Last week I was complaining that I just don't like Thanksgiving food. Turkey is bland and makes me sleepy. I'm allergic to sweet potatoes and resistant to the charms of that blob of bread cubes and chopped vegetables known to the world as "stuffing."
"There's something un-American about not liking those foods," a friend of mine said, sounding slightly McCarthy-like. "America was founded on turkey and stuffing!"
And apple pies, smoked hams, fried chicken and biscuits, I could have added, if I had wanted to debate this flag-waving foodie. But I don't want to argue about foods I don't like. I just want the freedom to not eat them.
What's the true definition of American food, anyway? Any number of iconic dishes, actually: ice-cream cones, hamburgers, fajitas, corn dogs, pizza rolls, green-bean casserole, Key lime pie and Pop Tarts. Why aren't they served at Thanksgiving instead of an ol' Butterball and mashed potatoes? I, for one, would be ever so thankful.
All of this started me thinking about restaurants that specialize in classic American cuisine: Stroud's, Arthur Bryant's, the Golden Ox, Town Topic.
"And J. Alexander's," my friend Wendy added. I did a double take. J. Alexander's? The Nashville-based restaurant chain was started back in 1971 (one of the three founders was the late Jack Massey, who built up the Kentucky Fried Chicken empire) and has locations in only 13 states. I've eaten many times at the only one in metropolitan Kansas City: the plum-colored structure at 114th Street and Metcalf. When I reviewed it back in 2004, I was a little put off by the restaurant's aspirations to slick perfection. It was almost Stepford Wives-like in its intensity: pretty food; servers as strikingly beautiful as mannequins; an uncomplicated, eager-to-please menu that almost called out, as Sally Field did once at the Academy Awards, "You like me, you really like me!" ("Snob Story," October 21, 2004)
It's hard not to like J. Alexander's. Even really snobby friends of mine such as Trina, a gourmet chef, loved eating at the restaurant when she lived in town. And my art-dealer friend, Truman, became a convert after one meal, although he insisted that the ugly paintings hanging on the walls in the soaring, lodge-style dining room were so disturbing that they "must have been done by convicts on death row."
The company trademarked the slogan "Straightforward American Food" that is printed on every menu — it's a fair assessment. The food here doesn't get too fancy, even when it kind of pretends to lean in that direction. Take a side dish called Not Your Ordinary Mac & Cheese. As baked macaroni goes, it's most assuredly ordinary but extremely tasty. And the crème brûlée, served in a bowl as big as a bathroom sink, is more Paris, Texas, than Paris, France.
A couple of weeks ago, I was checking out a newish restaurant in south Overland Park that was so abysmal in décor and culinary offerings (the staff was pretty nice) that I decided I just couldn't eat there. I was with Wendy and Eddie, who were game for anything. "What's the story with that place down the street," Eddie wondered, "with the hundreds of cars in the parking lot, on a Wednesday night?"
He was talking about J. Alexander's. And, sure enough, the lot was full when we drove over. I asked Wendy to run inside and see how long we would have to wait. There was no wait — I had forgotten that the interior of the building feels as big as a roller rink but with design elements of a ski chalet and a gentlemen's club. The scale of the place is in keeping with its age: It was built during a boom economy. But unlike many of its rivals in the neighborhood (including cheaper restaurants), J. Alexander's was doing an incredibly brisk business on this particular Wednesday night.