Considering its big portions, cheap prices and generally good Southern and diner fare, Phat Daddy's Cafe & Ice Cream could easily fill a need in its neighborhood. That said, it's also got its own needs: namely better ambiance and décor.
Just two months old, the South Hancock Avenue eatery replaced Jackie's Parkside Café, which was open for only a few weeks following Jackie Conway's structural overhaul of the former AboAbo African Caribbean Market. When Conway sold to Bruce Knight, the space was gifted with his deep voice and big smile.
No doubt, Knight can cook. He got a culinary degree in Sacramento, Calif., has worked at several big restaurants such as Red Lobster, and draws his Southern influence from his family in Mississippi.
And the man has vision, with hopes to build a back patio overlooking Memorial Park. Past his small barbecue smoker and a fence sits a large park gazebo that could easily draw in summer revelers for a $1.65 soft-serve. But first, Knight needs to tidy up the plenty bright dining area that's adjacent to the loud, open kitchen. (The counter service is informal and cash-only.)
A vintage arcade game is cool, free Wi-Fi appreciated, and the small TV understandable if Dog the Bounty Hunter aids your digestion. But the random items strewn over two of the handful of tables — a phone book, speakers, plastic menu-board letters, two shampoo bottles — give off a transitory, work-in-progress vibe. The lack of a hood system with a fryer-heavy menu also leaves a greasy reek to one's clothing, making take-out a wise option.
Those concerns aside, I have no complaint against a great green chile with respectable heat and giant pork chunks, which enlivens a basic omelet or huge breakfast burrito (each $5, with choice of two ingredients). On our sausage and bacon burrito, fresh bell peppers add brightness, and potatoes some rib-stickage.
Knight's Philly cheese sandwich ($6.50) puts lively flavors on good bread, with a Colby-jack-Swiss-cheddar grated blend and a guilty squeeze-cheese line. And his cornmeal-crusted catfish ($8.50) is crunchy and not dried out, best with either Frank's RedHot or Louisiana Hot Sauce and/or apple cider vinegar.
Knight was out of his barbecued beef and pulled pork sandwiches one day, but I caught an unfinished sample of the pork ($5.50) the next visit, which showed pre-smoke promise with nice moistness and Cattleman's sauce added. Pies, too, were out of stock for us, but Conway bakes them for the cafe.
Sides (two come with dinners, one with lunches, otherwise $1.75 to $2.50 à la carte) are again generous, with fried okra and fried pickle rounds being highlights. The pork-boiled collards are a bit watery and bland, but thankfully not bitter, and the slaw is completely average; the house-baked cornbread registers a little sweet and dry.
The only total miss for us were the biscuits and gravy, with boring biscuits (Knight plans to make his own soon) and a bland, goopy gravy desperately needing a black-pepper or spicy-sausage bite.
But with a few tweaks and a basic housecleaning, Phat Daddy's should be ready for a laid-back summer in the park.