Let’s talk meat-and-threes

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Disappointing restaurant food always dampens one’s mood, but a lousy piece of fried chicken or canned-tasting vegetables when you needed the sustaining warmth of Southern cooking? That can really trouble a soul.

For the magazine’s May issue focus on cheap eats, we had initially decided that one of the project’s element would be a meat-n-three roundup. This is, after all, the ideal time to support mom-and-pop spots that serve delicious recipes with humble origins. Problem was, the more places I tried, the more discouraged I became. The food often looked honest on the plate, as the pictures to the right attest, but many of the dishes didn’t taste like they were made with much care. I often wondered if the folks back in the kitchen would offer this kind of “home cooking” to their own families.

Sure, pimento cheese has become popular on local mid- and upscale restaurant menus, but my persistent wish is for Atlanta’s Southern culinary heritage to be respected on all levels. I want our meat-and-threes (and yes, I know, technically most these days are meat-and-twos; the ring of meat-and-threes is more endearing) to cook simple, well-made staples, and I want our populace to support them.

This hunt doesn’t feel finished for me. I’m thinking I’ll start a weekly Meat-and-Three Monday post, and I’m looking for suggestions. Are there meat-and-threes that you love in the metro area? What do you eat there?

In the magazine, I ended up profiling the two favorites from my recent search: Busy Bee Cafe and Greenwood’s on Green Street. Below are brief notes from some of the others I visited. I’m willing to return to some of those less favorably mentioned, and there are many more out there, of course. Jennifer Zyman’s report on Mae’s Soul Food piqued my interest a couple weeks back. That one’s on the short list.

Carver’s
Sharon and Robert Carver’s funky little Westside shack hovers just below Busy Bee and Greenwood’s, for me, in terms of quality. Sharon and her staff turn out satisfying, kitschy-fun food that seems to carry many an office worker through the rest of their day. Love the hash brown casserole. One tiny criticism: I know we Southerners love our sweet, but do rutabagas genuinely need sugar?
1118 West Marietta Street, 404-794-4410, carverscountrycooking.com

Son’s Place
Son’s Place is near the previous offices of my former employer, and over the years of experimenting, I became a Thursday regular (the menu varies slightly each day) to request my favorites together on one plate: fried chicken, collard greens, squash casserole, hoecake. What has always been a little maddening about the fried chicken at Son’s is that you never know quite when it will be at its freshest, hottest peak … but it’s still absolutely worth visiting. 160 Hurt Street, 404-581-0530, sonsplacerestaurant.com

Matthews Cafeteria
Where other longstanding meat-and-threes entice customers with quaint decorating touches that evoke bygone years, Matthews proudly touts the basics. It is a no-nonsense cafeteria. I can get down with some banana pudding, and I’ll go along with the fans of its turkey and dressing, but often the food can be bland or past its heyday. Gluey gravy over smothered chicken and a dried-out piece of barbecue chicken breast illustrated that point on a recent visit. 2229 Main Street, Tucker, 770-491-9577. matthewscafeteria.com

Rexall Grill
I had never been to Rexall Grill before my first recent experience. Favorable reviews can be found online, and MFG wrote about it with praise a couple years back. The Coca-Cola wallpaper charmed me. I did not luck out food-wise, however. At 12:50 p.m. on a Saturday, I was served fried chicken that tasted like it had been cooked three hours ago, and the hash brown casserole arrived lukewarm. A woman at another table sent her cold mac-and-cheese back, too. Did I go on a seriously off day? I’ll gladly return to find out. 3165 Buford Highway, Duluth, 770-623-8569

The Colonnade
Good ol’ gays-and-grays Colonnade sports three distinct personalities these days. You can order a straight-ahead meat-and-three style meal here with staple Southern entrees and sides; you can order slightly fancier entrees with those same sides; or you can indulge in the creative, rather out-of-place specials that have been offered of late. I’m actually a fan of the middle option: I like a simply grilled piece of fish with turnip greens, black-eyed peas and too many of the restaurant’s iconic Parker House rolls. The fried chicken is always too salty and over-browned for my taste, and the mac-n-cheese has an off-putting curdled consistency. 1879 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-874-5642

Thelma’s
I remember Thelma’s in its former location, and that’s where my good memories stay. In its new incarnation as a meat-and-three/barbecue joint hybrid, the sweetness of the barbecue sauce seemed to leak into all the other dishes. The fried chicken, on my visit, tasted of its frying oil. 302 Auburn Avenue, 404-688-5855, thelmaskitchenandribshack.com

Our Way Cafe
I used to make a trip to Decatur on Tuesdays solely for Our Way’s roast pork. Since moving to a new space down College Avenue toward Avondale Estates, something in the cooking has gone awry. (Hmm. Seeing a trend here). The roast pork—once a balanced tangle of shredded meat and canny seasoning—is now a salty, mushy mess. And I really hope this was only the case on the night I visited, but … how to say this? … the aroma in the restaurant was not appetizing. 2831 East College Avenue, Decatur, 404-292-9356, ourwaycafe.com

Bobby and June’s Kountry Kitchen

A hefty, sleep-inducing weekend breakfast—where the biscuits feature prominently—is the beauty of Bobby and June’s. Lunch, for me, was uneven. The mac-and-cheese had a firm consistency I appreciated, and I love the butter beans. We can fight about this, but I found the barbecue pork dry and overly reliant on sauce for flavor. Adore the decor, particularly the wall of Coca-Cola bottles. 375 14th Street NW, 404-876-3872

J&G’s Fish and Grits
I’m fascinated with the idea of fish and grits, and the way the combination pops up in Outkast and Jill Scott songs. I’m on the prowl for a superior restaurant version: J&G’s suffices but doesn’t beckon me back. Both the fish (sometimes whiting, sometimes tilapia) and the grits need more aggressive, considered seasoning. Silky cabbage as a side, at least, and the kitchen also delivers a serviceable fried porkchop. 53 Forsyth Street, 404-577-3474

Collard Green Cafe
I used to eat at chef-owner James Paige’s Collard Green Cafe fairly often—it was close to my house and the fried catfish fillets, meaty collards and crusty-custardy mac-and-cheese sustained me during writing deadlines. (I also snagged a Big Gulp-sized iced tea—half-sweet/half-unsweet—to caffeinate me so I wouldn’t fall asleep afterward.) But a recent trip reminded me that one must patronize steam table restaurants at the height of the business day, or the life will have been heat-blasted out of most offerings. I’ll head back soon around high noon. 2566 Shallowford Road, 404-634-3440

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