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Part of what’s cool about Chow, Baby’s restaurant critic gig is that I have an excuse to stop at all of those little eateries that have been there so long they just blend into the scenery. I’ve passed by Jesus BBQ (810 S. Main St.) so many times I almost forgot it was a restaurant. But a friend recently told me it had the best chicken-fried steak in town, so I went to see for myself.

I’m still not sure what to call the place, since there are three signs with three different versions of the name. I’m going with the shortest one of the three. Whatever the name, it’s been in its South Main location long enough that my grandparents were surprised it was still around.

As the wordier sign indicated, the eatery is family owned and serves barbecue and Mexican food. There are also a few Southern-comfort food options on the scattershot menu.

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Outside, the restaurant looks ready for war, with bars on the windows. Inside, the dining room is a maze of old booths and a counter with a menu on the wall — though they take your order at the table, not the counter. There’s a non-digital jukebox with a surprising array of music, including The Toadies’ first album. This also made me think that perhaps the place, with all its dive-y charm, turns into a hipster mecca after sunset. But that afternoon the tiny dining room was populated with what I imagine were modest working folk.

My guest and I seated ourselves, and a server came with soupy salsa and warm chips. She handed us a menu, but the lunch specials were written only on the board behind the counter. We had to go stand awkwardly in front of a table, whose diners were at our crotch level, to read the daily features. No one seemed to mind.

Nothing else on the lunch menu looked good enough to distract me from my mission: I went for the steak, as did my guest.

The food arrived, far more of it than I had anticipated. The chicken-fried steak ($6.99) was unseasoned, save for the yellowish gravy pooled on top. The meat itself was tender, though it had definitely spent time in a freezer. The batter wasn’t crispy, but the meat-to-batter ratio was good. After a liberal application of salt and pepper, I found myself enjoying it much the same way I used to enjoy school cafeteria food. I can’t say the same for the accompanying mashed potatoes (from a box) or the yellow squash dripping with oil and covered in yellow cheese. The lunch also came with a simple salad of iceberg lettuce and lifeless tomatoes.

School cafeteria memories probably aren’t the kind of nostalgia Jesus’ owners were hoping for. It’s too bad. Dive charm will get you a long way in this city. But a great chicken-fried steak — that could get your restaurant out of the background and onto the foodie radar.

 

Contact Chow, Baby at chowbaby@fwweekly.com

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