The Coast Is Clear

Where would you go for great southern food? I asked Bill Neal, chef of the highly celebrated Crook's Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C. He would head for New York, to a funky painted-brick urban roadhouse on W. 12th Street and West Side Highway called the Gulf Coast. And so would I, after one visit. The tables are pink and green Formica and the inside walls are decorated with plastic fish and colored lights. As for the food, fried alligator ought to be called something else so that more people will discover how delicious it is. Fried catfish is on the bone, but nearly filleted so that it is easy to eat. And fresh shrimp grilled with onions and peppers in a spicy, piquant Cajun butter sauce is irrefutable evidence that Cajun food is here to stay. I'd quarrel with Gulf Coast's boudin, and the fajitas could have stayed in Texas. But there is more -- fried jalapen os, crawfish dishes, mesquite-grilled everything, red beans and rice, gumbo and specials on the blackboard. Nothing much costs more than $10, with great mashed potatoes or sweets or collards to accompany it, Dixie long-neck beer to wash it down and New Orleans coffee with chicory to finish it off. I couldn't face the blue margaritas, and the pastry-making was in flux. Good excuses to try Gulf Coast again. The Selling of America -- The American Cafe's are being sold. So ends the cycle that started with a group of kids peddling submarine sandwiches to Georgetown students, expanding to Blimpie's, then taking off into a chain of American Cafe's fed by a central kitchen. What happens after the Great American Success Story? Seers are still reading the croissant crumbs.