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RESTAURANTS : The Concept Is Hokey, but We're Talking Value Here

August 05, 1988|Max Jacobson

PoFolks is yet another high-concept restaurant--this one featuring mildly homogenized Southern cooking--that someone has managed to mass-market without deep-frying its soul. It's a national chain with more than 50 outlets (most in the Deep South) and as such is not a typical choice for this column.

But Consumer Reports recently ranked the company first in value among 32 large national chains. Also, the new Fullerton franchise is the first of 50 stores targeted for Orange and San Diego counties, so I was curious about the food.

Despite maddening lapses in taste--the place has so many plastic potted yellow mums you feel as if you've stepped into a Twilight Zone greenhouse--you just can't help but like it. The decor is artificial in the extreme, even beyond those mums: stage lighting, gimmicky T-shirts on display, hokey-patterned plastic table covers.

Waitresses wear little name tags carved out of wood, and the menu is littered with Southern aphorisms ("it ain't what a man don't know that hurts him, it's what he knows that ain't so") and deliberately kittenish misspellings ("kuntry," "samwich," "shef"). But no one seems to mind--there isn't an empty table in the house. Maybe it's because of the chicken and dumplings for $1.19.

I just assumed that an appetizer called chicken and dumplings and selling at that price would be a teaser, but I was wrong. What I got was a large soup bowl filled with long, tender dumplings, a thick broth and about four ounces of moist chunks of chicken. Together with one of PoFolks' garden-patch salads ($1.35) and a 39-cent corn bread muffin, you have a major meal for well under $3.

OK, the salads are just average and the dinner may not be, as PoFolks motto says, "like Sunday dinner at grandmother's house." But at these prices, who cares? Microwaved burgers and genetically engineered milkshakes seem desperate by comparison.

Some dishes at PoFolks are astonishingly good. Seafood gumbo is chock full of shrimp, rice and chunked okra. A giant bowl makes a complete meal at $2.39. And I can't remember when I've had better, lighter, restaurant biscuits. The cream gravy that accompanies them, also served with the pork chops and chicken-fried steak dinners, is the best I've had anywhere. Who would imagine that this ersatz library paste could ever be delicate?

Oddly enough, the only real complaint I had was with the restaurant's signature dish, "blue-ribbon fried chicken." The chicken itself was properly golden and plump but had completely lost its crunch. It had obviously been cooked well before our order and reheated before being brought to the table. When I asked the waitress why, she just said, "our chicken goes so fast that we have to make it in batches."

Other main dishes are fine. Chicken-fried steak is lean and lightly breaded. Pork chops are similarly breaded and deliciously seasoned. And the various seafood entrees--including excellent catfish and haddock, as well as more conventional versions of fried shrimp, oysters and clams--cannot be faulted. There are even homemade cocktail and tartar sauces to accompany them.

The choice of vegetable dishes is another of the restaurant's nice concepts. With any dinner, you get to pick two side dishes from a list of 16. Among the best are turnip greens, which taste fresh and healthy; red beans and rice with pinto beans and little bits of ham, and fried okra, which someday could sit alongside fried zucchini in the pantheon of yuppie hors d'oeuvres.

If those don't sound appealing, there are always french fries, macaroni and cheese, corn on the cob, cole slaw and more.

Desserts at PoFolks are predictably rich and sweet. Gooey apple and blackberry crumb cobblers come topped with great orbs of slushy vanilla ice cream. Strawberry shortcake comes scrunched up, as if a 5-year-old might have fashioned it.

Then there are moon pies. The waitresses have been instructed to tell you a preposterous tall tale about the restaurant employing official moon-pie pickers, and how moon pie is a fruit that grows on a tree in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It's actually a round, dry, marshmallow pie with even drier, chocolate-covered, Graham cracker cookies on the outside. It's exceptionally nasty. I can't imagine any adult being moved to finish one.

PoFolks has no liquor license. You can drown almost any thirst in mason jars of all-you-can-drink lemonade or iced tea, called "belly washers."

So what are ya waiting for? Y'all park the RV and come on down. Chicken dinners are $3.99. Pork chop and chicken-fried steak dinners are $4.99. Seafood dinners are $4.79 to $7.49. There are also special "pik-niks" to go.

PoFolks

279 E. Orangethorpe Ave., Fullerton

(714) 992-1515

Open every day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m. Master Card and Visa accepted.

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