Triangle: Pam's Farmhouse (Raleigh) - not the revelation I had hoped for
For the past two weeks, I've driven by Pam's Farmhouse every day at lunch to find the parking lot packed, even overflowing. Sometimes the line has been out the door. A quick google search finds references to this place as a great locale for good old Southern cooking. My curiosity couldn't resist any longer.
Inside, the atmosphere continued to be promising. It seems that everyone knows everybody else there. People were hollering each other's names across the dining room, patting each other on the back and referring to various waitresses by their first name. The room itself is sparse, with white brick walls and a concrete uncarpeted floor, simple chairs and tables. You drink good-as-you-can-get sweet iced tea out of a small ball jar glass.
Even though the lunch crowd is hopping, turnover is extremely fast. I got a table within 3 minutes, and my order was taken not one minute later. The menu (handwritten for lunchtime, changes daily) featured roast beef, BBQ chicken, liver & onions, pork chops, and flounder. I happened to smell someone else's flounder from an adjacent table, and the fishy aroma was really pungent, so obviously the fish they serve here is not fresh. I ordered the roast beef + rice, with a side of collards and mac&cheese.
The roast beef w/ rice was good, but not great. The beef itself was tender, but the slice was quite thin, and only one slice was provided to cover the white rice. The beef didn't have much taste - clearly they were relying on the quite good gravy to carry this dish. It almost does, but there's only so much even the best of gravies can do. Optimally, the beef would contribute as well.
The collard greens were great - tender, very fresh, and flavorful. However, the mac&cheese was atrocious. The chef uses some kind of cheese-from-a-can/fake cheese. No self-respecting Southern chef would use imitation cheese for this dish.
Each meal comes with a basket of hushpuppies and a large biscuit. The hushpuppies look like Bullocks - long and thin instead of round and fat. They are much better than Bullocks - crispy on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and not greasy. The biscuit, however, had zero taste, literally. To test this, I took a swig of tea, waited a minute, and then a large bite of biscuit. I tasted nothing at all. Matzah + parsley at a too-long Passover reading is a taste explosion compared to this biscuit.
Pam's Farmhouse confuses me. The meal had so many ups and downs. Ingredients were either fantastic or pretty awful. I really think the kitchen knows what they are doing, but they skimp on quality at times for the sake of handling the high volume.
When the bill came, I figured out why this place is packed all the time. Roast beef+rice+collards+mac&cheese+hushpuppies+biscuit+sweet tea = $7.54. The base price for a "meat and two veggies" is $6 even. Additionally, I was in and out in 30 minutes flat, even with the packed house.
However, that's no excuse. Very good Southern buffets (Ye Olde Country Kitchen in Snow Camp, Joyce&Family in Fuquay-Varina, and Market Diner in Thomasville, GA) charge only $6-7.49 for all-you-can-eat lunch, with great items and ingredients across the board.
Final verdict: this place is authentic for sure, but you have to know exactly what to order, or you'll be burned. It doesn't come close to the quality that Joyce & Family down in Fuquay-Varina embodies in terms of veggies (I'll review this later today), and Ye Olde for almost everything.
Just a quick update on a revisit to Pam's Farmhouse today: I'm beginning to like this place. I went in with appropriate expectations, and it was quite a pleasing lunch. Beef tips with gravy and rice featured the same yummy gravy I had last time, but this incarnation of beef was tender and flavorful. Collards were great as before, and fried okra was sufficiently good to make for a great balanced meal. The biscuit this time was more fluffy and had *some* taste (perhaps because I went much earlier at around 11:30 a.m.), enough that dipping it into the beef gravy provided a nice treat. For $7.54, you really can't beat this for everyday authenticity (and even though that's the same price as some of the outstanding buffets I mentioned previously, it's good that one is prevented from stuffing one's self from time to time).
Quick service was again the rule: sweet tea was brought and refilled, with an additional cup of ice without having to ask. I was in and out in 20 minutes. Exceptional efficiency among the staff there.
I am particularly fond of the meatloaf. If the menu hasn't changed since my maternity leave started... meatloaf is on Wednesdays. Also, somehow their tomatoes always seem better than average.
I don't remember the mac&cheese as bad, just so-so.
I also like the deviled eggs, though they are on the sweet side for my Midwestern sensibilities.
Joyce and Family is what your grandmother might fix on Sunday afternoon while Pam's is what she might fix for lunch on Thursday. It's what the people that eat there expect. It isn't that much different than what is served at the Farmers Market or Big Ed's. Joyce's and the New Old Place both feature from scratch meals and I prefer both to the place in Snow Camp and Pam's, but different people like different things.