A good old hole in the wall

by Brian Clarey

It was cold enough in Greensboro last week to keep even the most die-hard smokers down below a pack a day, the kind of weather that necessitates an extra blanket on the bed at night, a log or two in the fireplace and dense, hearty meals that bolster the body against the withering chill.

In search of food like this, I found myself at a crossroads near the airport, a district unto its own with budget motels and cheap diesel fuel and not much else.

The old Hole in the Wall restaurant was once the only thing out here, according to owner Lynn Parrish, and that was enough to bring hungry diners out to try the steak sandwich or barbecue. But times change, and a year and a half ago Parrish changed with them.

Part of the shift was putting a new sign on top of the old building to read, “Old Hole in the Wall’s Smokehouse BBQ.” There was a subtle shift in concept as well.

“We kind of took the whole menu and threw it on the buffet,” Parrish said. “It cut down on our labor by half – it was hard to find good help – but of course my food costs went up.”

Such is the zero-sum game of the restaurant business.

But the food on this day was in ample supply, laid out on a beautiful strip of hot plates under a sneeze guard, and I resolved to load up on the comfort food.

My first lap around the food line netted a portion of chopped barbecue, a shiny yeast roll, a fried chicken wing, one beef rib and a scoop of rice casserole.

If you’re not accustomed to eating like this, a buffet line is a good way to get a month’s worth of home cookin’ out of (or into, as the case may be) your system. The food is certainly passable, like the beef rib which was soaked in sauce and shredded in a way that made the dish seem like a sloppy joe on the bone, or the casserole, which retained a flavor redolent of sharp cheddar.

The fried chicken is quite excellent, and because it was served on the buffet I took but a single piece instead of feeling obliged to gorge myself on half a chicken, which I have been known to do.

My second lap yielded greens, mac and cheese, broccoli and cheese, fried squash rounds, meatloaf and mashed potatoes with gravy, which in the world of country cookin’ is practically a vegetarian plate.

Of this sampling, the meatloaf and the potatoes rose to the top. The meatloaf, which is thick with Angus beef, holds appropriate seasoning and a light coating of tomato paste. The mashed potatoes were certainly made in house – I could see the skins – and the tan, peppery gravy was so tasty I could have done a shot of it.

I limited myself to four laps on this buffet, one short of my usual five, with the third round reserved for a couple new tries and second helpings of favorites. I re-upped on mashed potatoes, meatloaf and barbecue, for what it’s worth.

For dessert I tried a piece of chocolate cake, which was dark and rich and absolutely made right here in the kitchen.

I thoughtfully took it down as the server, who consistently called me “Sweetie,” refilled my coffee and took away my plates. I took note of the faux Tiffany lampshades, the neon beer signs, the photos of John Wayne on the wall and the thick men in blue jeans and camos who made up the tail end of the lunchtime crowd. I thought about having another piece of cake. Then I finished my coffee and ventured out into the cold.

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