The old phrase "you can't judge a book by its cover" comes to mind in describing Mountain City Cafe. You'll find it tucked into an out-of-the-way retail strip center in Middle Valley, with a big pink chicken - easily 15 feet tall - in the parking lot.
You won't find a better place for fried shrimp and catfish for lunch and dinner every Friday and Saturday. That's when you'll get all you can eat, so you better come hungry - really hungry.
You may find yourself surprised by the number of choices on the menu. I thought the cafe would serve mostly country-style cooking - meatloaf, fried chicken - and there's plenty of typical Southern fare on the menu.
But I was amazed by the seafood/fish offerings. I could get grouper, shrimp, snapper and mahi-mahi grilled, blackened or fried. All the seasoning and battering is done by hand and not until the order is placed.
The menu also features burgers, assorted sandwiches, lots of side dishes, a breakfast bar on weekends and a menu for kids.
We went for the all-you-can-eat fried shrimp and blackened mahi-mahi.
Both orders, like all other entrees, came with the soup-and-salad bar as well as a choice of potatoes: mashed, baked or french fries.
The salad bar was fresh and well-stocked. Chilled plates were an unexpected plus.
On the evening of our visit, the two soups du jour were chili and butternut squash bisque. The latter was way too sweet for my palate. The chili was excellent.
I've had blackened fish many times, and so often the chef takes a timid approach to spicing it up. Not here. The blackening spices were perfect. Not too hot but spicy enough to taste. Just right.
After consuming a large salad, my husband could barely get through one serving of hand-battered, butterflied shrimp. As good as they are, it's hard to eat more than a plateful.
The hush puppies were unequivocally the best I've ever had - hot and crispy on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside, with kernels of corn embedded in the batter.
As many dishes are homemade as possible, our server said, right down to the desserts, which on a recent Friday night included Coca-Cola Cake that tasted exactly like the recipe I make in my own home.
Our server was as friendly as they come - conversational with us but not too chatty. She was willing to give her opinion of which menu item was better than others, but only when asked. She enhanced a pleasant dining experience.
Mountain City Cafe comprises three shotgun-style rooms that have been cleverly designed to be more than just a restaurant of blank walls, booths and tables.
The center room is divided, with an entrance area with comfortable seating if you need to wait for a table. There's a room off to one side for overflow seating or private parties. The main dining room includes the salad bar as well as several tables and booths. A fireplace in the center of one wall adds a cozy touch to the room.
The decor was unexpectedly pleasing to the eye, as was just about every aspect of dining at this restaurant.
Mountain City Cafe is a hidden gem in Middle Valley behind a gas station and a big pink chicken. Who'da thought?
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.