My friend Shifra, a writer and artist, took a wrong turn from the City Market one day and landed in front of the squat, concrete-block building, which sports a bizarre and colorful mural that immediately caught her eye.
"You've got to see this place," she raved to me in a phone call. "To the right of the front door, there's this painting of an army of eggs with fangs, chasing this hamburger who has a cartoon balloon coming out of his mouth -- yes, mouth -- screaming, 'It's alive!' Very weird. On the other side of the building, there's a killer cabbage."
It was early afternoon, and Shifra had walked in to see a lunch counter with all the seats taken by men with calloused hands and weathered faces. "And they were all eating chili -- because the chili in this place is fantastic. And the pies! The best pies in town."
Shifra's description sold me. I made my own pilgrimage to the restaurant (with her in tow) the following morning for an early breakfast. Five mornings a week, the Woodswether opens at 5:30 (it closes up shop at 3 p.m.). We arrived at 7:30, and the joint was already jumping.
Three big rigs were parked in the gravel lot. Inside, sitting at the counter, five broad-shouldered guys with their names embroidered on their thick jackets were hunched silently over coffee, eggs, and potatoes. Groups of two or three, including a couple in white-collar business attire, sat at the half-dozen mismatched Formica tables pushed up against the baby-blue concrete walls. Each table boasted salt and pepper shakers, a bottle of hot sauce, and a black plastic or gold metal ashtray. If you don't like cigarette smoke, you better keep your highfalutin attitude out of the Woodswether, because more than half the customers light up after their omelets or pork chops or burgers. They'd just as soon spit in your eye as snuff out their butts.
"You don't believe in that secondhand smoke crap, do ya?" a tough-looking customer asked me on a later visit, as he and I sat side by side at the counter, each of us attacking a monster-size chicken-fried steak smothered in cream gravy. I spotted the pack of unfiltered Camels peeking out of his shirt pocket.
"Hell, no," I said. "Light up if you want."
He did, and it didn't bother me half as much as the flavorless canned green beans on my lunch plate, second-rate accessories compared to the fluffy mound of real mashed potatoes heaped alongside them. By the time I had gobbled everything down, I was nearly ready for a cigarette myself. I had pie instead.
I'd already fallen in love with Woodswether's pies. On my first visit, we had breakfast and pie. While I gave the place the once-over, Shifra had rattled off the breakfast menu from a board mounted on the ceiling above the grill cook's head: "Cheese omelet, Denver omelet, steak and eggs, hotcakes ..." (There are no menus, so eyeglasses come in handy.)
Only paying half-attention to her reverie, I gulped down some very hot, bracing coffee (in one of this restaurant's amazing collection of mismatched porcelain mugs). Then I wandered over to the funky, coin-operated "gambling" machine near the entrance: a faux video slot machine called "Cherry Master," with a screen showing whirling fruit symbols and a tasteful cartoon of a barely clad young woman lifting her legs into the air. For exercise only, I'm sure.
Back at the table, we ordered farm-style breakfasts: eggs and potatoes, a stack of pancakes, and biscuits and cream gravy. Plus a slab of homemade blueberry pie for me. I grabbed a pink paper napkin from behind a ketchup bottle and unfolded it to find it imprinted with Chinese symbols and an unlikely name: Hunan Manor Restaurant. Ah so!
Our server, an unsmiling redhead in jeans and a T-shirt, took our order without response and turned it over to the much cheerier cook. In a restaurant where customers are more inclined toward Hank Williams, he orchestrated his tiny grill area with the flair of a conductor in front of a symphony. And such music! The eggs sizzled, the fried potatoes crackled, the bacon bubbled up and hissed on the grill.
When the plates arrived, it looked as if we had ordered enough food for a family of 10, but we polished it off with gusto. Flaky biscuits came drenched in a decadently rich, peppery cream gravy loaded with big bits of sausage. Hash-brown potatoes were golden and crunchy on the outside, tender and soft inside. Fluffy, light pancakes stretched out to the edges of the plates. Pork chops were moist and tender. And the pie? A buttery crust loaded with fat, juicy blueberries.
I waddled out of the place that morning determined to go on a diet. But like an addict, I was back a few days later for another big breakfast with my, uh, artistic friend John. He spent more time analyzing the different kinds of plates ("Postwar utilitarian plasticware, mostly; there's nothing here manufactured after 1977," he said snobbishly) than the food, which he found "plebeian but good." He was scandalized that I polished off my breakfast and a big wedge of that day's featured dessert, chocolate layer cake. It was rich and sweet and frosted with a buttercream icing, but it was so big, I couldn't finish it.
The next day was when I ventured back for lunch -- solo -- and sat at the counter next to the guy with the Camels in his pocket. One look at his lunch -- a large salad and a giant plate loaded with a slab of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, and green beans -- and I wanted the same thing. Especially when I looked up at the menu board and saw that it was priced at less than five bucks.
"Do I want an order of french fries too?" I asked the waitress, who nearly laughed at me.
"No, honey. You're getting a lot of food."
That was an understatement. A lot of food -- and, baby, it was better than a lot of $20 lunches I've eaten in fancier digs: the freshly fried, crunchy-coated steak was big as a hubcap, the cream gravy luscious, and the potatoes as good as my own hand-mashed version. One meal at Woodswether can last you until the end of the day -- or in my case, until about 2:30. That's when I sneaked back for a bowl of this restaurant's fabled chili, a thick and meaty classic, which I scooped up with saltine crackers and downed in a minute.
Since that first visit, I've gained about 5 pounds on Woodswether's home cooking. One more meal and I'll be as big as one of the trucks parked outside the building -- but rolling along happily.