Someone add the Black-Eyed Pea to the list of endangered species. There’s only one left on the planet, so it can’t even mate with another one of its kind at the San Diego Zoo. The lone survivor of the species lives in captivity in the concrete totem of mediocrity that is the Arlington Highlands (400 Bagpiper Way, Ste 150, 817-467-9555), where it shares space with every local and national chain ever created. Seriously. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a Blockbuster Video hiding out between the Dave & Busters and Pluckers Wing Bar.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Pea, it was hot back in the go-go ’80s, when every Reagan-naut wanted to treat his brood to dinner at a family-friendly, focus group-approved chain with a 12-page plastic menu. The Pea occupied the same space on the culinary spectrum as TGI Friday’s, Bennigan’s, and Chili’s. In the period of time between the reigns of the Rockwellian diners of the ’50s and today’s locally sourced, organic, gluten-free, grass-fed, chef-driven mini-chains, places like the Black-Eyed Pea were on just about every corner peddling loaded potato skins and mozzarella sticks delivered by teenage servers wearing flair.
If you’re older than, say, 35, you probably have an irrational fondness for the Pea’s brand of family restaurants. The bill of fare was familiar and comforting if bland by current standards. And if you’re not a fan and you prefer local eateries that make quality food from scratch, then you still probably owe a debt of gratitude to the family-friendly chains (FFCs). The current trend of going ga-ga over boutiquish eateries that use local produce is almost certainly a reactionary thumbs down to the Pea and its ilk – the same way that grunge was a rejection of glam rock.
I grew up with the Pea. I loved the Pea. And, much the same way I knew the Asian Elephant (the star of one of my favorite childhood coloring books) was going extinct, I did nothing to stem the tide.
When a friend and I agreed to visit the world’s only Pea, it felt a little like we were going to see a beloved relative in hospice care. But once we walked inside, our moods changed. The place was buzzing, the vibe was dependably, pleasantly, generically fake vintage, and our server was fast, friendly, and unabashedly upbeat. While I’m sure the menu has changed since I frequented the Pea, it’s still well inside the lines of an FFC – chicken-fried whatever, pot roast, and other comforting classics. The only noticeable shift in the bill of fare is that the Pea apparently got the memo that things have to be made in-house these days. Many of the menu items were punctuated by the qualifier “housemade.”
My lunch order of meatloaf ($6.79) was served with a fresh-tasting tomato sauce globbed atop the hillock of meat. The dish could have used more seasoning, but that’s not what FFCs are all about. My guest’s liver and onions ($6.79) was tender with the ripe tang of organ meat, and the onions were nicely caramelized. All of the side items were decent, though not in any way special. Our lunches came out in a matter of minutes, and hot rolls were brought to the table moments after we ordered.
As the kids say, the Pea was on point. The best news of all is that our server told us the company that now owns the Pea is planning on expanding to Plano and possibly Fort Worth in the near future, and the soon-to-be-reborn chain now delivers. So we’ll all get a second chance at appreciating the Pea and preserving our country’s fine tradition of FFCs.