NUMEROUS people have mentioned Carman’s Country Kitchen to me: my fellow students in my short-lived photography class at the Fleisher Art Memorial (short-lived because work caught up to me and sent me out of state for a time), my neighbors when I mentioned my life-long love affair with french toast, and even a New York friend who is considering moving to Philly and feels–as I do–that brunch is a deal-maker when it comes to choosing a new address.
But for some reason, I had avoided making my way to Carman’s. There’s something both daunting and exhilarating about the tagline “She puts the ‘cunt’ back in country,” not to mention reviews that bemoan lengthy waits for one of four tables. I like homey brunch places as much as the next person, but something about being served in a tiny establishment run by a woman so militant was a little frightening. I told myself I was waiting for New York Emily to come down and be the spine of our brunching operation; I told myself that I couldn’t really do justice to Carman’s unless Emily, who seemed to be inspired by the very tagline that secretly terrified me, was along to experience the enormity of Carman’s, um, cheek.
And I wasn’t actually planning to go to Carman’s this past weekend! The fact was that, since I’ve had to beg off of visiting a friend in Wisconsin for the 4th of July, I’ve been thinking about how awful it is that I have never visited her in Wisconsin… And, as she used to live in South Philly and once recommended Atlantic Pizza’s french toast to me, I thought I could–at the very least–honor her spirit by checking out her favorite french toast in the city.
But Atlantic Pizza was not to be. When Malik and I got there, the corner restaurant was dark; indeed, it was closed. Tragedy! Head in hand, I remembered that we had passed Carman’s on our walk, and tentatively suggested that we might do brunch there instead?
So, in all fact, it was Malik who finally got me to Carman’s. Not Emily, who I figured would be the natural brunch partner for such an establishment; not my neighbors, who were so enthusiastic about Carman’s culinary whimsy; and not even my classmates, who praised and extolled Carman’s gastronomic gift above all others in the South Philly area.
When we finally got to Carman’s, we were told to return in 40 minutes; by that time, there was sure to be a spot for us. True to its reviews, Carman’s has four tables, a series of counter seats, and a truck parked outside with a picnic bench and umbrella (this is the ‘Chef’s Table’). Around the corner, though, is a Rita’s Water Ice, and that’s where Malik and I waited out our time. (Malik had a milkshake; I mixed their Georgia Peach water ice with vanilla custard for an amazing gelato experience). I wouldn’t suggest this as a companion to the Carman’s experience: by the time we returned to take our seats at the counter, we were already half-full and my sweet tooth was in overdrive.
One of the really interesting things about Carman’s–other than the sheer number of penises and phallic statues she has lying about & the other kitschy decorative touches–is that Carman herself presides over the kitchen. The eating space is limited because Carman likes it that way. It’s an intimate space; you share milk and jam with your neighbors, peek over at each other’s food, ask for recommendations, and let the conversation flow above and amongst you. Carman, too, offers a limited selection based on what she feels like cooking that day (which means that the menu is constantly evolving). The restaurant is open only four days a week, Friday through Monday, between 8am and 2pm. During the rest of the week, Carman buys her ingredients, plots her menus, and takes time to breathe.
Starting the day with gelati determined my brunch choice: nothing too sweet. I ordered the Omelet, stuffed with vidalia onions, Creole peppers, avocado, cheese; served with toast, the omelet also came with an optional side of chicken chorizo sausage. Malik went with the day’s catfish special, complete with two eggs and a side of bacon. The coffee was endless, the water replenished, and our appetites fully sated. The only change I would make to the day was saving the trip to Rita’s for the hot summer afternoon, as an afterthought to the meal rather than a prelude. As it was, I wasn’t able to finish the omelet. And next time I go, I’ll be trying Carman’s famous challah french toast.
Basically what it comes down to is this: I am a convert. Whatever I was expecting at Carman’s–a brassy, bold-faced Philly belle with a raucous hyena laugh and a faint scent of quarters–I didn’t find it. Like a good dance movie that has hidden themes of class struggle and identity crises (and I am not talking Step Up, people), Carman’s delivers.
To Emily, wherever I may find her (she’s slippery this time of year): let’s make this place a habit.