It isn't my usual practice to visit restaurants flying their grand opening banners. Most places need a shakedown period of at least a month to work out any problems even the most carefully planned operation might anticipate.
But I had to change my style recently when my famished, whining children, after a day of holiday shopping, simultaneously shouted and pointed to a little eatery situated in a restored railroad dining car on Fourth South's "franchise boulevard." It was not really a hard decision to stop. Not only are we a family that enjoys trains, but I was secretly relieved that they pointed to an eating establishment that had not been promoting stuffed animals or puppets or wreath-ringed glassware in the recent binge of holiday media hype. I quickly pulled into the parking lot before my kids realized just how close to Baby Gonzo they really were.Actually, California C and R (the initials stand for chicken and ribs) is pretty hard to miss, even for eyesight dimmed by Saturday morning cartoons. The 1940s dining car is painted a radiant, almost neon, blue with a flaming pink stripe. A large metallic palm tree is plunked down outside in the front.
The interior is brightly lit and painted in soft white. Several booths that seat four line one side of the narrow interior while a counter with about a dozen vinyl covered stools is on the other side. An open kitchen is at one end while at the other two speakers playing oldies frame a television showing Channel 13's line up of reruns. The simple atmosphere is trendy nostalgia.
The sparse menu is also trendy. Chicken and ribs, grilled with either an "original" (teriyaki sauce) or a tangy barbecue sauce, cole slaw, hamburgers, chicken wings, with either teriyaki or Buffalo (spicy) seasoning, and wedge fries, as well as soft drinks, make up the modest bill of fare.
We sampled everything on the menu except for the chicken and barbecue sandwiches. The ribs and chicken were especially good. I suspect they are baked first and then kept in warming ovens before reheating on the open grill. The ribs were lean and tender and a small rib order ($4.45) was just enough for a lunch portion. The regular chicken ($4.25), two breast quarters with wing attached, was a bit more generous. The chicken was also tender and moist.
We also found the creamy cole slaw and wedge fries (89 cents), actually potato wedges baked and then covered with a spicy coating, another pleasant part of the meal. The complimentary fry sauce, a cup of the barbecue sauce with a dollop of sour cream, was original and tasty.
The 1/3-pound cheeseburgers ($1.99) were good, though the cheese didn't quite melt and the medium rare was more rare than we had requested. The teriyaki style sauce on the chicken and the barbecue sauce were not quite as bold as we expected, though I appreciated the understatement. For those who like their barbecue hotter, maybe the management could offer a Tabasco sauce along with the other condiments. The potato wedges were seasoned just enough.
California C and R seems to have the right menu and motif to challenge its franchise neighbors. It is both novel and engaging, with a style and quality of preparation that should please the palates of both young and "not as young as we once were."
Rating: **** California C & R, 554 E. Fourth South, 322-1666, open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday. Take out and drive-through service available. Accepts checks with guarantee cards. No credit cards.