June 2006 Cheap EatsThe first time, you might drive right past this drab building set back from a muddy parking lot next to a complex of garden apartments. But Francine Helton and her two sons have been running this kitchen for close to a decade, and once people find it, they come back.
During the week, workday regulars pile in for lunch. Weekends are a quieter stream of churchgoers, couples, and guys looking up from their meat-and-twos to catch a minute of a Redskins game or the Food Network, depending on the season.
The Heltons are experts at smoking and frying. It takes 20 minutes for Troy Helton to fry his chicken. Wait it out in a booth--he'll yell when it's done. Faithful to his Virginia great-grandmother's recipe, it's a juicy, hulking portion with a brittle, peppery crust. Pounded-thin pork chops and curling filets of whiting and croaker get similar, if quicker, treatment. Meat from a slab of ribs, smoked over hickory, glides off the bone. The smoked-pork-shoulder sandwich is tasty, too.
Our favorite side is the potato salad, both vinegary and creamy and thick with hard-boiled egg. Candied yams and pepper-spiked mashed potatoes are both winners. Mac 'n' cheese would benefit from a sharper cheddar but has a nice golden crust.
What's not to love? Maybe the greasy sweet-potato pie, the too-sweet tea that sits in a plastic cooler. But all that is easy to let go after one bite of fried chicken.