Chow, Baby: Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Amazing how little it takes to turn a room from upscale Mex to down-home Tex. A few five-pointed metal stars and pastel-tinted photos of flower-filled wheelbarrows, some yee-haw music on the stereo, and bam, the former house of Oscar is now Wooden Nickel (3400 Denton Hwy., Haltom City). Also they’ve turned the front bar area into a dining room, so the door on the Briarcliff Road side of the building is blocked off, not that you can tell that from the outside (ow). But otherwise the place is nice. Opened in April, Wooden Nickel jumped on the current mini-trend of emulating Babe’s Chicken House up in Roanoke, in which diners get handed a big plate with a mountain of meat in one corner and fill the flatlands themselves from “family” bowls of homestyle veggies. For the meat portion Wooden Nickel offers five comfort-food choices (most $5.99 lunch, $8.99 dinner), but Chow, Baby first went for a daily special, Skeeter’s Smoked Sirloin ($7.99 lunch), amused by the least-of-my-concerns promo line: Sliced to Order! (That’s akin to Chow, Baby boasting to the Pulitzer committee about using spell-check.) Though it did prompt Chow, Baby to admire the un-dried-out edges of the three fairly thick slices of sirloin even before diving into the smoky tenderness of the meat. Good job, “Skeeter.” Sides-palatability ranged from very nice green beans doctored with ham and onions to the startlingly bland, pan-drippings-free cream gravy on the just-OK mashed potatoes. Also just OK: salad with zing-free dressing and slightly-too-mushy corn on the cob. On later visits, the sides still failed to impress. But catfish fried to order (now, see, that’s worth knowing in advance) was marvelously spiced and crispy, and chicken-fried steak was certainly worthy, with a nice peppery crust that tasted like fried chicken, thank you. Chunks of super-tender slow-roasted brisket came with tons of jus, like a pot roast without the potatoes and carrots — which is probably just as well, at this veggie-short-shrifting place. But if Wooden Nickel gets its sides up to the level of its yummy meats, we might indeed have another Babe’s on our hands. Mary’s Do Good Ba-You Warning signals went off in Chow, Baby’s head at the fast-food-ish Mary’s Cajun Corner (5530 E. Belknap St., Haltom City): The counter guy didn’t know what kind of crab boil the kitchen uses for its crawfish ($3.99/lb). Where Chow, Baby comes from, this is as mindboggling as not knowing where your neighborhood bar is. So Chow, Baby played it cautious at first, ordering just an oyster po-boy ($5.99). Interesting. The bread was wrong, of course (most Louisiana bakeries don’t deliver here), but the hoagie was spilling over with nicely breaded, nicely fried small oysters. And the tartar sauce was housemade. Okay, a bigger challenge: crawfish étouffée. Nice. A light roux spiked with cayenne pepper; evidence of the Cajun holy trinity (bell pepper, onion, celery); plenty of small but firm mudbug tails. Chow, Baby once again trekked from its hard plastic booth to the counter, this time for a dozen blackened shrimp ($7.50) served with spicy rice and steamed veggies. Wow. Does anybody actually go to Popeyes for their fast and cheap “Louisiana Legends” dishes? You can stop now. Contact Chow, Baby at

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