Soul Survivor

Atwater's may look a little plain, but the food is truly soulful.

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click to enlarge A COMFORTING SIGHT: A sampling of sumptuous soul food from Atwater's. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
A COMFORTING SIGHT: A sampling of sumptuous soul food from Atwater's.

If it weren't for the name on the sign, you might pass by and look for someplace a little more appealing. Let's face it — if not for that name, you likely wouldn't have sought out this little neighborhood lunch counter in the first place. But, after more than 40 years, the name Atwater still carries a bit of magic.

The soul-food cafeteria has been in the current location since 1977. Atwater's has maintained essentially the same line-up of classic Southern cuisine, served on a cafeteria line, the same well-worn interior that borders on shabby. Be generous and call it the patina of history, maybe, but that dilapidated feel even extends to the appearance of the food on the line. Yet again, if it weren't for the name, you might go looking elsewhere for your comfort-food fix.

Appearances, though, can be deceptive. Atwater's same-old-same-old is still some of the best soul food in the region.

Lord knows it's well-nigh impossible to pretty-up chopped steak patties that look like thin hockey pucks covered in greasy gravy. Sure, Atwater's layers them in symmetrical rows, but c'mon. Their true beauty doesn't appear until you shove a forkful of the meat into your mouth.

Beauty? Chopped steak? Yeah. When I take my first bite, I'm amazed by the tender texture and rich mouth feel. With the second bite, it dawns on me that this symphony of salt and beef, bolstered by rich gravy carrying more of the same, is better than it looks, better than it has any right to be. Not only does it redeem its lackluster appearance, Atwater's chopped steak redeems the entire genre of humble cafeteria meat patties.

Atwater's pork chops, although not a revelation, are slowly stewed until the meat falls apart at the touch of a fork, cooked so long they'd be dry were it not for a broth-y gravy spiced by hunks of hot pepper. Pigs' feet are luscious with rendered fat and gelatin, a classic cut of throwaway meat transformed into desirable splendor by tradition and Atwater's kitchen.

I always expect fried chicken to be the star of any soul or Southern joint; fair or not, it's the popular benchmark for the mass of people who merely dabble in the cuisine. Most places struggle to live up to the expectation, especially when they pile their breaded birds in steam trays waiting for customers. That's not a problem at Atwater's. Here, the chicken is the star in a line-up of worthy entrées.

I don't know how long my fried chicken has been sitting in the gleaming tray, but the skin is still crisp all the way round, crackling and crumbling with every bite. The meat underneath is moist, cooked perfectly and seasoned from skin to bone. It's so good, I grab another order to go, intent on doling bites out of a Styrofoam container to anyone I happen to run across. But before I drive more than a mile from Atwater's, I've opened the container and am ripping off hunks with my free hand.

These main courses are merely the start, since every plate at Atwater's comes heaped with your choice of two sides for just $7. Mac and cheese manages an intense and uniform creaminess punctuated by stretches of solid cheese crust that invite personal evaluation of your arterial health under the assault of so much high-fat dairy. At least you'll die happy.

There are chunks of stripped bone in the collards; obviously, they once held pork meat and fat that have been subsumed into the greens like the souls of righteous pigs into collard heaven. Considering the rest of the food, I'm no longer surprised that such classic dishes are done better than right at Atwater's. Until I get to the cabbage, that is. It's doused in rich meat juices, each peppery bite a crunchy burst of flavor that rivals the greens. Who would've known I'd crave cabbage from a lunch counter? Yellow rice with heaping gobs of chopped turkey parts is fine on its own but acts as a perfect foil for the gravy-laden main courses.

My only complaint about Atwater's, and it's a minor one, is that the cornbread is light on the cornmeal, more like an airy slice of savory layer cake than the hearty, toasty sensation I like. Admittedly, it is difficult to discern that after it's been dredged through three different types of sauce and meat juice.

It seems inevitable that you'd down such fare with Atwater's light and sweet tea, but don't forget the incredible lemonade that they still squeeze and blend to order. Have a glass of both.

Depending on the day, Atwater's also serves giant beef ribs, oxtail and baked chicken. There's also pound cake for dessert — either yellow or sour cream — along with the occasional special, or you can buy a Moon Pie from the box behind the counter.

Atwater's fare is certainly homey and satisfying, but there's also a sort of culinary genius at work that goes beyond just good comfort food. I've written frequently about the problems with food served on a cafeteria line — often overcooked, dried-out and poorly conceived — but Atwater's seems to have perfected the process through a combination of fine technique and judicious choice of dishes. Overall, quite an accomplishment.

Although this year has seen fewer presidential candidates stopping by to stump, Atwater's is still the cultural hub of the neighborhood, where people share news and commentary about what's going on. I just nod and listen, too busy keeping my mouth full to waste any time talking.

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