The Taste Bud: Franco’s is a homestyle feast (with feet)

Deep down, I’ve always had issues with places like Cracker Barrel. It’s not a bad restaurant; it just seems a bit forced.

In fact, it embodies the oxymoron “corporate home cooking,” a phrase that shouldn’t exist. On the other hand, Cracker Barrel does have that little IQ game you play with golf tees.

Traveling with my parents always meant stopping at pretty much every Cracker Barrel along the interstate. But my teenage years brought a pizza and tacos phase, and by the time I returned to appreciating the type of food my grandmother used to cook for us, she was too elderly to take on the burden. Plus, I had pretty much mastered the golf-tee game by that point.

This is why I am now appreciative of Franco’s, an out-of-the-way, cafeteria-style eatery on a part of Dixie Highway I’d never traveled before. There wasn’t a Cracker Barrel in sight.

Franco’s (3300 Dixie Hwy.) occupies the site of the defunct Jay’s Cafeteria and carries the torch well. I dragged my friend Kirk to Franco’s on a recent Saturday for lunch. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but our afternoon hunger was met with a treat.

For the uninitiated, here’s how I would describe Franco’s: It’s like a school cafeteria lunch line, except these people mean business. No green hamburgers, no rectangular fish.

The menu boasts stuff like fried bologna, salmon, catfish, fried chicken, pork chops, ribs, Salisbury steak and pig feet. (Yes, pig feet.) Daily specials mix up the offerings a bit, as well. We stood in line alongside a handful of obvious regulars. Our stomachs rumbled as we peered through the sneeze guard.

In true cafeteria fashion, you grab a tray and silverware, then are asked by the staff what you’d like, starting with the meat entrée. Don’t be surprised if you’re called “honey” at least once. Franco’s staff regularly asked if any of us wanted fish — it’s cooked to order, presumably for freshness. I saw one of the fish filets; it was huge and hung off the plate.

For Kirk, it was the pork ribs ($9.41). I chose the two-piece fried chicken (all white meat) for a wallet-friendly $6.99.

As we waited for the folks ahead of us to order takeout (448-8044, if you’re interested), I noticed a steaming pan of pig feet. As I pondered them, I heard the to-go customer ask for a side of greens with their order. “Did you want some foot meat?” an employee asked.

(“Did you want some foot meat?” might just be the least-used phrase in the English language. I Googled it, but couldn’t find anything definitive.)

Each entrée comes with two sides and a cornbread muffin or a sourdough roll, making tray-top real estate a premium; as such, when we got all our food, we found we barely had room for our drinks.

And as our noses predicted, the food was outstanding. Kirk got a huge slab of ribs drenched in a bright red, tangy sauce, along with mashed potatoes with gravy, mac and cheese, and cherry cobbler.

To go with my giant chicken breast and wing (you can order just the wings, if you feel the need, and it wouldn’t be a bad option), I ordered mashed potatoes and a side of cooked greens that I’m pretty sure were kale. The chicken was coated in a crispy, peppery batter, and the breast meat was plump and juicy. It was the best piece of chicken I’ve had in a long while.

But I think the greens were the highlight. They burst with flavor, seasoned with pork (Yes! I got some foot meat!) and spices. My mouth waters just thinking about that fresh, wonderful flavor with a slightly bitter finish.

“That qualified as a feast,” Kirk said after he finished his last bite of cobbler.

If I ever go into a Cracker Barrel again, I’m going to ask for foot meat. And when the server looks at me like I’m insane, I’ll just snicker and go back to playing with my golf tees.