Tucked between the Wig Villa and the Scout Shop in the wacky hodge-podge that is the Toco Hills Shopping Center, the Collard Green Cafe has a non-descript visage into which first-timers peer curiously. I've watched would-be patrons tentatively open the restaurant's glass door and slowly walk the stretch of the long room until they reach the steam table at the far end. Then they relax and smile as they take in the sight of the familiar Southern fare spread before them.
This is not to say that the place is undiscovered. During weekday lunch, the room is buzzing with the local business crowd that comes to dig into plates piled high with soul food classics. Laughter and loud conversation can be heard from the kitchen as staff members race out with hot pans of corn bread or fresh batches of fried chicken and mashed potatoes.
Whirring ceiling fans, plastic plants and generic floral prints on the wall are all you get in the way of ambience. But you don't come to admire the decorating scheme -- you come to chow down on cheap, satisfying grub.
What we ate: At lunch, it's meat and two; at dinner, it's meat and three. The selection is ever changing, but a few dishes are constants. Fried pork chops ($8.99 at dinner) are tender and taste like what my mom could have made had she not come to rely on Shake 'N Bake. Meatloaf ($7.99) has a zippy red ketchup glaze over the top. The fried chicken ($7.99) is mostly white meat and can get a little dry if it's been sitting too long. The heart of a good soul food joint is its side dishes, and they don't disappoint here. The restaurant's namesake is my favorite. The greens are cooked until they're tender but not withered, and have a deep, savory flavor from smoked turkey and long slivers of onions. The obligatory bottles of hot pepper sauce on the tables spice things up. Remember to dunk your corn bread in the pot liquor. The macaroni and cheese is rich and creamy and topped with the traditional orange crust of baked cheddar. The candied yams give me a sugar headache.
Service: Customers line up cafeteria-style and carry their weighed-down trays to a table. Owner James Paige and his crew are patient while you stare at the array of choices, struggling to decide.
Cheapest item: Lunch plates are typically a dollar or two cheaper than dinner selections. The veggie plate ($5.99) comes with your choice of four sides overflowing from their white dishes, plenty to fill you up.
Most expensive item: When you request the fried catfish filets ($9.99), someone usually sticks their head in the kitchen and yells the order to the cooks. Five minutes later, out comes a heaping plate of crispy, golden curls that taste so good with a mess o' greens and black-eyed peas that you have to stop yourself from shouting "Amen!"