“I don’t know what is is,” said the diner as he added another scoop from the steam table to his plate, “but it is sure is good.”
It was a chicken and rice casserole and it was supplemented on the buffet line at Pop’s Place Too in Southmayd by chicken fried steak, an everyday staple, stuffed bell peppers with tomato sauce, smoked sausage and a host of vegetables — real mashed potatoes, sweet carrots, green beans, fried okra and a variety of salads.
I told Pop what the man said, and a big smile broke out on his friendly face and he laughed.
“I’m glad he liked it, but next time it will be a little different,” he said. “I don’t use a recipe, so every batch is a little bit different.”
Pop of Pop’s Place started in the business as a 15-year-old dishwasher at the old Denny’s in Sherman, and at 16 became a cook. Three years later, he became the manager of the place.
“After that, I went to culinary school, doing an apprenticeship with a chef from Rhode Island and then went to work for Westbrook Hotel Hospitality Management for 13 years,” he said.
When the owner of the hotel company passed away and the business changed hands, Pop called it quits for while.
“One day 13 years ago, I just decided I wanted to open a little country café, and that was Pop’s Place in Denison,” he said.
So why did Pop choose down home country cooking for his area establishment? For him, the answer was simple.
“I was born and raised in Grayson County, and it’s kind of a country food kind of place,” he said. “I knew people here, and I knew what they like, and I also knew that you have to match your menu to the market.”
And, that he did. The cafe in Southmayd, first dubbed The Filling Station Café, followed in short order, but after a couple of years Pop sold the business to a man from Dallas. That did not last long, and there followed a number of owners before it circled back to Pop when a friend of his bought the building and offered it to Pop as a restaurant again.
Unlike Pop’s Place, which has a fixed menu, Pop’s Place Too offers a daily buffet.
“I decide what’s going to be on the buffet when I’m taking a shower in the morning,” Pop said. “I really do. It’s my time of peace and that’s when I decide what I’m going to make for the day.”
While the basic formula calls for classic southern comfort food, Pop is not above an occasional foray into something more exotic.
“Every now and then we like to throw a little twist in it,” he said. “It’s kind of like stuffed deviled crab that I have on my seafood buffet. (That’s on Fridays.) When we first introduced them, nobody would eat them. Then people tried them, and now I sell them by the case. It’s unbelievable.”
Pop freely admits that Grayson County is not exactly on the cutting edge of cuisine, but slowly but surely that too is changing.
“I make a seafood pasta,” Pop said. “I use a different kind of shrimp, crab meat, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers,and garlic, and people are crazy about it.”
While Pop spends most of his time at the Southmayd location, the Denison spot probably has the larger following. The parking lot is packed with patrons there for breakfast, particularly on the weekends, and the staff has a devoted following of its own.
A few years ago, Pop lost the lease on the building following a family squabble among the owners, and he moved down the street for a couple of years. The move was not a good one for the business due to the lack of parking, but after a couple of years, when a new owner bought the property and asked Pop to come home, he wasted no time in accepting.
“It’s a better location,” Pop said. “The building fits our food. When you walk in, you just expect good country food, and that’s what we do.”
Edward Southerland writes for Best of Texoma. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.