There's an abbreviated retail patch of Chef Menteur Highway near the intersection of Plum Orchard Avenue that runs like this: auto repair shop, auto detailer, muffler shop, convent, car stereo dealer, car alarm dealer, car wash, church. After that, this mini Motor City tapers off again into the long, mixed bag of stop-and-go highways. The intersection is especially noteworthy, though, because it marks the spot along this stretch where you're actually most likely to find a staggering congregation of automobiles -- none of which awaits repairs, services or blessings. They gather under the familiar awning of an old Frostop, next to a painted-over root beer mug sign promising "Hot Hot Hot" lunches and "Specializing in Soul Food."
Causey's Country Kitchen is the kind of place where plump, old ladies who fall asleep with their mouths open, dropping $20 bills hither and thither from open purses, still get rescued by policemen. After all, the cops are eating cakes and eggs just feet away. It's also the kind of place where hairdressers in leopard-print aprons don't fuss when lunch dates stand them up, as long as Mr. Causey slips them that extra cornbread he promised. Causey's is the kind of place where, usually for better and occasionally for worse, hungry working people from the Plum Orchard Avenue area eat ... a lot.
Mornings, when sunlight heats the window-encased restaurant like a solar experiment, an all-men's club congregates over coffee-stained mugs at the diner counter. There are drivers from Causey's bus service, a security guard who just clocked off the graveyard shift, two guys who pretend to read the morning paper and one man whose caffeine intake clearly has vanquished any desire he once had to sit still. By 8:30 a.m., sausage links and ham steaks long eaten, the club's collective chortling progresses to guffaws. At 9 a.m., I feel a gentle hand upon my back. "Don't drink all the coffee now," says the group's mayor, still laughing as he leads an unorganized procession out into the direct sunlight.
Causey's cut-rate and fairly conventional breakfast selections span half the menu. Tony the Tiger offers a frosted flake-toast-juice-hot cocoa combo to "kids of all ages" for $3.35, while three-biscuit "Quickies" come with sausage, bacon, ham or jelly all for under $3. Slender pancakes stacked four fingers high taste exactly like you crave from a joint like this, while hot sausages are jagged, orange disks of acute spice. The Double Feature plate with liver is a bigger undertaking than a Denny's Grand Slam, and with a much homier payback. Smothered with onions and brown gravy, the smooth liver was broad as a ribeye and tender as Salisbury steak. Taken with buttery, white grits and the nectar from two over-easy eggs, this liver is what you might order when Mom calls in sick for weekend breakfast duty. And powdered, non-dairy coffee creamer is just a reach away, a reach over bowls filled with margarine, jelly and syrup packets.
These aren't the only fast-food shortcuts you'll have to swallow. Servers balk at the idea of squeezing real lemons for lemonade; sugar-dressed yams are too orange to have avoided preservatives in their lifetime; and rice is the same par-boiled stuff that unfortunately dominates the bean scene all over town. Still, there is evidence of real care in the food that rolls out of Mrs. Causey's efficient kitchen. Salty breakfast biscuits split into more layers than a redwood has rings. Saucy red beans undulate with shades of ham and more smoked sausage than Vaucresson's. And the most pudding-like bread pudding I've ever tasted, unusually white and studded with fruit cocktail, challenged my bias for crusty edges and whiskey sauce.
There's a quirky set-up to Causey's lunch and dinner menu, which is almost militant in its routine of daily specials. Sandwiches and fried seafood "hot plates" are the only items available every day. (As far as I could tell, these are also the least-popular offerings.) Everything else, including side orders and desserts, appears on its assigned day.
Monday's fork-tender pork chops, though fatty, were smothered in a paradigmatic country brown gravy. On Tuesday, I finished off a snack of blistering fried okra nuggets doused in chile pepper vinegar with a warmed hunk of Jiffy-soft cornbread. If Thursday's black-eyed peas were plain, sweet potato pie laced with a honeyed orange flavoring extended ample apology. On the same day, I deduced that pungent chitterlings soaked like rags in a brown pan sauce is the kind of food you need to have been nursed on in order to appreciate.
Depending upon the day, mustard greens were either sublime and drenched in bacon fat, slightly bitter but buttery, or downright astringent. Fried chicken, however, was succulent twice over, wrapped in a crispy skin that pulled from the meat like golden cellophane.
Perhaps the most striking quality of lunchtime at Causey's is the quiet. Unlike at breakfast, if the jukebox isn't pumping out the Temptations, Otis Redding or a selection from the slow-jams collection, the noise level generally doesn't rise above the clink of fork to plate. Which is how serious eaters sound.
- Cheryl Gerber
- While everyone else is getting their car repaired, detailed or cleaned along Chef Menteur Highway, the others are flocking to the soul food at CAUSEY'S COUNTRY KITCHEN in eastern New Orleans.