The cuisine: All the usual Southern-cooking faves with some slightly more healthful alternatives for those who fear the heart-stopping consequences of enormous servings of gravy-smothered battered-and-fried things.
The ambience: It's a kid-friendly, grandma-friendly kind of place. The Cotton Patch Cafe in south Arlington is the 41st restaurant in the Texas/Oklahoma/N.M. chain and the largest, with a seating capacity of well over 200. Nevertheless, there was a waiting line on a recent Friday night. Our outgoing waiter made a guessing game of predicting what we would order.
The food: Cotton Patch designates about a dozen choices on its sizable menu as "signature items" and we decided to stick with those. We started with chicken-fried steak ($9.99). (CP also chicken-fries chicken and, creatively, pork chops.) Our server surprised us by asking if we wanted brown gravy or cream gravy on our steak. Since we were making it a night of traditional tastes, we went with the white. The steak was tender and thicker-cut than at most places, the crunchy coating an eye-pleasing golden color. We couldn't detect the garlic in the garlic mashed potatoes, but we were delighted by the side of mushrooms, large 'shrooms that were halved and sauteed in butter.
The grilled Cajun duo ($11.49) is a mildly spicy blackened tilapia/grilled shrimp combo topped with a crawfish cream sauce and served over rice. We thought it nearly as good as a similar dish at Pappadeaux, with the CP version priced substantially lower.
The disappointment of the evening was the chicken and dumplings ($6.99). The chicken pieces were tiny, not the good-sized chunks we had expected, and the dumplings and gravy too mild-mannered for grown-up tastes. It could have come from a can, one of our dining party commented.
Prices are good at Cotton Patch, especially for desserts. Praline pecan bread pudding ($2.99) wafted to our table with a delightful fragrance. The pudding was a bit dry, but the sticky sweet apple/praline topping moistened up most of it nicely.
For the health-conscious: Cotton Patch offers "right-size" versions of a number of its dishes including chicken-fried chicken and steak, meatloaf, catfish, grilled pork chops, and grilled tilapia. It also offers three "heart-friendly" meals, including a grilled salmon plate for a mere 300 calories.
The details: Wine, beer, cocktails. Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair-accessible. Full-sized portions of chicken-fried things for just $6.99 on Monday nights.