Wilson's cafeteria doesn't exactly replace Mom's kitchen. But the home-style cooking can be quite good and the selection as inviting as a picnic spread: fresh baked ham, perhaps, or fried chicken, meatballs, pork chops, fried fish, turkey and stuffing. The lineup changes daily, sometimes from lunch to dinner. (You have to arrive early for corn bread or peach cobbler, both of which routinely disappear by dinner time, I've discovered).
And if it were up to me, I'd choose to carry out a meal rather than dine in at Wilson's. For one thing, what serves as a dining room is garishly utilitarian, with green carpet and yellow walls framing a warren of tables. Moreover, while the food has much to recommend it, I'd rather not have to tackle a pork chop with plastic utensils. The meals are more conveniently served on china.
You'd swear your mother was behind portion control at Wilson's, where nothing but the price is slight. What looks like an entire rice paddy rests beneath a strapping portion of chicken. A mound of macaroni and cheese -- its texture deliciously mushy, its surface golden and crusty -- is heaped on your plate. Patrons lining the counter are encouraged to ask for a "little of this" or "a lot of that," then charged accordingly.
As for quality, what's simple is best. Ham -- succulent and flavorful with a minumum of fat -- is carved per your request. Soothingly homey fried chicken has a well-seasoned, crisp crust that preserves the juicy meat within. Ribs are mildly spicy, with meat so tender it almost falls from the bones. (They also serve as the sole exception to Wilson's claim of offering "non-greasy cuisine.")
The steam table isn't as kind to the more delicate fried fish or pork chops, both of which were rendered dry and chewy from being held too long. And a sandwich of barbecued pork, while meaty and zesty, proved cloyingly sweet.
Many restaurants have jumped aboard the Cajun bandwagon, and Wilson's is no exception. But instead of blackened redfish there is Cajun rice -- savory if not exactly spicy -- a decent and filling dish of rice, pork, shredded carrot and green peppers.
Accompaniments include a number of soul food standards -- chitterlings, black-eyed peas, vinegary greens and candied yams -- as well as mashed potatoes from the box.
It is when the kitchen departs from home-style cooking that the flaws are most evident. The Swedish meatballs, for instance, were the size of baseballs and about as heavy, so tightly packed were they. Sweet and sour chicken, decorated with slices of canned pineapple, was really neither, and the meat proved a bit too dry. Cabbage, tinged with soy sauce, was oddly sweet.
Still, Wilson's is more than a home-cooked meal. It's old-fashioned neighborliness, dispensed with as much enthusiasm as the food itself. This eatery offers no dining room service, but the staff is likely to wander from behind the counter to follow up on your selections.
Except for the cobblers, the majority of the desserts are made by neighborhood bakers, we were told. The selection was in short supply on two visits, though a slice of banana cake, baked just hours earlier, was delectably moist and flavorful.
Wilson's represents dependable Southern cooking with a friendly soul accent. With its stick-to-your-ribs repertoire and its inexpensive prices, it's the perfect antidote to the homesick diner who'd prefer not to cook.