Chicken-fried story

Dinner for one: $20 - $40

Right after I got out of the Navy, I took a cook’s job in a small, rural greasy spoon. I had done some cooking in high school, but what little knowledge I gained had apparently deteriorated while I was in the service, and I got into trouble fast.

The place was right next to a stockyard, and the cowboys would come in late after herding livestock into the pens all day. On my second night, this stocky little wrangler comes in and orders a chicken-fried steak. The cube steak this restaurant was using was frozen, and no one had told me you were supposed to thaw it out in the microwave before you breaded it. I fried up the stiff, frozen slab until it was crispy golden brown and sent it out.

The cowboy cut into it.

It was red and raw in the middle.

He sent it back.

I slapped that steak back on the grill. I put a weight on it. I covered it up and steamed it. I incinerated it for another 10 minutes. Satisfied, I looked out through the window and saw the cowboy was leaving.

“Hey!” I yelled. “It’s ready!”

He bolted toward the kitchen in a way that told me he wasn’t feeling friendly. By the time he got to the kitchen door, I had a pan filled with hot grease from the french fryer in my hand, ready to douse him with it if he so much as made a move toward me. We stood there, glaring at each other.

“You wouldn’t make a pimple on a cook’s ass!” he sneered.

I was fired the next day for mixing up the country gravy with the clam chowder—to be honest, none of the customers really noticed—and since then, I’ve been happy to let other people do the cooking.

Which brings us to Moxie Jr.

Moxie Jr. was sired by the same folks who gave us Moxie, the popular Midtown restaurant that’s impossible to get in on Fridays and Saturdays without a reservation. Moxie Jr. is located on C Street in that forgotten corner of East Sacramento that’s delineated by the freeway and the railroad tracks. Offering pretty much the same fare as Moxie, it’s been serving lunch for the past year and dinner for the past three months. When you call Moxie too late to get a reservation nowadays, they refer you to Moxie Jr.

Which is how we ended up there on a recent Saturday night.

Chicken-fried steak jumped out at me off the menu in all its political incorrectness. Battered and fried items just don’t make it in these health-conscious days, and I took advantage of this rare opportunity. The Junebug, my wife, chose one of a multitude of evening specials: the rack of lamb with red wine demi-glacé.

We kicked back with a couple of glasses of wine. Fresh bread, hot and chewy on the inside with a crispy crust, appeared and was devoured. Spectacular crab cakes—large, lumpy spheres with a dense center of finely minced crab and a coating of shredded phyllo served with corn and tomato relish, balsamic and horseradish sauce—were original and superb, and disappeared quickly.

A first-rate spinach salad, with thick crunchy leaves, slices of avocado and mandarin orange, and chunks of blue cheese topped with cumin vinaigrette, pulled a similar vanishing act.

Making our entrées disappear proved to be more difficult.

First of all, there’s the mashed potatoes. Stacked high in a tower Richard Dreyfuss would be proud of, they dominated both our plates, what with large fantails comprised of uncooked angel hair pasta, mint leaves and radicchio sticking out of them. They seemed to draw not only our attention away from our entrées, but the kitchen’s. Both the chicken-fried steak and the rack of lamb were adequate, but nothing more. The breading was a tad singed. The demi-glacé a skosh scorched. As they say in graphic design, the dishes just didn’t “pop.”

Don’t get me wrong.

I didn’t go running back to the kitchen or anything.