Stuck like a plum in a pound cake for a decade at the Philadelphia Inquirer, I wondered where to eat. Of course I cooked or defrosted and was lucky to have the progenitor of Whole Foods, Austin, Texas’ Fresh Fields, walking distance from both my desk and apartment — I lived right across the street from Walter Annenberg’s Inquirer castle, a footstep commute. The Rodin Museum was a few blocks away, but you can’t eat marble.
Most of my colleagues had homes in the suburbs, so I rarely got invited. I didn’t understand why they were there, because the city was a capital-C city, with creaky, magnetic charm. Yes, things have changed, a bit. Urban prices have gone acrobatic, but I’m a dunce at property things. If I thought that racism was the problem … well, I’m usually a snail at getting to the big picture.
But I’m here to talk queer chicken.
Two competing memories give the lie to solid reminiscence. Inquirer music critic Peter Dobrin (he’s still there) knew I needed a spot to eat that would make me feel like myself, so he took me — so I recall, maybe he recommended it — to Judy’s Cafe, on South 3rd and Bainbridge in, yes, Queen Village.
My engineer friend Chris, who ran an Amtrak locomotive up and down the East Coast, said I needed a “decent and cheap” gay spot, Judy’s. Christopher John-Sebamala Card today said yes, I took you there.
I can see myself seated, long bar to the right. Clamorous not glamorous families and queer gals and guys fill tables. My picture of this, in the late 1990s, has been bounced to light by a recent New York Times recipe for “Ritzy Cheddar Chicken Breasts,” actually thick cutlets, by Eric Kim.
Judy’s Cafe, opened in 1974, has closed permanently. It was known for punchy cocktails and especially for two entrees: veal and pork meatloaf, spinach and provolone tubed inside, with mushroom gravy, and Ritz Cracker, cheddar cheese-crusted chicken cutlets, horseradished sour cream on the side.
So glad to find the photo above. Can anyone recognize the queerish, Neelish or Sylvia Sleigh-like painting of two affectionate women and splayed kitty between them?
Meatloaf is one of the many things random cheese destroys. I think I liked the chicken. But what I must have really enjoyed was something else, because I just cooked Kim’s recipe. It was moist, yet tired, ordinary, probably like the one at Judy’s.
Anyone ordering Judy’s big stuff was given a coupon that, if you came back four or five days later, entitled you to a dish up to the same price for free. Think of what that meant for anyone counting Washingtons (Philly slave-owner), not Ben Franklins (he possessed just two).
That paragraph above could be six letters: “drinks.” Lose money or break even on food, make it back on booze, that’s the professional explanation. Here’s what I think.
Some very few restaurants are utopias. You enter and see that you’ve landed on your planet, where you can breathe, wave, sparkle.
Did I write sparkle? Double the order: sparkle sparkle. That’s how I felt at Judy’s, even when alone. Lifetimes ago I wrote a showy story for a national queer magazine, The Advocate, about the wispy concept of gay food, gay cooking, gay restaurants. Fairy pudding (YMCA hot-plate tuna casseroles) and “the entree that dare not speak its name” took ironic bows.
The “gay restaurant” still shimmers, shimmies and disappears when you put a headline on it. Sure, certain bartenders and servers beam sincere welcome when they enjoy mixing drinks or bringing food to those of us who have walked in. And we, queer eaters and readers, happen on our uncommon doors, pull them open, and sit down.
What will we have?