On occasion, dining halls just cannot satisfy the inevitable craving for home cooking. Their occasional attempt at Southern cuisine canon — whole buffets of meatless fried chicken, macaroni and cheese (and copious oil), bitter collard greens and corn “bread” (cake) — is just not up to par. But those with a hankering for a hearty Southern lunch at a decent price need not despair, for there is still Sandra’s.
This amazingly well-kept secret of a lunch offering presents a full buffet of typical Southern fare at the restaurant’s convenient location at 46 Whitney Ave. (across from UCS). Students on the go can fill a take-out tray with whatever fits, and those with a few extra minutes can have a seat in the cheery restaurant and savor the fresh corn bread and Southern charm served by the uniquely friendly wait staff.
Granted, with an unmistakably Northern father and Belgian mother, the Southern classics served at Sandra’s are not technically my idea of “home” cooking, but I do have taste buds. And I also had an entourage of Southern friends to keep my middle-state naivete in check.
Upon entering the restaurant, guests are greeted with a hotel-style buffet presentation in a brightly-lit minimalist establishment. The ambience is glossed with soft Light FM fodder, welcomely lacking even the slightest hint of anything remotely country. And while this may be a good sign for ears, it is initially unclear what this unremarkable first impression might mean for the food.
All is at ease, though, as the savory aromas, enough to calm any jittery guest, become apparent. Even better, the food generally does not disappoint.
The time spent in the short line for the buffet can be trying, as the selection of staples looms in the distance. Still, this time can be used wisely, as you take note of what the local regulars decant onto their overflowing plates.
Chicken presents the first dilemma: baked or fried? The answer: grab a piece of each, because both were refreshingly juicy and flavorful. The baked was well-complemented with just the right amount of spice, and the fried succeeds with a crispy crust with a surprising lack of grease.
If you’re looking for some protein on the lighter side, the fresh-baked whiting fish, with its subtle yet tangy seasoning, is a fantastic option. Just stay away from the pulled pork, unless you want a lingering after-taste of vinegar to temporarily scar your palate.
The final meat offerings are the ribs, which are appropriately prepared with the smoky meat falling off the bone, even to a detrimental degree: You may be lucky to find a bone with some meat still on it.
Next in the buffet procession are the vegetables, most of which are relatively ordinary and easy to skip over. The corn, however, was delightfully sweet and not prone to getting stuck between teeth. The collard greens have a subtle kick without oppressive bitterness.
Breezing past the off-puttingly nutritious vegetables, though, I returned to the classics: candied yams and macaroni and cheese. The yams admirably exhibited restraint from being nauseatingly sweet. Meanwhile, the macaroni and cheese at first seemed fairly mild, but the baked crust took me by surprise with its wonderfully deep and inviting flavor. I know cheese (see Belgian mother), and this was good cheese.
Venturing to the food off the main circuit, I quickly discovered that these dishes were hardly cast aside for quality. Rather, the creamy and refreshing potato salad, the addictive sliced roasted potatoes and the chicken in cream sauce were some of the best in the buffet. Even the vegetable and cheese bake, typically a lackluster dish, was quite inviting with its successful balance between the flavors of the respective ingredients. And as a light refreshment, the fresh salad of mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, raisins, bleu cheese and croutons was a great alternative.
And, of course, there was corn bread, which thankfully bared absolutely no resemblance to the sweet yellow cake of dining hall infamy. At Sandra’s it is just fluffy enough, with a delicious crust and subtle zing.
More than sufficiently full, I could not resist grabbing some to-go dessert, and my friend ordered extra corn bread at $1 per piece (she happily ended up with four extra pieces). Luckily, my small peach cobbler at $4 was mistakenly upgraded to a large at no extra charge.
The next time the dining halls go Dixie, swipe at the Law School and then head over to Sandra’s for a real hearty lunch. It’s tasty, fast and, as entourage member No. 2 noted, definitely worth missing lecture for.