So, when I heard through the grapevine that I could find grandma-style food just outside of Richmond, I had to go. The Tanglewood Ordinary is about 16 miles from the West End and may seem off the beaten path, but it’s well worth the drive. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this unassuming log cabin wouldn’t do itself justice if it served anything other than downhome, country food that’s almost as good as my grandma’s. (I say “almost” because she would smack me upside the head if I didn’t make that very clear.)
And we’re not talking haute cuisine “comfort” food, which takes traditional Southern recipes such as a chicken pot pie and trumps them up with pedigreed mushrooms, chervil or leeks. What we’re talking about is the real deal. We’re talking Grandmother’s Sunday dinner ($11.99) where you eat what they’re offering. No menus, except a small drink and a la carte dessert list. Sweet tea abounds, and there‘s a full bar if you fancy a cocktail or a beer. But what folks come here for is serious eating. Bowls are brought out in abundance (at one point I counted 20 on the table for 3 people), and if you’re empty, you can request a refill.
Crispy, Crisco-fried chicken comes with your meal, and you get to choose one other meat (roast beef and gravy, country ham, and pork chops smothered in gravy are options). After you choose your meat, an array of sides will arrive — just like when you were a kid and food simply appeared when you sat down. Dip into a steaming bowl of string beans with bits of country ham; salty black-eyed peas; creamy mashed potatoes and brown gravy; cubed sweet potatoes with cinnamon; starchy lima beans with stewed tomatoes; and a dense, lightly sweet, cakelike corn bread. Your table will look like the starting line of a competitive eating championship.
Wednesday nights are seafood nights and the portions get even bigger. Each diner gets to choose three (count ‘em, three) seafood items from a list of 10, including an abundance of tasty fried goodies. Cornmeal- and flour-breaded shrimp, catfish, flounder, clam strips and oysters are served alongside peeled and steamed, Old Bay spiced shrimp and sweet, juicy king crab (already pulled from its shell). Again, you have an array of sides with the addition of a zesty coleslaw, a mayonnaisey potato salad, creamy mac and cheese, and pork-seasoned collard greens. And what does all of this delicious gluttony cost? A mere $11.99 per person.
But save room for dessert. The house specialty is a buttermilk pecan pie ($4.25), served warm and oozing a buttery custard filling. It’s so good, this time you’ll want to do the slapping. Apple and peach cobblers ($3.50) are homemade, as is the brownie sundae ($4.25) with its melt-in-your-mouth chocolate center.
It’s not uncommon to see people wearing drawstring pants, and there’s an antique scale near the front door if you decide to a before and after weigh-in, but I wouldn’t advise it. Patrons dine in wooden booths and at long checkered cloth-covered tables, while listening to the twang of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Service is kind and attentive, and your glass of tea will rarely go below half full.
The Tanglewood Ordinary is not your average all-you-can-eat-stuff-as-much-low-quality-food-in-your-mouth kind of place. It’s really like Grandma’s Sunday dinner, where you’re warmly welcomed from the moment you step in the door. Your hosts, Jim and Anne Hardwick, who have been running the place since 1986, have come mighty close to recreating that family gathering so many of us miss. So take the drive, make a few new friends and taste what real country food is all about. S
Kendra Bailey Morris teaches cooking classes for Sur La Table Cooking School and works as a freelance chef. She visits each restaurant twice and each visit is unannounced and paid for by Style.
The Tanglewood Ordinary Restaurant ($) 2210 River Road West Maidens, Va. 556-3284 Dinner: Wednesday to Saturday 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Sunday Noon – 7 p.m.
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