Saturday, July 10, 2010

Breakfast at the Old South.

WAY OVER EASY:  The Old Souths eggs, perfectly cooked
  • WAY OVER EASY: The Old South's eggs, perfectly cooked
There are a lot of places around Arkansas where you can get breakfast anytime. But finding locally owned joints that serve it up when you want it is harder. I had to wrack my brain a little, but one place that came to mind was where we went late night when I was in college at Arkansas Tech. Of course, I’m thinking about the Old South.
Back then it was the only 24 hour game in the town of Russellville (if you didn’t count the Waffle Houses that sat on either side of Exit 81 from each other). Tech students populated it overnight on a regular basis. You could have a whole booth to yourself, as long as you bought at least one item off the menu. For me back then, it was usually the $1.05 honeybun, which was served up either hot or cold. Sometimes if you ordered it hot, it was microwaved; other times it was obviously fried. You could also get a burger any hour of the day, or breakfast. Yeah, breakfast.
I found myself exhausted coming back from my recent trip to Ft. Smith and in need of coffee and vittles to get back to Little Rock on. What the heck, I decided. The Old South sounded good, and I knew the restaurant would be open.
COFFEE:  Necessary
  • COFFEE: Necessary
It’s not a 24 hour operation any more. There’s now an IHOP out by the interstate and a couple of 24 hour drive-ins, so there are other options for overnight dining. I doubt IHOP has the same study policy for Tech students, though. I digress..
I pulled in bleary-eyed and dragging around six that evening, somehow finding my way into the restaurant and into a booth up front. One of the waitresses was at my table immediately.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“Coffee,” I confirmed, putting my head down momentarily on the table. I was interrupted not even a full minute later with the careful click of ceramic on laminate as she quietly placed the cup on the table. I looked up gratefully as she sat down the creamer bowl as well.
“Are you eatin’ today?”
“Are you serving breakfast?”
“We sure are!”
“Then yes.”
She smiled and sat down a menu. I foggily noticed her handing off the order to another, younger woman as I brought the cup to my lips. I didn’t care that it was hot. I was sleepy and I had a lot more to do.
My head started to clear. I noticed a young man, quite possibly one of the chefs, bring out a club sandwich and a squeeze bottle of mayo. He doctored up the sandwich, took the mayo back and then came to this side of the counter to eat it. I finally got my focus back enough to read the menu.
There’s a page worth of menu items on the tri-fold Old South menu, including steak-and-eggs, pork-chops-and-eggs, omelets and the special — which includes eggs and a choice of grits, hash browns or oatmeal and a choice of biscuit, toast or English muffin with a choice of breakfast meat — which includes not just ham, sausage and bacon but also thick slices of Petit Jean bologna. I did notice the honey bun is now $1.25. Inflation.
The younger waitress came over with her check pad and pen ready. “I’m Kayla, I’m going to be your waitress. Do you know what you want yet?”
I rattled off to her “corned beef and eggs, over easy. Hash browns. Biscuit.”
“Okay, we can have that right up.”
“Thank you.”
Kayla was gone a moment and then back with the coffee pot. I realized I’d already drained a cup. I nodded and she filled it up.
“I bet you’ll like the breakfasts. I do,” she told me.
“Oh, I’m familiar with them. I used to come here in college, but I haven’t had breakfast here since 1995. It never changes, does it?”
“I don’t know, I was born in 1994,” she told me.
Perhaps I did a double-take. I don’t know for certain. “Wow,” was all I could mutter.
“It’s my first job,” she told me. “My first month.”
“Well, you’re doing a great job,” I told her. She grinned and moved on to another customer. I marveled at that conversation. And at my age. Damn, I’m getting old.
I heard orders being called up and watched as the waitresses picked them up from the grill window and took them out into the restaurant. I overheard one of the other waitresses telling a gentleman at the bar that the AC had gone out in the grill that morning and that the crews were on the roof working right then to fix everything up. She mentioned that it had reached 115 in the kitchen around lunchtime. I’m guessing that it was just the AC in the kitchen and not the rest of the place since the restaurant felt pretty nice to me.
I heard the older waitress call out “Kayla, your order’s up!” and watched the younger girl pick it up and carry it to the booth next to mine. The older waitress repeated the phrase and the actions were all repeated, except this time the plate came my way.
Kayla sat down the order and asked “anything else I can get you? Ketchup?”
“Yes. And do you have white gravy today?”
“I’ll check.” She quickly grabbed the ketchup and brought it over, then went behind the counter and asked. A few moments later she returned and brought me a cup of white (meatless) gravy with a spoon. I grinned at her and continued to take my photos. And then I really got down to breakfast.
CORNED BEEF HASH BREAKFAST:  With over-easy eggs, hash browns and a crusty biscuit
  • CORNED BEEF HASH BREAKFAST: With over-easy eggs, hash browns and a crusty biscuit
The Corned Beef Hash and Eggs breakfast ($7.25) is a very good representation of the typical Old South breakfast. My over-easy eggs were as easy as you can get them, still a little wet in the center of the whites but firm enough to slide onto the plate, the equivalent of a three minute boiled egg. The two yolks were promising deep yellow pools under the surface. The hash browns were appropriately crisp and crusty, undoubtedly gaining some flavor from a griddle that’s been in use more than half a century. The corned beef hash, undoubtedly from a can, had been crisped up and cooked thoroughly on the griddle as well, and had a nice crispy crust to it.
BISCUIT AND GRAVY:  Old South style
  • BISCUIT AND GRAVY: Old South style
The Old South’s biscuits are humble and housemade, the same doughy, crusty asymmetrical rounds a little smaller than a fist that have graced the edges of plates there for all time. They’re just a little dry to eat by themselves, but that same dryness makes them perfect for applying something moist, like a pat of butter or a bit of jam — or in my case, the white gravy, which comes out thick and peppered. I ate just enough of my hash browns to fit the biscuit onto my plate, then cracked it open with a fork and spooned on some gravy. It soaked up a little, but the mass of the gravy sat still in the little lumps I’d spooned on.
As I ate, the rest of my world opened up a little. I was on my third cup of coffee by now and had even added sugar and cream to it to get that extra little burst of energy. The eggs were almost creamy in places and needed a little salt and pepper, but the busted yolk clung to a bit of the corned beef hash just right. Protein from egg, protein from meat, carbs from the potatoes in the hash browns and the hash and the biscuit. I probably should have evened out the breakfast with some orange juice so there’d be some fruit matter in my meal, but proper nutrition was the last thing on my mind. I just needed to wake up and get home.
I ended up eating almost everything (except about half the gravy, which remained in the bowl brought to me earlier). I even considered the honey bun, but decided that might put me a little too far over to the full side and possibly even make me a bit sleepy again. I drank the last of my coffee, dropped a dollar on the table and went up to the register to pay.
The Old South may not have the best breakfast I’ve ever had. The food is diner food and very little has changed in two or three generations. But it’s consistent and it’s filling and it fills its own gap by being comforting and tasty and appropriate for the diner crowd. I know there are classmates of mine from college that will laugh a little at my descriptions and perhaps recall their own late nights spread out in one of the booths in the back, working on classwork or even working off a hangover.
You’ll find The Old South on East Main Street on the big stretch to the west of the Electric Moo (yes, it’s still open, too). They’re open from morning til about 10 p.m. now. Oh, and if you didn’t know, it’s now on the Historic Register. Apparently Elvis once had a meal there, too. (479) 968-3789.

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