What had been a Denny’s so-called “classic diner” is now a real boy, home to Tom’s Burgers & Grill (1530 N. Cooper St., Arlington). Chow, Baby hopes this means that the plan Denny’s announced in 1999 – to attract a younger clientele by converting all of its locations into retro nightmares of neon lights, jukeboxes, and bowling-shirted waitresses, because, you know, kids today just worship the 1950s – is as dead as the Big Bopper. Silly Chow, Baby would have suggested attracting customers by offering better food and service.
Which is exactly Tom’s approach. Tom is a real person, though Chow, Baby didn’t meet him – he was in the back, cooking Chow, Baby’s perfectly medium-rare cheddarburger ($5.50). Good job, Tom! Though it seemed thin for a half-pounder, the burger had great flavor – part “secret spices,” part wood-flamed grill – and the juices nearly saturated the wonderful, fresh-toasted and lightly buttered brioche bun. Lovely onion rings ($2.75) are hand-battered and served with Tom’s own dipping sauce.
Whoever came up with this menu (Tom?) put some thought into it. There’s plenty of classic diner food – chicken-fried, housemade chili, grilled sandwiches – but also some nice gourmet-type surprises. The veggie du jour was grilled asparagus in a white wine sauce ($1.75). A goat cheese and tortilla-strips salad ($7.50) also held romaine, roasted red peppers, avocado, apples, and a piquant chipotle dressing; other salads come with a choice of nearly a dozen dressings made from scratch. Chow, Baby’s shrimp & bacon wrap (the top of the wrap line at $7.95) had plenty of breaded sea-goodies and many thick slices of bacon, plus chunks of avocado and tomato bound in a whole-wheat tortilla. Most excellent. See, Denny’s, you don’t need gimmicks. You need Tom.
Sometimes choices are easy. Here’s Chow, Baby at plain-but-pleasant Jay Jay Café (518 Fielder Plaza, Arlington), trying to decide between the chicken-fried steak ($7.15) and the chicken-fried chicken ($7.25), and then spotting – hurrah! – the chicken-fried combo ($8.15). A wise decision: The hand-sized steak and even larger chicken breast were hand-battered and fried to a nice crisp outside, still-tender inside. On the side were chunky mashed potatoes with a lake of cream gravy and fresh-fried okra, plus buttery, warm-from-the-oven rolls and just-sweet-enough cornbread. All were super-delish.
Jay Jay also does great served-all-day breakfast items like country-style meat and eggs, pancakes, and breakfast tacos. But Chow, Baby, thinking ahead to dinner, chose its to-go order from the “homestyle plates” of steak, roast beef, meat loaf (“with Red Loaf Sauce”), fried catfish, and the like ($6.35-$10.99). This was mainly to get another two shots at the veggie list, as Chow, Baby had a tough time choosing before. Non-bitter turnip greens and broad green beans cooked with bacon and onion were good picks indeed, as were the thin yet flavorful center-cut pork chops ($7.49) that accompanied them. For dessert: chocolate cake or banana-strawberry cream pie ($2.50 each)? “Both” is such an easy choice.
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