Monday, September 1, 2008

Clarence + Jackie = Good Eats

We were on our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway and were looking for a place to have breakfast. Out came Fred Sauceman’s The Place Setting, and we saw that Clarence’s Restaurant in Unicoi served breakfast. While we had planned to go to Clarence’s for lunch (and did the next day), we decided that two meals would give us a better basis for evaluation. The rating score, then, will reflect our opinion of both meals sampled.

Clarence’s, established in 1969, and is an old restaurant where the waitresses--one of whom has worked there for over thirty years--know all of the customers. The walls are decorated with reproductions of old advertisements and the seats of the “leatherette” booths are cracked from years of "buttockal" stress.

This is NASCAR Country, so, under the watchful eyes of Carl Edwards and Bobby LaBonte, we sat down and started to look over the menu. (See the large cardboard cutouts in the photo. The next day the Edwards cutout was in the backseat of one of the waitresses--a huge Carl Edwards fan.)

As they say, great minds think alike. I told Chuck that I was going to go all a la carte and order one biscuit with gravy with a side of country ham and a side of hash browns and he laughs and tells me he had decided on the same order.

A slight digression on the topic of hash browns--a term that we have learned is used somewhat loosely. We have had the traditional hash browns--sliced potatoes sometimes mixed with onion and/or green pepper and fried on a grill or flat top. We have had hash browns that are really potato wedges. We have had hash browns that are deep fried quarter-inch cubes of potato like the Brabant potatoes of New Orleans.

These were totally different. They were slices of potato about an eighth of an inch thick that were double fried to that the cut sides were crisp and “puffed” leaving a small pocket of air between the cut surface and the meaty inside.
There is a term in French cooking that describes this technique but the name escapes me and a “Google” search hasn’t proved helpful. (If anyone knows, please e-mail me--I am going nuts.)

Now we have already established that there is no such thing as a bad slice of country ham. The biscuits were very good but, to me, the gravy was ordinary. The hash browns were the star of the show.

The next day, it was back to Clarence’s for the hamburger and pan fried chicken. I got the two breast pan fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and, for my second side, fried okra. Chuck ordered the eight ounce cheese hamburger deluxe (lettuce, tomato, pickle, and onion) and a side of fries.

Clarence’s chicken is pan fried then finished by deep frying to get an even crispier crust. The chicken was moist and the crust shattered when cut. But we thought the chicken definitely needed seasoning. A little salt and a little Texas Pete Hot Sauce fixed that. I liked the okra but Chuck thought it tasted dusty--whatever that means--but he says the same thing about sprouts. No problem, I liked them and got to eat every last one. The mashed potatoes were awful. They seemed to come from a box or mix and appeared to have an artificial butter flavoring. Not even Chuck liked them.

Clarence’s hamburger secret is to coat the patty with a mixture of Worcestershire sauce and steak sauces plus the ever popular secret ingredient. The result is to impart a tangy crust to the meat when cooked. This was one of the best hamburgers we’ve had and, should we ever get back to Unicoi, would merit a reorder. The fries were probably frozen but were still good.

So how do we rate Clarence’s? A major demerit for the mashed potatoes results in 4.0 (out of 5.0) Addie rating. The chicken, the hamburger, and the hash browns were all above average bordering on excellent. Chuck especially recommends the chicken should you even find yourself in Unicoi, TN.

Last week, Chuck told you about Jackie Tipton, the lunch counter manager with attitude. Today, I’ll tell you about the food (in glowing terms since we may go back, and I don’t want Jackie mad at me). Now the Broadwater Drug’s menu is short and simple but is reputed to have one of the best hamburgers on the Crooked Road. And so it does.

We both ordered the jumbo cheeseburger--mine with onion, mayo and pickle and Chuck’s with just onion. His order, lacking in condiments as it was, did elicit a scowl from Jackie as it does at most restaurants. Since Broadwater Drug does not have the capacity to deep fry anything, French fries were not on the menu. Our potato choices were limited to homemade potato salad and a bag of chips from a staggering array of snack products on a nearby rack. Added to the order was one hot dog with onion and mustard.

To review the food in reverse order, the hot dog came topped with onion and mustard as ordered but was also covered with a generous helping of chili. We forget that chili on a hot dog is the natural order of things here and don’t specify that we don’t want the chili when we've ordered hot dogs. As you can probably guess, neither of us was about to tell Jackie that we didn’t want the chili. No, we ate it as served and it was very good. The chili had real meat, not the soy protein stuff that some local restaurants use.

The potato salad was unusual but good. First, the potatoes seemed to be almost mashed. Second, I still have not developed an appreciation of sweet pickle relish in my potato salad. But this is the way it is served most places in the South, and you either like it or don’t order it (I think I’m channeling Jackie).

I was worried about the hamburger when I saw the woman running the flat top pressing the patties with the back of her spatula--a “no-no” if there ever was one. But not to worry. This was one great sandwich. I think that I got on Jackie’s good side when I said that you could tell that the meat had never been frozen. Then, when I asked about the age of the grill (early 50’s) and said that you couldn’t beat a well-used and seasoned grill, I may have made a friend for life.

Our lunch, which included two very large ice teas, cost less than $12.00. I told Chuck that we needed to stop throwing our money around like that. Our Addie score, a 4.5 and a determination for a return visit.

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