It was a rainy and cold Tuesday in November. The Democrats were about to get a "shellacking" at the polls. We were in need of some culinary comfort.
In other words: It was the perfect day to head to Everman (for those of you now saying to yourself, Where? -- that's the town between Fort Worth and Burleson) and check out the offerings at Madea's Down Home Cooking.
Decorated like an old-school Southern diner, with photos of the restaurant's namesake, the late Addie Penson, on the wall, Madea's opened in 2005. But, unless you're in the foodie know, chances are you've never heard of it. That might be because it's so hard to find, on an out-of-the-way street across from an undeveloped field. It would be virtually impossible to stumble upon it, unless you were really, really lost.
But Madea's is worth whatever detour you need to make: It conjures up soul food with both precision and personality. The food isn't drowning in butter and sugar and fat, the way family-recipe-based comfort food can sometimes be.
The crime here is that there were only a handful of other diners when we visited. Madea's doesn't seem to be in danger of closing shop, but it's the kind of inexpensive, word-of-mouth gem where there should always be a 30-minute wait. (At the very least, Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives needs to get here pronto.)
Ordering is cafeteria-style, with a rotating lineup of daily specials. You can opt for two meat- or fish-based mains, with three sides ($12.95), or one main and three sides ($8.95). There are additional a la carte options and even -- egads -- an all vegetable plate (something we think should be banned from soul food restaurants altogether). Friday brings all-you-can-eat catfish ($9.95). Our advice: Go with three or four people (as we did), and you'll be able to try pretty much everything on the menu.
The showstopper at Madea's is a note-perfect chicken and dumplings: The dumplings are soft, but not too floury; the chicken is tender and juicy; the gravy features a peppery, but not overpowering bite.
Pair this with the tangy, surprisingly not-heavy, mac-and-cheese and the mashed potatoes (we preferred the cream gravy to the brown), and, well, you'll likely have a heart attack and die. But, trust us, you'll have gone out on a very happy note.
Those chicken and dumplings sum up the Madea's experience quite nicely: The best dishes at the restaurant are items you've probably had a million times before, but never quite like this. The batter for the chicken-fried steak, for instance, is closer to a fish fry than a traditional egg-and-flour mixture, lending a crispy, crunchy kick to what too often turns into a greasy, soggy dish. The roast beef is more of a braised pot roast, fork tender and an exquisite, dark pink color. (That said, ask them to go easy on the gravy -- it has a hard-to-discern, almost smoky flavor -- plus the meat doesn't need it.)
Not all of the food comes out flawless: The roast chicken was a tad on the dry side; the collard greens and okra sides were lacking in any significant flavor -- strange for a place that otherwise seems fearless when it comes to spicing.
In the interest of full disclosure, we should also admit that we didn't get to try the smothered pork chops, a dish by which all soul food restaurants must be judged. (They're available most days of the week, but not on Tuesdays.) The yellow cake with icing we tried for dessert was nice, but we would have preferred the sold-out peach cobbler.
Still, Madea's hits so many simple, unexpectedly graceful notes that you're willing to forgive it a few false moves. Consider the sweet potatoes, a dish we normally eschew -- too sugary, too syrupy -- but which here get transformed into something creamy and savory. (They tasted almost like sweet potato fries, minus the salt and grease.) Also worth noting, especially in tough times: For about $50, we ended up with enough food to feed ourselves for approximately three days.
The rain eventually cleared. The temperature rose. And even if the Democrats did get their butts handed to them, well, there's always the next election cycle. (Seriously, people? Rick Perry, again?)
More to the point, there's always Madea's Down Home Cooking, which is good enough to carry you through the lousiest of days.