I think my quest for fried green tomatoes in Dallas will be never-ending.
A couple years ago, I had occasion to go to Memphis. While there, I ate at Miss Polly’s Soul City Cafe, on Beale Street. And they were, in a Brenneresque word, a revelation. Sliced perfectly, not too thick, not too thin. Battered and fried to a perfect crispness, without being soggy or burnt. They were, quite honestly, the perfect fried green tomatoes.
And ever since, I have – to various degrees of success – been searching for something even close to that in Dallas. Dunston’s version was burned, floppy, and dripping in grease. People kept insisting Hattie’s had delicious ones, so when the opportunity came to go back and try them out, I took it.
And that’s where the story becomes more about customer service, and just a little bit about fried green tomatoes. Three girlfriends and I converged on the restaurant on a Tuesday night. It was not packed, but wasn’t empty, either. We perused the menu, and the water glasses and bread came around quickly and efficiently. Our server appeared to take our drink orders, and then left. We continued to look at the menu, while one person in our party began trying to figure out which dishes did not have pork products – out of dietary concerns. Our waiter buzzed back by to see if we wanted appetizers. We ordered, of course, the tomatoes but also a crab cake. As poor Anti-Pork tried to wave him over (sheesh, was it loud in there), he disappeared just as quickly as he appeared.
Finally, we managed to snag his attention. She had questions. He looked a little impatient, but he stopped. “Can you get the bacon-wrapped meatloaf without the bacon?” she asked. And if you think about it, it’s not a stupid question. Depending on its preparation, it could be a meatloaf that is then sliced, and then wrapped in bacon and placed on the flat top before plating. In reality, her question was more, “how is this prepared?” – not, “Can you personally pick the bacon off this for me?”
And really, our server could’ve said, “I’m sorry, but it’s wrapped in bacon before it is cooked, so the preparation doesn’t lend itself to doing that. Can I help you find something without bacon or pork?” But instead, he said something that kind of stunned us.
“Not a chance,” he said.
And then there was silence at our table. We sat there, waiting for him to chuckle wryly and THEN explain. But no. Just, “not a chance,” leaving our friend to recite the menu and ask. Finally, she settled on a chicken dish that came with a okra side. A few minutes later, our server came back.
“The okra has bacon in it. Would you like to try another entree? Maybe the pulled pork?”
We looked incredulously at him, and then Anti-Pork asked if she could substitute a different side. He offered potatoes. I looked at him, and said, “You have two kinds – can she have either?”
“We what?” he said.
“You. Have. Two. Kinds. Of. Potatoes. You have regular mash, and sweet mash. Can she choose between either?” I repeat.
“Oh, sure, I guess.”
So she chose the sweet mash, and we sent him back. The rest of the meal was fairly uneventful, aside from the part where our server made another friend feel like a fat ass for asking if there was a smaller version of the mac and cheese that she could have in conjunction with the pulled pork, grits and braised greens she ordered. Our drinks were refreshed punctually, and the crab cake was delicious. The FGT, however, were merely OK. Yes, they were not greasy. The breading was with a light touch. But the tomatoes were sliced far too thickly to be cooked through. It took a knife and fork.
We all tried the big bowl of mac and cheese, and universally agreed it was … off. I don’t know if it was that night, or always, but none of us wanted more than a spoonful. It tasted nearly rancid.
Which leads us to the sunset of our meal. The server reappears, and begins removing plates. To his credit, he did ask first. He pointed at Anti-Pork’s plate (the chicken was a very generous helping) and asked if she’d like a to-go box. She said yes. He pointed to the mac and cheese and asked my other friend if she’d like a box. She said no.
In fact, she said, “No, you can have it.”
He laughed as if she told the most hilarious joke, and said he wished he could. And she said, “No, seriously, we didn’t like it, you can have it.”
And then, instead of offering us the dessert menu, he became consumed with explaining that everyone everywhere loves Hattie’s mac and cheese. And that nobody in the history of ever had sent it back. She explained she wasn’t sending it back. She just didn’t like it, and so she didn’t need to take it home with her.
He started to walk away, muttering about bringing us our check, and we asked if we could have dessert menus. He did finally bring them, but at that point? We were just kinda ready to leave. So instead of ordering dessert, we paid our bill, and left. And to the server’s credit, he removed the mac and cheese from our bill, even though we didn’t ask.
Will I go back to Hattie’s? Yes. I like the food, and the service is adequate enough. But as we all talked about the experience later, we agreed we felt rushed – even though the restaurant was clearly not unreasonably busy and needing to turn tables over. We were there for maybe an hour. And it seemed as if we somehow we didn’t look like we were good business (for the record, we were all dressed nicely – no jorts and tank tops, not even khakis and polos). It was a little disconcerting to be pegged as a type before we even ordered drinks, but I’ve been there other times where the servers were great, too.
Having been a server myself, I am pretty sure that if Hattie’s is like many restaurants, nights like Tuesday through Thursday are typically used for newer staff to hone their skills. Perhaps our “not a chance,” unfamiliar-with-the-menu waiter was new?