Copycat cafeteria


In Jersey, they have diners.

Out west, they have coffee shops.

I’ve eaten at both, and they both have wonderful things to offer.

Diners have gargantuan menus... the kind of menu that makes Cheesecake Factory’s food novellas look puny in comparison. Nobody does cutlets like a diner. They are tender, slightly crispy and actually taste like veal. If you’ve never seen the dessert carousel in a diner off the New Jersey Turnpike, you have missed confectionary Nirvana. Pies of every conceivable flavor and cakes decorated to look like the birthday cakes of your dreams.

A coffee shop in San Diego is where I had my first patty melt (woo-hoo!), and my first taste of liver (boo-hoo!).

A California coffee shop is like a northeastern diner, but with more vegetables.

Durham used to have a place called Honey’s that was kind of a combination of them both. And they had the best patty melt I’ve ever put in my mouth.

Honey’s, though, was an unusual place for North Carolina.

Here in the South, we have our own unique eateries.

We have the cafeteria.

They are everywhere where people use the word “y’all” and know what the phrase, “Bless his heart” really means. Usually, the name of the cafeteria is a couple of letters; K&W, S&B, Q&X…

The food is simple, Southern and tastes like your grandmother fixed it for you, if your nana is Southern and a good cook, unlike my own Pittsburgh Granny.

I could write pages about all of their dishes that I love.

But their country-style steak has been a fave of mine since I was a little kid. It’s unctuous, fall-apart tender and comes swathed in a delicious brown gravy. It’s not light. It’s the kind of dish that you should eat regularly only if you regularly burn 15,000 calories before lunch, like an Olympic swimmer or a 19th-century farmer.

A few years ago, Alton Brown made it on his show, “Good Eats.” It was close, but a little on the fancified side. I wanted to make it cafeteria-style.

So, I tinkered.

Last Wednesday, I had my mom, dad, The Kid, and my friend Darby over for dinner. I think I made my best batch yet.

I served it with hot buttered rice and glazed carrots.

When you make it, don’t serve dessert. You won’t be hungry for days.

Thanks for your time.

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Country Style Steak

Mushroom Gravy


2 sticks butter

1 ½ cups flour

Melt butter in small skillet and stir in flour until there are no clumps. Turn on very low and cook until it turns the color of peanut butter. Take off heat and set aside.


1 ½ pounds mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 large yellow onion, sliced into half moons

2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

3 teaspoons fresh thyme

1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped very finely

2 tablespoons tomato paste (I buy it in the tube for these kinds of things)

1 cup dry sherry

1 tablespoon horseradish

6 cups beef stock


Salt and pepper

Heat a very large Dutch oven to medium. Add butter or oil, mushrooms, onions, thyme and rosemary. Season and stir to coat vegetables in fat. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are swimming in the liquid they have released.

Uncover and cook on medium-high until the liquid has cooked off and the veg are lightly browned.

Add tomato paste and stir to distribute. When the stuff on the bottom (called fond) has turned dark red, deglaze pan with sherry. When almost all of the sherry has cooked off, add stock and bring to a boil.

Add roux one large spoonful at a time and stir in before adding the next spoonful. Keep adding and stirring until the gravy is thick enough for your taste.

Check for seasoning and reseason if needed. Take off burner, but leave on stove.


3 pounds cube steak

4 cups flour

6 eggs

Vegetable oil for pan frying

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 285°.

Make a two-part dredge; place highly seasoned flour in a large shallow pan. Beat eggs and pour them into another shallow pan.

Heat a large heavy skillet to medium high, add a couple of tablespoons of oil (you will have to keep adding oil as you cook the steaks, as the flour will suck it up).

One at a time, coat steak in flour, egg, then flour again. Place in frying pan and cook on each side until just browned — they will finish cooking in the oven.

As they finish browning, add to the large pot of gravy until they are all cooked and in the gravy.

Cover Dutch oven and place in preheated oven.

Cook for 1 ½ hours until they are so tender you don’t need a knife to cut them.

Serve with some type of starch (rice, mashed potatoes, egg noodles or even grits).

Serves 5-6.


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