We're not sure the Corner Café understands its own irony.

Country Crock 

We're not sure the Corner Café understands its own irony.

My friend Sally is an excellent cook and a culinary adventurer. She's eaten yak butter in the Himalayas and gulab jamun on the banks of the Ganges. At the other end of the spectrum is Walt Bodine, who prefers chili dogs and chocolate malts to haute cuisine and isn't ashamed to admit it. "I prefer places where ordinary people eat," he once told me. "A gourmet to me is someone with too much money and not enough to do."

I'm not sure where I sit between the two. Although I haven't tasted yak butter, I probably would. But only if I could spread it on a slab of freshly baked bread and chase it with a chocolate malt. Don't hate me for being so Midwestern. After all, I grew up eating Jiffy Pop popcorn, Shake-a-Pudding and Space Food Sticks.

For me, "home cooking" meant simple, uncomplicated restaurant re-creations of the best possible dishes someone actually made at home. But that was already a nostalgic idea by the 1960s -- Aunt Bee might have been rolling out pie dough on The Andy Griffith Show, but in most American homes, mom had already discovered the modern joys of convenience foods. Frozen and boxed dinners, and canned and processed foods revolutionized cooking the same way polyester changed the fashion industry. The irony about home cooking is that for most Gen Xers and baby boomers, it means the kind of food you don't get at home.

That's one reason restaurants such as Riverside's the Corner Café are so successful. Surrounded by asphalt-covered parking lots, it's one part truck stop, one part small-town café and one part time warp. Time hasn't stood still here, but it has slowed down considerably -- which is one of the charms of this unpretentious place, where many of the male customers (and a couple of the female ones) wear overalls and boots to their Sunday suppers. In fact, the fashions of multiple decades come together in a parade of hairdo history: Marcel waves from the 1930s; Eisenhower-era flattops; mutton-chop sideburns and Fu Manchu mustaches from the 1960s; and some of the best mullets and Farrah Fawcetts you'll ever see.

A friend had told me that the Corner Café is best known for its hearty breakfasts, so I dashed over bleary-eyed one morning before work and revived myself with a stack of light, crepelike blueberry pancakes and a small order of biscuits under a creamy gravy thick with chunks of sausage. The music playing over the dining room's sound system was all pop hits from the era before the Beatles: Bobby Vee, Elvis, Bobby Darin, Lesley Gore.

My server, Kathy, stopped to look down at me. "You better finish every bite of that breakfast now," she said.

From the looks of things, a lot of patrons had already taken that advice. One Sunday night, seated in front of a window in the smoking section, my friends David and Bob watched a young couple roll out the door toward their car. He was as big as a lumberjack, and she had a soft, white belly hanging over the top of her capri pants. She simultaneously explored her mouth with a toothpick and yanked her clingy tank top over her stomach.

"Well," David said, "they're certainly healthy."

No one walks away from this place hungry. The seventeen dinner platters (none priced over ten bucks) include a choice of three side dishes and a softball-sized dinner roll. This would be "home" cooking, all right -- at the turn of the last century, for ravenous coal miners or sweat-drenched farmhands. But by today's standards, it's sheer overindulgence.

That didn't stop me from plowing through a roast beef dinner drenched in shiny brown gravy, a little dish of creamy macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes. The spuds tasted like the boxed, instant variety (and they were, our waitress confessed), and the brisket was seriously overcooked. But I was more disappointed by the rolls. They looked fluffy and delicious, but when I bit into one, my teeth got stuck in its crusty, hard, golden-brown surface. I ripped off the top and slathered the rest of the roll with Shedd's Spread. The imitation butter turned out to be a metaphor for this restaurant: a little bit country, a little bit monounsaturated fat.

For a less adulterated high-cholesterol experience, skinny David had ordered the deep-fried shrimp dinner, which offered a jumble of crunchy but small crustaceans. "The menu didn't say jumbo shrimp," David reminded me. He pronounced the side of stuffing to be as good as his mom's -- but, he said, "Stuffing isn't one of her better dishes."

Bob had decided to go for the gusto and order one of the two dinners that cost more than a ten note. The Corner Cafe's version of surf 'n' turf features an 8-ounce steak and four butterfly shrimp. The steak was one of the strangest pieces of grilled meat I'd ever seen; it looked as though it had been molded. Bob thought it looked like a chicken-fried steak with all the breading torn off. I snagged a hunk of the beef to taste for myself. It was flavorful, but I was still chewing it three minutes later.

I brought Bob back for a second visit, this time promising him a big plate of the restaurant's signature fried chicken. Our server was an adorable sprite who repeated the same word over and over: "Deal." Could I get an iced tea? "Deal." A new fork? "Deal." Bob hated her because she promised to bring him "some rolls to gnaw on while you wait for dinner" but then forgot. The rolls didn't arrive until we were halfway through dinner, and her only response to Bob's glare was a faint giggle.

I loved my oversized platter of soft, thick noodles and chunks of chicken breast, one of the city's best versions of this classic country dish. Bob, however, grumbled through his tasty but greasy fried chicken and refused to order dessert.

That was his loss, even if the "whipped cream" piped on top of the Corner Café's cream pies is a prepackaged nondairy topping (at least that's what I saw on one visit). The pecan pie tasted silky and rich, though the filling in the chocolate pie was more gelatinous than creamy. If you arrive early enough, you can watch staffers making those pies, along with the restaurant's cakes and rolls, in an enclosed, glass-paned "bakery." It's one of the visual delights in a restaurant loaded with antique signs, geegaws and dozens of vintage photographs.

My favorite is the black-and-white glossy of the mayor of Riverside making a call "on the first pay phone installed in town." I'll bet he was calling Floyd, down at the barbershop.


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