I don’t remember the year, but I can vividly recall the place where my love affair with fried chicken began. It was at a Furr’s Cafeteria in Amarillo, Texas, that I first sank my baby teeth into the crispy skin and juicy flesh of that delicious cock-a-doodle-doo. I have since moved on to superior fried chicken, but that of Furr’s continues to maintain a stranglehold on the nostalgic part of my brain that neither wonders nor cares how unsustainable, unhealthy, and unhip eating their fried chicken may seem to others.
Founded in 1946 by Roy and Key Furr, there are now more than 50 Furr’s Family Dining and Furr’s Fresh Buffet locations throughout the Southwest and southern Great Plains states. In Santa Fe, two Furr’s cafeteria-style dining establishments once existed: one in DeVargas Center, in the space now occupied by Santa Fe Bar & Grill, and another that still does brisk business on Cordova Road.
The Cordova location, as clearly as some old-timers and longtime employees can recall, has been open since 1961 or 1962. Long gone is the dining room’s baby grand piano, a regular entertainment fixture at many Furr’s cafeterias in the early ’ 60s. What remains from those days, however, is a lunchtime queue that snakes some 60 feet from beginning to end with hungry diners who know that in these uncertain economic times, value, friendliness, and efficiency are becoming harder to find at traditional sit-down restaurants.
I recently assembled a few Pasatiempo staffers, freelance writers, and friends for a Furr’s-focused trip down memory lane. If you go for lunch during the workweek, factor in 15 to 20 minutes for standing in line.
Once we reached the food line and trays, I realized that we were in for a colorful experience. It looked as though a crew of hair-netted Walt Disney animators had taken a company potluck hostage during a surreal game of “pin the dish on the gravy.” Glistening cubes of blue gelatin and unidentifiable, jiggling slabs of nut-flecked green stuff mingled with tamer fare like fried okra, green beans, mashed potatoes, jambalaya, and (Eureka!) Furr’s fried chicken. Facing more than 20 entree choices, 19 sides, 14 salads (come on — is Jell-O really a salad?), 22 desserts, and five breads, we forgot to ask the magic question: What’s good? The soda fountain was broken, but after looking at the sugar-and sodium-loaded food on our trays, we agreed that fate was probably intervening. We sat at a large table and dug in after agreeing that the place had three things going for it: it’s clean; the floor staff is quick, knowledgeable, and friendly; and there’s enough variety to offer something for every palate. A downside: napkins are an endangered species here. In the presence of so much whipped topping, gravy, and small, flailing children, I expected napkin dispensers to be on every table. I saved a tree and used my sleeve.
I swooned over the crisp fried chicken and mashed potatoes with brown gravy, and the banana cream pie had soft chunks of fresh banana tucked amid smooth vanilla custard. A solid rectangular mass of green gelatin mixed with pineapple, lemon-lime soda, whipped topping, and cottage cheese was a shock to the system. Apparently, this dish used to be popular at church suppers, which led me to believe that, to be counted among the faithful, people once had to figure out what a deodorizing toilet cake might taste like. The blue Jell-O was rigid enough to bounce high off the table, making it a better cat toy than a side dish for the cafeteria’s decent chicken-fried steak and steamed spinach.
Many of us encountered dishes — some fine and dandy, others barely passing a loose definition of “food” — that we had never seen before. And we agreed that people monitoring their sodium and fat intake face a dilemma here, because customers typically cannot take as much or as little of each item as they want. The end result is a depressing amount of waste at the table.
The Furr’s dining experience is certainly geared toward those seeking a convenient and affordable family meal. With plenty of babies still being born, the chain isn’t at risk of going bust anytime soon. Boasting a solid reputation built on the popularity of cafeteria dining in the South after World War II, Furr’s will never be a playground for food snobs, health nuts, and wannabe locavores. And despite its pervasive air of wastefulness, there remains some comfort in knowing that this slice of culinary Americana continues to withstand the shifting tides of trendy eating.