Chain Gang | At Cracker Barrel, live free or fry hard

It's big servings for big people, and a not-so-big price

Posted: July 06, 2007

FRIED STUFF with gravy is the essence of the Cracker Barrel.

And cardiology.

But that didn't stop the Chain Gang from recruiting some real live Southerners for an evenin' of country cookin' in that down-home spot known as Plymouth Meeting.

We arrived early on a Tuesday night so the Barrel wasn't already bursting at the seams, like many of its patrons were. Yes, big portions attract big people.

And when those portions are fried, with gravy, it's time to reinforce the Cracker Barrel rockin' chairs.

For starters we had large Vidalia Onion Rings ($5.19), with nice big slices of sweet onion in a crunchy, albeit tasteless, breading. If the batter had just a little zing, these would be top-notch.

Salads were also good, with crispy lettuce and other fresh veggies, and we thought the dressings (peppercorn and honey French) were especially tasty. As the service was painfully slow but friendly, we weren't charged for the salads, but they were reasonably priced - like everything at the Barrel.

Dinner came with big heavy plates, piled high with side orders - with most dinners you get three to choose from, and we liked the pork-smoked string beans, macaroni-and-cheese, fried apples, fried okra and hash-brown casserole best. One of the Gang is only going to order sides next time she returns.

A giant slab of Meat loaf ($7.79), made with tomatoes, onions and peppers was one main dish, but by the time it arrived our littlest Gang member had drunk so much milk and eaten so many free buttered biscuits (pretty good) and corn muffins (not too sweet), that most of the meat loaf went home for lunch the next day.

The Fried Farm-Raised Catfish ($10.58) was two large filets and the cornmeal breading enhanced the fish.

Oddly enough, the two dishes we expected to be signatures were the most disappointing: The Chicken Fried Chicken ($8.99) was a somewhat dried-out breast patty that even deep frying and gravy couldn't rescue, and the Country Fried Steak ($8.99) had the consistency of ground beef more than steak.

Both, however, were deep fried. The crunch was akin to eating Pop Rocks.

The Cracker Barrel does take pity on you at dessert time, offering humanely-sized portions instead of those ice cream/

whipped cream behemoths some chains trot out before rolling you out to your car.

The Apple Dumpling ($3.19) is the biggest of the portions and it comes with pecan streusel and apple topping with vanilla ice cream. It must have been good, as even after a filling meal it was inhaled. Vanilla ice cream is also part of the cobblers, and we sampled the Blackberry, Peach and Chocolate ($2.49 each). The chocolate one has a brownie bottom, pecans and chocolate syrup. The fruit ones have a bit of canned pie-filling taste but are not sickeningly sweet. They're certainly good enough to order if you want a sweet topper to your starchy meal.

After all that, you can walk around the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store and purchase knick-knacks, rockers (you'll want a nap), candy, soda pop, Moon Pies and T-shirts.

No matter what size you were when you came in, you might want at least an XXL going out.

The chain truth

Chain: The Cracker Barrel, 2095 Gallagher Road in Plymouth Meeting, 610-828-2221. Additional nearby locations at 1240 Route 73 in Mt. Laurel, N.J., 856-778-8900; State Route at Atrium Road in Trevose, 215-322-0809; 276 and Route 1 at Rock Hill Road in Mt. Holly, N.J., 609-265-9133, 427 N. Broadway in Pennsville, N.J., 856-299-1771; and 1215 E. Lancaster Ave. in Downingtown, 610-873-9059.

Reservations: No.

Parking: Free.

Price: Dinner for four with one large onion rings, four main courses, four soft drinks and four desserts was $62.18 plus tip.

Portions: Come on. It's fried food. With gravy.

Overall grade: The Barrel should get three links out of four but we're knocking off a quarter-link because of the Country Fried Steak and the Chicken Fried Chicken. We were craving it all the way out there and we're still craving it. *

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