Tray bien

Pasatiempo - - Restaurant Review -

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.

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