You can’t get porkier than the “smothered and fried pork chops” ($18) at the Cardinal, a new East Village café named for the state bird of North Carolina. A pair of substantial Heritage Pork beauties malinger in their crunchy, chicken-fried crust, moistened with red-eye gravy, infused with coffee to a mellow beige. Crushed black peppercorns dot this classic sauce, and, as an unexpected bonus, a thick slice of bacon rides on top like a balsa-wood glider that has just landed on a dune at Kitty Hawk. Really, what dedicated carnivore wouldn’t be delighted with this capacious entrée? It comes with two sides, and I guarantee you’ll be hard-pressed to decide which two.
When it first appeared a couple of months ago, the Cardinal didn’t seem promising. For one thing, the menu looked too much like Pies ‘n’ Thighs—minus the pies. The immediate lure was fried chicken, the bird done in the identical way as its Williamsburg model: by having the skin “untimely ripp’d” from the carcass, as Macduff famously said in Macbeth. The skinless bird is then brined, giving the breast an unfortunate marshmallowy texture—yes, chicken can be too tender. Anyway, the epidermis is the best part of the chicken, no matter how crusty the outside can be made without it. As another caution, one of the reputed owners of the Cardinal was Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel. Would the food be like him (tacky) and his clothes (colorful but ultimately boring)?
When I got there, though, I found the premises refreshing. Channeling the East Village of yore, the decor has a makeshift quality. The bare brick walls are simply whitewashed, with a pair of murals stenciled on facing surfaces. One is the flag of North Carolina emblazoned with the restaurant’s founding date, the other a snake in segments. A line of small tables hunkers by the open facade overlooking the street, and behind that, a stairway in the middle leads to a subterranean dining room. Somewhat comically, waitstaff have to maneuver around that stairway, swerving outside onto the sidewalk to get at the front tables. Farther into the restaurant, there’s a bar and an open kitchen filled with bearded figures.
Quizzically, there is no cardinal imagery. Instead, a stuffed turkey with a scared expression hangs on one wall, looking like it’s about to be hit by a pickup. The menu reads well. It offers no appetizers. There’s something reassuring about that, in contrast to the current practice of making you comb through a half-dozen categories to assemble your dinner with no idea what the outcome will be. At the Cardinal, you get a plate of food, and you’re well-fed. The aforementioned chicken ($17) is two substantial pieces, crisp and dripping with juices. But the catfish ($16) is superior—a pair of cornmeal-crumbed fillets so large it makes you wonder if someone didn’t dump steroids into the pond. There’s a hamburger, too, made of good beef cooked rare, topped with cheddar and brushed with mustard sauce.
The menu contains at least one totally unexpected triumph. Partly eschewing Carolina ‘cue traditions, a barbecue platter ($21) offers three out of four from a selection that includes beef brisket, pork ribs, hot links, and pulled pork. Here’s the astonishing part: The ‘cue is superb. Stay away from the higher end of the menu. For those with deep pockets, there’s an entire red snapper ($26), preemptively served with sautéed vegetables instead of your choice of sides. Although copiously fleshed, the fish is dull in the extreme.
And what about the sides? Of the lush array of 13, the smoky black-eyed peas are best, not only because they make you think of the African roots of Carolinian cooking, but also because they come smothered in chowchow, a delicious tart-sweet pickle homemade by many Southerners. The mac and cheese is good, and the pickled eggs preferable to the deviled eggs, in which the filling can be a little loose. I’d skip the corn pudding, too, as it’s blander than it ought to be. Then there are the usual mashed potatoes, potato salad, yams, and slaw. Really, picking the sides is your biggest challenge. If you insist on appetizing, one or two ($5 each) will work out just fine.
The selection of beers and wines is slim but dependable. I particularly like the white Gewürztraminer ($10), served unceremoniously in a plain glass. I guess stemware would look pretty stupid with a turkey glaring down at you. But, really, doesn’t this kind of food call for beer?