Every once in a while you really want a taste of some old-fashioned, old-time favorites (that someone else has to cook, and then clean up after) like pot roast, meatloaf, mashed potatoes made with actual potatoes, fried corn and squash casserole, chicken-fried everything...and even a nice plate of fried liver and onions. Black-Eyed Pea has all this and more.
Including plenty of old-timers who love that old-timey food.
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"Black-Eyed Pea? Those are still around?" I heard that a lot when I decided to visit one of the outposts of this chain, which was founded in 1975 by Dallas restaurateur Gene Street and, after some modest expansion in the 1980s, hit a few bumps in the 1990s. It wound up passing through several hands, until it was purchased in 2001 by Phoenix Restaurant Group, which shaved the chain down to around forty locations, mostly in Texas and Tennessee, with nine franchises in Colorado owned by Stephen and Jim Shaw and Alan Laughlin.
Over the last decade, the Black-Eyed Pea was rebranded as a country-casual chain, like Cracker Barrel -- minus the country store with the horehound candy, which the Pea should look into. It certainly would have been a hit with the clientele at the Black-Eyed Pea at 211 West 104th Avenue in Northglenn, tucked way back in the corner of a scrappy-looking plaza of other shops and restaurants, and right across from a defunct Bennigan's.
Standing in the lobby in a crowd of old-timers, I was treated to décor my own grandma would have chuckled at: items made from dried sticks and ribbons, and butterfly hangy-things made from what appeared to be pantyhose, dangling from the ceiling fans. The poor staff of hosts, servers and bussers all looked like they were doing their best not to have any fun at all, and I was seated in a booth squished between two other booths of very loud, very talkative groups of older ladies. I learned a lot over lunch -- apparently Medicare sucks, there are home remedies for the safe removal of plantar warts, and kids/grandkids are ingrates who expect everything handed to them.
I was soon handed strawberry lemonade ($3.99), and after a few more minutes of listening to the details of mole-removal surgery, I stopped my server and asked for a shot of vodka in my lemonade ($.99). I also ordered pot roast with sides of black-eyed peas and squash casserole ($10.99), the mushroom and Swiss grilled chicken ($11.99) with mac & cheese and house seasoned fries, a senior-sized order of liver & onions ($7.49) with mashed potatoes, gravy and fried apples and a fresh-baked cinnamon roll ($4.99).
My server soon brought out a basket of unnaturally good, honey-kissed wheat dinner rolls that were light and smooshy-middled. I'd barely made a dent on those when my food arrived.
The seasoned fries weren't seasoned so much as lightly salted, the macaroni and cheese was blah and bland, and under the sautéed mushrooms and melted Swiss, the chicken was dry -- probably from being done first and waiting under a heat lamp for the other plates. But everything else was just fine, especially the liver and onions, which I hate making at home because the dish reeks up the house, and I don't often get to order in restaurants since most of them don't have it.
I got a moderately-sized slice of dark, iron-y, sizzling liver, grilled with a nice, lacy edge of char-bits. The meat was dense, even a little juicy, with hardly any of that annoying connective tissue that turns into grilled rubber bands when cooked. The mashed potatoes were made with reds, had just enough skin to give them texture, and were loaded with pepper and a strangely creamy brown gravy. The fired apples were drippier and more sugary than I like, but that's a personal preference (more apple, less other stuff). The squash casserole was the breakout favorite.
I've had plenty of squash in plenty of different dishes over the years, but I particularly enjoyed the simplicity of the Pea's version: chunky-smashed yellow squash baked with cream and lots of green onions. I mixed them around with the side of black-eyed peas, which were acceptably soft, flavored with bits of ham and wisely undersalted. (It's easy to add salt, and impossible to suck salt out.)
The pot roast was just as delicious as it appeared on the menu: The fall-apart strands of beef were smothered in the same cream/brown gravy, but missing the simmered-with-it carrots. Instead, there was half a boiled carrot cut up on top of the meat mound, perhaps as the garnish.
I ordered a cinnamon roll as dessert, since all the other options seemed boring. And since the dinner rolls had been the best part of my meal so far, I wanted to see if the Pea applied the same work ethic to these colossal, meticulously-layered, icing-evenly-distributed cinnamon buns. It did.
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I started packing up my leftovers -- fast -- when I overheard one lady ask another to borrow her nail clippers (and they say younger people have no couth!). I like the Pea's old-timey food, but unless you are retired and/or love hearing a constant stream of chatter about illnesses, things someone else's grandkids do, and where to find the lowest price on bed linens, you might want to load up on extra dinner rolls, get some to-go boxes and beat a quick path out the door. Or perhaps try the Colorado Boulevard location.