Uncle Max is at it again. It seems he's got himself a new gal -- Mae. "A real Southern Belle," he proclaims. "When she drinks her iced tea, she rests her wrist on the side of the glass -- says it keeps her from perspiring in the heat." The happy couple will be in town in a couple of weeks while Max does business, and, gentleman that he is, he's asked if I'll put her up. "I'll take Mae out in the evenings, but it'd be wonderful if you could show her around a bit while I'm working. And just for kicks, why don't you see if you can find her a place for a proper Southern breakfast, and maybe a place for a big family dinner out. It's on me." "Always a pleasure to help Max out on Max's dime," said Patrick. "But Southern breakfasts? Maybe Tyler's Taste of Texas?" Next morning, we headed east into El Cajon to give Tyler's (619-444-9295, breakfast 24/7) a tryout. Big bull horns and a crocheted "Howdy" sign greeted us as we entered. We resisted the enormous array of omelets and zeroed in on more Southern-sounding stuff. "Tyler's Legendary Texas Breakfast," trumpeted the menu. "Loosen your belt and prepare to feast." Patrick went for the center-cut ham steak and eggs breakfast ( $10.95 ), which came with "choice of grits, hash browns, chunky home fries, or spiced apples," and "choice of homemade biscuits, homemade corn bread, or toast." "Ham and cornbread," murmured Patrick, smiling. Inspired, he tossed in a short stack of johnnycakes -- pancakes made from cornbread batter ( $5.65 ) -- for good measure.
The ham steak arrived, about a half-inch thick and as big as Patrick's head, covered with grill marks and full of tender, salty goodness. And the johnnycakes made ordinary pancakes seem all too ordinary. "It's like eating silken cornbread," said Patrick, grinning now.
I had chosen hush puppies ( $3.25 ) to start (appetizers at breakfast -- thanks, Max!), and chicken-fried steak and eggs ( $8.95 ) with a side of biscuits and gravy and a cup of grits. "And what about these sweet-potato pancakes [ $5.65 short stack, $5.95 full stack]?" I asked the waitress. "They're the bomb," she replied. "They're my favorite. We sell the mix here -- $5.95 for a two-and-a-half-pound bag. I always have a bag at home. I also like to make biscuits out of it, and I know a lady who uses it to coat her chicken before frying." I thought about a side of fried catfish ( $2.00 ), but Patrick warned that I'd ordered too much. He was right.
The sweet crust on the hush puppies gave way to a moist interior flecked with parsley. The crunchy brown coating on the pounded steak held up nicely underneath the creamy, pepper-flaked gravy. More gravy smothered the fluffy biscuits. I scraped some onto my grits, which were, true to form, a little bland. The smooth gravy and gritty grits made a fine marriage of flavor and texture. And the sweet potato pancake was as warm and comforting as gingerbread, only lighter.
"If I ate like this all the time..." mused Patrick, patting his belly. "I wonder about Mae's cholesterol." "You hush," I answered in my best drawl. I read from the menu: "Sweet potato pancakes are high in vitamin A and beta-carotene, low in fat, and contain no cholesterol." "You gonna finish that chicken-fried steak?" he replied.
I liked Tyler's, but I knew Max would want more options. The next day, I called my friend Jane. Jane's a true foodie -- the kind who knows where to find the best duck confit and the best Chinese take-out. "Southern food is basically soul food," she said. "Try Sister Pee-Wee's Soul Food [Grant Hill, 619-236-0470]. If you want to eat a little later -- call it brunch -- try Magnolia's [Lincoln Park, 619-262-6005] or Fix Me A Plate Café [La Mesa, 619-466-6084]."
Sister Pee Wee laughed when I asked what soul food was. "Soul food is down-home cooking. I cooked for church and fed a lot of ministers. My son had the idea for me to open a restaurant." Breakfast, served from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. is $6.50 , including coffee. "We have a board up that tells what it'll be for the day. It could be grits, bacon, ham, eggs, or pancakes." I asked about grits. "It's just ground-up corn. You boil grits in water and stir. I season them with salt and pepper."
Next I checked out the menu at Fix Me A Plate, and spoke with chef Jimmy Polier. "Chicken and waffle ( $9.50 ) is a popular Southern dish. I grew up eating it. It's a sweet potato waffle, made with a waffle iron, which has a nice, crispy, yam-sweet potato taste. It's like a dessert waffle. The chicken is fried chicken tenders. I think people sometimes like to have lunch and breakfast together, so they can order the chicken and waffle and eggs [add $.50 ] if they like. You can also get the fruit waffle [ $7.50 ], which is the sweet potato waffle topped with blueberries or strawberries."
A traditional Southern breakfast, he said, "would be grits, eggs, waffles, chicken, biscuits, and gravy. You want country gravy. You start off with a white sauce. You fry some onions and breakfast sausage, sauté that with a little garlic and white pepper, then add some cream." I thought of my gravy on grits. "The original way of eating grits is just with butter. But people also like American or cheddar cheese."
Finally, we checked out Magnolia's as a possible family dinner joint. The high ceilings and shutters around the mirrors gave it a bayou feel, and the warm corn muffins gave a down-home feel. I ordered the fried chicken platter ( $12.50 ) with sides of mashed potatoes (plus gravy) and mac 'n' cheese. Everything was as it should be -- crisp crust, juicy chicken, moist macaroni, tangy cheese. Patrick was equally pleased with his fried shrimp ( $12.50 ). "This batter is more like a sheet than a blanket -- so, so light," he said. "And the shrimp is just-right tender." We vowed to try the Po' Boys ( $8 -- $12 ) when we came back with Max and Mae.