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And those hours are short. Tom's serves Monday through Friday only, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. or "until the food runs out, whichever comes first," as Unterwagner's voice reveals cheerfully on the eatery's answering machine, which is updated daily with that day's dining options. The bargain $6.45 "Meat and Two" meal includes your choice from a half-dozen entrees, two out of eight possible sides, a drink and a baked item -- either warm, moist cornbread (which comes plain or with jalapeños) or a floury dinner roll.
Everything at Tom's is homemade, with one exception: the green beans. "We use canned, but we doctor 'em up," Unterwagner admits. "That was the only concession we made because of time and energy." But the small staff -- just the owners and a couple of prep guys -- laboring in the teeny kitchen can be forgiven, considering that they peel and mash forty to fifty pounds of potatoes a day, steep twenty gallons of tea, bake a dense Coca-Cola cake whose recipe resides in a 1920s cookbook, and make such meat-falling-off-the-bones chicken and perfect puffy-fluffy dumplings that you'll think your granny is being held hostage in the back.
Most of Tom's business is takeout, and the line that starts forming early looks like a cross-section of this country: important business types on cell phones, strutting gang members, gals out for a get-together, families, steroid-pumped jocks, and a few folks from the neighborhood who pay with pennies and eat every crumb. Unterwagner takes the orders and packs the main courses -- even for those eating in at one of the few tables -- into styrofoam boxes, while Jankousky boxes desserts and collects the money (cash only: no checks, no credit cards). They won't take tips -- "We're the owners," Jankousky always says. "You can tip us by coming back" -- and they've been known to hand out extra pieces of cornbread or a ladle or two of candied yam juice just for the asking. Drinks are self-serve, and fair warning: Two glasses of the sweet tea may send the uninitiated into insulin shock. "When you order iced tea in the South, this is what you get," says Unterwagner. "Caffeine and sugar: That's what it's all about."
800 E. 26th Ave.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
Meat and Two: $6.45
Sides: $2 each
Desserts: $2.25 each
But it just so happens that the sweet tea proved the ideal beverage for washing down a heapin' helpin' of fried chicken, three pieces (one white, two dark) deep-fried so that the crackly coating on the outside took on a dark tan while the inside stayed soft and juicy. Tom's fabulous catfish sported another thick shell, this one a cornmeal crust with a faint pepper bite that had sealed around the fish so tightly that the flesh was steamed rather than fried. The catfish, which is always available, isn't offered with Tom's Meat and Two meal, but there were plenty of other worthy options. Tom's Yankee-style pot roast was made from chuck, which produces the juiciest, most flavorful version of this slow-cooked meat; it came with potatoes turned beige from the meat's juices and tender carrots, cutely cut on the diagonal. The barbecued brisket drenched thin slices of meat in a not-too-sweet sauce that had just enough kick to keep things interesting without overpowering the beef flavor.
You could make a meal out of Tom's side dishes alone. On my visits, the comforting choices have included buttery collard greens, freshly candied yams syrupy with brown sugar and cinnamon, acorn squash studded with pecans, and peach cobbler made from fresh fruit and so much sugar that the fruit had almost caramelized inside the pie-crusty shell. And then, of course, there were those mashed potatoes, the real thing, with brown gravy smothering a mound of creamy goodness studded with bitty chunks of spud.
One of America's favorite comfort foods is macaroni and cheese, reportedly first served in this country by Thomas Jefferson -- not Kraft -- after he brought a macaroni mold back from Paris. (Kraft introduced its version in 1937 and today sells a million boxes of the instant stuff daily.) The dish was a specialty in the South more than a hundred years ago, and Tom's continues the tradition with a Southern-accented mac and cheese that's many levels above Kraft without being snooty about it: plenty of noodles, plenty of cheese (tasted like a combo of Velveeta and cheddar), and a bit of a browned gratin topping.
I'd call that macaroni, all right. This is one Yankee who'll do just dandy through these tough times as long as Tom's is cooking.