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The Neighborhood Café's kitchen staff returned to work after the new owners took over. That's why, one waitress told me, there's nothing new on the menu except a Reuben sandwich (very good, by the way). And the former 10-ounce Kansas City Strip has been replaced with a 12-ounce rib-eye.
Olson says he's using a better cut of beef now, but he's still charging $10.99 for a steak dinner that includes a potato, vegetable and hot roll or biscuit. At that price, I wish I could rave about the beef, but it's not the juiciest or most tender rib-eye I've ever tasted. On the other hand, it's more flavorful than anything you'll find at the Golden Corral.
The daily specials are handwritten in colored pen on a whiteboard near the kitchen doors (including that day's featured pies), and the offerings harken back to high-school-cafeteria favorites: Mexican sampler platters, all-you-can-eat tacos, and (on one afternoon I was there) bacon-cheeseburger soup. I ordered the soup like someone on a dare, but it was so thick and salty that I pushed it away. The waitress was scandalized: "Everyone loves that soup!" It might have worked if I'd spooned it over some biscuits.
The highlight of that lunch was dessert. I agonized over which of the pies I should select from a list of 15 that included blueberry, gooseberry, blackberry, pecan, peach, rhubarb, apple crisp, custard, coconut cream, chocolate cream, lemon meringue, peanut-butter cream and German-chocolate cream.
The coconut cream was excellent, with a light and flaky crust — made with vegetable shortening. The gooseberry pie — a hard-to-find pastry in this town — was deliciously tart and sweet. I can also recommend, from other visits, the juicy blueberry pie and a delectable chocolate-peanut-butter creation.
I even considered ordering a slab of pie for breakfast one morning, but the other options were more appealing. The french toast comes dipped in crushed Frosted Flakes. I'm a sucker for this dish when it's light and custardy inside and crunchy outside, even if this version is teeth-jarringly sweet. The flaky biscuits are doused in a thick cream gravy with a lot of sausage in it. (Other diners in this town seem to wave a smoky link over the gravy pot and call the flour-and-milk concoction sausage gravy. This is the real deal.)
There are 10 featured omelets on the menu, including a "kitchen sink" version that the waitress described to me this way: "Well, the cook throws a little of everything in it." Sorry, I'm not a gambler before noon. I ordered the croissant sandwich instead. My friend Bob had the country-fried steak breakfast platter, which delivered moderately tender meat under crunchy armor and enough cream gravy for three or four other platters. It came with fried potatoes and, of course, a cinnamon roll. He waddled out of the dining room, this time ignoring the selection of religious tracts. "Gluttony," I reminded him, "is a sin." Then I nearly dropped my carryout slice of lemon-meringue pie.
The fried chicken livers might have been really good if they hadn't been immersed in the deep fryer a shade too long. My friend Truman adored the thin, tender slices of beef liver, topped with a mound of grilled onions and sided with fluffy mashed potatoes that he insisted were house-made. They certainly tasted that way.
"Eat more," he insisted, pressing another spoonful on me, but I had a bunch of crispy fries on my own plate, heaped next to a limp slab of what the waitress said was grilled walleye. (It looked boiled.) What was I thinking to order fish in a diner? It's never fresh, no matter what anyone says.