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The crispy, juicy chicken ($6.30 for a dinner that includes two side dishes) at Three Friends is just as good as the Stroud's variety, and the catfish (the whole damn fish served up breaded and fried crusty and golden, $6.85) is as luscious and juicy as any you'll find. It's worth wading through all those needlelike bones to get at the flaky meat.
The rib tips dinner ($5.65) is a tidier way to sample the excellent Three Friends barbecue, basted in a mildly sweet sauce. There's a decent-size grilled T-bone steak ($8.75), which goes well with a big plastic tumbler of tart lemonade (no liquor is served here) and a little bowl of boiled black-eyed peas.
Black-eyed peas made their arrival in the U.S. in 1674 and have been a Southern cooking staple ever since, although the starchy little beans actually need a splash of hot sauce to give them any bite. The other side dishes more than hold their own: elbow macaroni in a rich and gooey cheese sauce, coleslaw, sticky candied yams, and boiled collard greens. A slab of the crumbly (and not too sweet) corn bread tastes best dipped into the slightly salty, soothing collard-green juice known as "potlikker," which supposedly has miraculous rejuvenating qualities. I certainly felt a lot better after gobbling it up: greens, juice, corn bread, and all. Ask for both the corn bread and a big, flaky dinner roll, which soaks up a big pat of butter and literally melts in your mouth.
If you're lucky, dinner will arrive with a bottle of fiery hot sauce and a glass jar filled with home-pickled hot peppers. The peppers are the soul food version of an aperitif: Refresh a fading appetite by biting down on a pepper and following it with a slug of ice-cold lemonade, then resume pouncing on a meaty chicken leg or a big chunk from a tender pork chop.
After you finish such a fine meal, sit back and take a breather before launching into the lavishly portioned desserts. It's a good time to admire the painted mural of splashing waterfalls and autumn trees that wraps around the dining room walls, just under the original wooden ceiling (you can still see the markings of where the long-vanished display windows used to be), with whirling fans and big bronze chandeliers.
The desserts at Three Friends are as filling and unapologetically rich as the dinner dishes are. There's cheesecake ($1.50), freshly baked pies ($1.45 for a good slice), and better yet, a hot bowl of juicy peach cobbler ($1.20) topped off with a scoop of ice cream ($0.75 extra). A massive slice of German chocolate cake ($1.50) is served steaming hot, which gives the coconut filling an unexpected bit of crunch. It's another dessert that's best topped with ice cream.
The style of fare served at Three Friends is now known as "comfort food" because it evokes memories of big family Sunday suppers or orgiastic holiday banquets, when it was not only acceptable to stuff yourself silly but also encouraged. It's a style of eating from another time, another place, but it's well worth traveling back to it, if only to soothe the soul.