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Thursday, February 27,2014

Leenie’s Southern Cafe is a bit more cafe than Southern

Where to eat comfortable food wearing comfortable pants

By Josh Gross
Photo by Susan France

Claiming regional or ethnic credibility at a restaurant not located in that region can be a dubious prospect. Sometimes it’s a genuine transplant bringing the recipes of their youth and culture to the uninitiated hinterlands; sometimes it’s just run by someone who vacationed there once in eighth grade.

If you need a barometer on exactly how Southern Leenie’s Southern Cafe in Lafayette is, it’s not the fact that you can order a green chile omelette. It’s a question put to this reporter by the server when I asked if there was some way to combine the chicken-fried chicken and pecan waffle plates.

“A lot of people ask about that,” she said.

“Is chicken and waffles a Southern thing?” A Southern thing? Madam, it may well be the Southern thing.

But with true Southern hospitality, she called me “Sug” and gave it a shot. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. The waffle iron was broken that day, meaning there were no waffles to be had, chickenside or otherwise.

But that’s not to say that Leenie’s isn’t hokey-pokeying it up with one foot solidly in Southern Cuisine.

Their eggs florentine comes with oysters. I had grits instead of hash browns. Then there’s the fact that fried chicken is on the breakfast menu. It’s just that Leenie’s leans more toward being a Southern-influenced diner than it does a full-blown Southern cafe. Which is fine, because, if given the choice between a diner and a Southern diner, it would be a bush-league masochist who would choose the union hash browns.

And the chicken was good. A thin slice of breast freshly battered and fried so the juices practically squirted with every bite. The gravy was thin, but flavorful. And with a couple of eggs and a healthy helping of grits on the side, it was a rich and gut-busting way to start the day. Especially with the order of bananas and creme that I started off with.

Where things fell short, breakfast-wise, was the coffee, which was thin and weak like reused grounds or the tail-end of the third shift at a Denny’s. Some folks may like it that way, but I’m not one of them.

Give me a brew as savory as a fine steak and keep the refills coming.

But that shortcoming was mitigated by the fine pair of house-made jams on every table. And if the biscuit that came with my breakfast had been warm and fresh instead of cold and starting to harden, I might have forgotten the coffee altogether, breathing in biscuit steam like some sort of Folger’s commercial. But it wasn’t. Sigh.

In truth, that push and pull, that almost, was present throughout my visit to Leenie’s. I wanted to love it, to have something to shout about from the top of the Flatirons, but couldn’t quite get there.

My companion went for the eggs beni, and what she discovered was an interesting diner twist on the Texas phrase “all hat, no cattle,” as her beni had a mountain of ham and a drizzle of sauce. Though “all ham, no hollandaise,” isn’t likely to catch on, it still has a nice ring to it because it so perfectly encapsulates the experience: the meat is there, the big solid building blocks that Southern food is built of. But the details, the subtlety, aren’t as much of a priority. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The rich plantation opulence can easily become the height of toomuchery. The slightly dilapidated atmosphere, all comfortably worn booths and local art lining bright green walls, is anything but formal, and it is just the thing for the days when you want to eat something approachable and interesting, but not wearing your church pants.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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