When I heard that Jimmy and Jennifer Day, the couple behind New Mexico Fine Dining (Trattoria a Mano, Bouche, others soon), were opening a diner, I felt a bit ho-hum. Diner food isn't something you hear much about these days, especially with its tendency toward the unhealthy, but many people have a soft spot for it, so I decided to give it a go.
I wasn't the only one intrigued, so I joined a group of friends at Jimmy D's(311 Old Santa Fe Trail, 772-0223; open 7 am-9 pm daily). Fronting Garrett's Desert Inn, in the space formerly occupied by beloved Santa Fe Bite, the space looks out over Old Santa Fe Trail. My first thought was, "Whoa! Those are some bright chairs!" as I gazed over the large covered patio. You might need sunglasses to sit out there, not for the rays but for the eye-popping primary yellow, blue and red colors rarely used in such concentration in our neck of the woods. My second thought was: "New people-watching spot!"
Stepping into the dining room, I was smacked in the face with a feeling similar to my first MoMA experience in the 1980s. Faces, cartoons and collages jumped off the walls and ceiling. There were dots and stripes and comic book word bubbles among big-eyed faces and lots and lots (and lots) of yellow. The restaurant was fairly quiet, but it was loud—as in bright, as in happy, as in energetic; the kind of space you might enter feeling low but leave feeling not just full, but with spirits lifted as well.
Jimmy D's does not particularly resemble a diner. It serves diner food that doesn't taste like diner food, and though the menu is technically diner-typical,
nothing we had was greasy, fast, dine-n-dash fare. Instead, we found smartly conceived, well-cooked and uniquely seasoned, 'Merican items. This makes sense seeing as the chef is CIA-trained Jen Doughty who, along with husband Evan, helmed the kitchen at the Palace; the quality of the food began to make sense.
The magic of eating in a group is you get to order and try a whole lot more than when dining alone. We started with the pimento cheese and avocado dip with club crackers, fiery chile poppers, and Jen's taco pizza ($6 each).
Only in the South would something like pimento cheese be conceived. A mix of cheese, mayonnaise and pimentos, Jimmy D's version was spot-on and the club cracker accompaniment took me back to long afternoons on my grandparents' covered porch in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, snacking and arguing over how many Yahtzee rolls grandma already took. The pepper poppers were indeed fiery; giant, meaty peppers, steaming in a coat of thick batter. The cream cheese did little to cool the burn, but I kept eating them anyway. Jen's taco pizza, which changes daily and which I assumed would be a pizza with taco toppings, was actually a super-crisp tortilla with pizza toppings. I was too busy puzzling over its inventiveness to take note of the day's ingredients, but it was delicious and fun to eat.
I was cognizant enough, however, to note the soup of the day ($5 for a cup, $8 for a bowl) was cauliflower with sesame oil. Topped with the wispiest whispers of baby chives, I could've easily downed a gallon. It was rich, expertly seasoned and packed a punch of unexpected flavor. The same went for the veggie pasta ($14). Consisting more of egg noodles than the medley of veggies such as broccoli,
spinach and tomato, it looked a bit plain, but the red wine cream sauce dressing was strangely pleasing, tasting more of green garlic than bold red wine.
Being a child of the Pacific Northwest, I freely admit to fish-and-chips snobbery with high expectations that are rarely met. My disappointment with most fish and chips is the batter—frequently it's too soft for the fish, leaving you with a mouthful of doughy, sweaty fish; like eating a fish that's wearing a wool Fisherman's sweater. I was pleasantly surprised with Jimmy D's version ($14). The cod was moist, firm and encased in a dry, crispy batter, atop a bed of seasoned curly fries. The fried chicken ($15) had the same crunch, which went well with the soft potatoes au gratin, but the star of the platter was the collard greens doused in vinegar, Southern barbecue style. Pucker up!
Another Southern classic brought our diner meal to a close: banana pudding ($6). There's not much special about it, being that it's pudding, but when you throw in fresh bananas, crunchy Nilla wafers, and top it with fluffy meringue, well … that's a whole different ball game.