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I miss local restaurants. Fancier than diners but solidly plebeian, these comfort stops ruled the ‘hoods and defined dining out in years past with their chicken potpie, Salisbury steak, and meat loaf and mashed. Despite occasional ethnic specials like a sauerbraten or barbecued ribs or a bubbling slab of lasagna, all food was heartily and resolutely what passes for American. Replaced by take-out joints, they disappeared silently during the food revolution, leaving behind small ethnic eateries that celebrate the comfort foods of other nations and national chains that homogenize our own. Diversity is American by definition, but occasionally I hanker to hunker down with a burger and some NCO bird, so I patrol my neighborhood in search of something that’s not French, not Italian, and not so chichi that a wardrobe change must precede an impromptu meal.
Night of the Cookers, on the rapidly developing Bogolan section of Fulton Street, is gearing up to fit my bill. Cumbersomely named for an album by trumpeter Freddy Hubbard, the place defines new neighborhood spots. The Formica-topped tables and polished chrome of my youthful haunts have been replaced by brick walls, wood seating, and a gallery of framed photographs. Midriff-baring, tattoo-sporting ladies stand in for ample-sized waitresses, and on the menu it’s bye-bye meat loaf, hello vegetarian lasagna. Nevertheless, this spot, with its flyer-laden doorside shelf and live jazz on weekends, is the new millennium’s version of the place where everyone knows your name.
Homeboys complete with do-rags and cell phones get drinks poured with a heavy hand at the bar, awaiting the call that will make them famous. At nearby tables, dreadlocked businessmen meet after work, and in low-lit corners daters settle in for heavy romance. Appetizers present a repertoire of bar food from the competent smoked chicken quesadillas sticky with cheese and massive in size ($5.95), to an order of well-fried catfish fingers with a tartar sauce that is only ho-hum ($6.95), to socko Buffalo wings with a TKO of spice ($5.95 small, $9.95 large). Special surprises like Moroccan eggplant soup, a thick slurry of pureed solanum mined with bits of carrot and dense with cumin and caraway ($1.95 cup, $3.50 bowl), prove that the kitchen can soar when allowed room for improvisation.
Mains keep up the simple-is-best, pile-the-plates-high formula. An order of fried catfish filets nets a platter as fluffy and flaky as it is full ($12.95). The choice of vegetables is straight up from the South and includes candied yams that could use a thicker syrup and collard greens that are perfect when doctored up with the requisite vinegar and minced onion. The ribs-and-chicken combo ($12.95) maintains the Southern theme with a tangy tomato-based sauce that seemed homemade. Modernists and those in search of lighter fare will enjoy the side of the menu that offers a sumptuous angel hair pasta complete with spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and shrimp that are not overcooked, no mean feat ($11.95). I’ve been too stuffed with greens on my two visits to sample calorie-infused favorites like Mississippi mud cake and pecan pie. But I’ll be back. After all, it’s in the neighborhood.