And their hamburgers ($3.95-$4.40) are a perfect specimen of the thin-patty type, served with a grilled bun and plenty of fixin's. All of the lunch plates offer the choice of two vegetables. Like their specials, these change daily and can include white beans, cabbage, mashed potatoes, boiled greens, salad, sweet potatoes, corn, or whatever else happens to strike the kitchen's fancy that day.
Desserts, by contrast, fail to inspire and mainly consist of a predictable assortment of Sysco-made pies. Arkie's is what it is though: It is a restaurant completely lacking in pretension or self-awareness. It is, according to their sign, "where friends, fair prices, and good food meet."