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Niagara Falls’ Hyde Park Cafe serves down-home goodness all day

NIAGARA FALLS – Stumbled upon some mighty fine Southern comfort food recently – and, no, it wasn’t at the local watering hole.

Notice I said “comfort” with a lower-case “c” – as in down-home good – as opposed to “Comfort” with a capital “C,” as in food that has been artificially enhanced via liberal preseasoning with a particularly distinct, whiskey-flavored American liqueur.

Allow me to clear up any confusion: Southern comfort food leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside, whereas Southern Comfort …

OK, maybe that wasn’t the best example, but you get the idea. Southern comfort food equals good. Real good. And some of the best Southern comfort food around can be found at the cozy little Hyde Park Cafe.

Formerly Kensinger’s Cafe (in fact, traces of the old identity remain visible on the outside of the building) and long before that a luncheonette known as Cinderella’s, the Hyde Park Cafe oozes friendliness. The folks who run the place do so as if it were their own home, and they were entertaining their extended family. That means a nice selection of vittles, and plenty of ’em. It also means attentive service with a smile. After all, you wouldn’t feed your family a diet of grits served up by grumps, would you?

Not a chance. You want them to go away grinnin’ like a possum eatin’ a sweet potater. And that is exactly what happens at HPC.

Now, whether you dub it “soul” food or “Southern comfort” food or whatever, it’s umm-umm good, from the collard greens to the mashed yams, from the crispy fried chicken to the smothered pork chops, the barbecue ribs to the crispy fried fish, the gooey mac and cheese to the crumbly cornbread. It’s home-style all the way – prepared fresh, homemade and with that ultimate secret ingredient: love.

We’re talking fine as frog’s hair split four ways. That’s some darned-fine eating!

The fact that HPC is smaller than an undernourished gnat probably plays into the equation, I think. It’s obviously a little easier to pay close attention in a place of less than 10 tables; likewise, it’s probably a little easier to keep the fine food a-flowin’ under such circumstances. A busy take-out counter attests to that fact.

We dropped in on a weekday morning and took a seat at one of the handful of tables. There’s also a counter harking back to the luncheonette days. The place is kind of earthy, with simple, traditional decor, mostly wood and rattan. As a matter of fact, it’s more than earthy; it’s salt-of-the-earthy. You just feel at home here. The pleasant, friendly server sees to that. She’s very attentive and makes sure you want for nothing during your visit.

Our breakfast visit consisted of a hash, eggs and toast meal (a steal at $4.99) and an eggs, pancakes (or French toast) and meat plate, likewise cheap at $4.35. I added a side of bacon (two slices) for 95 cents. Shoot, I can’t even play the claw machine at the supermarket for less than a buck; 95 cents for an order of bacon? That’s ridiculous!

I ordered my hash crispy and my two eggs sunny-side up. I like to top it off with rye toast, chop everything up together, douse it with a splash of ketchup and then spoon it atop the toast for consumption. It’s a simple breakfast, really, but it couldn’t have been done much better. The hash was nicely crisped, without drying it out too much. Nice flavor, too. A good, solid meal.

Teresa’s plate consisted of two eggs over easy, a pancake and sausage links (she also could have had bacon). Again, everything was tasty and nicely done. The side of bacon was crunchy, too, with a sweet maple flavor.

You might say that it’s hard to mess up breakfast too badly, and you might be right. So upon learning that HPC is open Friday evenings for dinner, we knew we had to come back. A couple weeks later, we did just that … and it was even better than the breakfasts.

Now the dinner menu isn’t extensive by any stretch of the imagination. But as I have said on numerous occasions in the past, sometimes it is best to just go with what you know. The folks at Hyde Park Cafe seem to have taken that mindset to heart. As such, the dinner offerings consist of smothered pork chops, fried fish, fried chicken, barbecue ribs and curry chicken (not quite sure how that one fits in, and it had been scratched during our visit anyway). Each dinner is $10, and includes cornbread and your choice of two sides: mac and cheese, collard greens, yams, mashed potatoes and gravy.

That’s it. Take it or leave it. Trust me, you want to take it!

We sampled three of the four main courses. Our server suggested that the pork chops were the top choice, and Meagan was in total agreement after her meal. I had to argue for the fried fish, however, while Meagan’s boyfriend, Nick, was equally thrilled with his fried chicken. We were just sorry that we didn’t have another mouth along to sample the ribs, because if they were anywhere near as good as the other meals, they would have been special, indeed.

The fish (I chose haddock over tilapia) was an ample-sized portion, liberally covered with a peameal and fried to crispy perfection. It was crunchy outside, steaming and flaky inside. I top it with tartar sauce, mostly out of habit, but this fish really didn’t need it. It was plenty tasty all on its own. The collard greens were mixed with red pepper and had just a touch of spiciness to them – very good. And the mac and cheese: wonderful! Gooey but not greasy.

The pork chop was a thick piece with just enough fat to flavor it wonderfully, Meagan said. In fact, she said the fat was the best part. The chop was coated with spices which she couldn’t identify, but which imparted a wonderful flavor. The mashed yams were great, obviously handmade, and she too had (and loved!) the mac and cheese.

Nick was so thrilled with his crispy fried chicken that he thought Hyde Park Cafe should offer a dish consisting merely of fried chicken skin – “it was that good!” he gushed. He expressed similar fondness for his mashed potatoes, which were a little chunky (not that he’s complaining) and were topped with the finest gravy he’s ever had – no touch-up needed!

“It was perfectly seasoned,” he said.

Hyde Park Cafe offers a nice variety of food, much of it featuring a Southern pedigree. There are also sandwiches and other offerings, all at extremely reasonable prices. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

I can’t wait to get back and sample the ribs.