What am I doing here at a converted Sizzler at 4 o'clock on a Monday afternoon about to eat an enormous Southern dinner?
Do I really want to be standing in line with a thousand other people at a place called Carolina Cookin' on Route 40 West? So I can eat fried chicken and greens with fatback?
Don't the owners of Carolina Cookin' know this is a bad time to open a new restaurant, that people aren't eating out as much anymore, that at plenty of places I review we're almost the only customers? At a decent dinner hour?
Well, nobody told the owners of Carolina Cookin'. So it doesn't surprise them that the lines never end, from the moment their place opens to when they close the doors at night.
I know that people who come at a normal dinner hour -- say, 7 -- often give up and go elsewhere, the place is so crowded and the wait is so long for the $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet.
Carolina Cookin' is a franchise -- the chain started in Norfolk, Va., and has spread rapidly. (The first one will open in North Carolina in a couple of months. They are fearless.) But you can get cheap all-you-can-eat food elsewhere. Why is this place so popular?
I begin to get an inkling when I see three kinds of greens on the buffet table. Along with black-eyed peas and real sweet potatoes and especially those buttery, yeasty soft rolls that taste every bit as good as they look. You can get fried chicken everywhere, but you can't get it with kale and chopped spinach and collard greens all simmered for hours with different and very tasty seasonings. And excellent corn bread.
That fried chicken is better than what you might usually get, golden crusted and juicy inside. If you don't want fried chicken, there's roast chicken. Plus roast beef on Mondays and huge, well-seasoned ribs. (No namby-pamby baby back ribs -- these are bigger than my own.) There's fish, which I ignore in favor of the superb minced pork barbecue. I love this barbecue, in spite of its unappealing looks.
Save room for the macaroni and cheese, and especially the crisply fried okra and the beans cooked forever with fatback and the Carolina version of dirty rice. Did I mention the cabbage? All seasoned the way Southerners like them -- assertively. This is food loaded with flavor and calories, cooked for hours and not a vitamin left in it. The way food was meant to be cooked, if you like Southern food. (If not, read no further.)
OK, I never made it to the salad bar. (Are you kidding? Iceberg lettuce salad and grated carrots when you can have collard greens?) But Carolina Cookin' has an elaborate one, with all the regular stuff and more. Plus soup.
When it's time for dessert, head for the bread pudding, which looks dreadful (some foods don't do well in large quantities) and tastes great. The rice pudding looks dry and tastes dry, but it does have raisins. Then there's the pecan pie and the apple cobbler (terrible crust, great apple filling) and the chocolate cake with the wet white icing, and the huge pan of banana pudding, the kind with vanilla wafers disintegrating in it. I decided to forget dessert after a few bites and had another helping of that great minced pork barbecue.
Where: 5511 Baltimore National Pike.
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Credit cards accepted: AE, D, MC, V
Features: Southern cooking
Non-smoking section? Yes
Call: (410) 744-8344
Prices: Lunch, $3.99; dinner, $5.99