In the 15 years or so that I’ve been writing about restaurants and food, I’ve learned a few truisms. Among them: If the place is named after a dish, you should order that dish. The coffee always tastes better when the waitress calls you “sweetheart.” And when a restaurant puts a lot of care and attention into its side dishes, then you can feel safe ordering pretty much anything on the menu.
I thought about this as I approached the Iron Hen, a new-ish breakfast and lunch spot off Wendover Avenue near downtown Greensboro — not because they serve a dish called “iron hen,” but because of the variety and quality of its list of side items.
French fries? Sure. Sweet potato chips too. Fine. Red Bliss potato salad and “very good” deviled eggs are not exactly exotic, but their presence is appreciated. But hey… smoked gouda mac and cheese? Corn pudding? Brussels sprout hash with apple-wood bacon? Now, my friends, you are talking.
The Iron Hen is one of the new crop of eateries that adheres to sustainable standards: fresh, local food prepared from the ground up. It’s mantra, posted on the faade, is “fresh. local. good.”
This means that the chicken is free-range, the beef bereft of antibiotics and hormones. Produce, dairy, breads and grains are regionally sourced. And they make great coffee, too.
The place has generated a mild buzz these last few months as much for its menu as for its great name, and a midweek lunch hour sees the place busy but not bursting, with lunch ladies, a few business folk, the stroller set, some college kids. Though it faces a parking lot, you can sit outside at tables or on benches and watch the tennis courts across Cridland Road.
The fare is as billed. It’s an honest menu, but not without ambition.
The salads, in particular, display inventiveness and variety — a wide array of greens pair with goat cheese, portobello or pear, plus there is chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad, the very presence of which is
somewhat comforting. All dressings are made in house.
Sandwiches cover all bases, running from turkey, pimiento cheese, barbecue, grilled chicken and a burger to catfish, Portobello, crab cake and prime rib.
I’m order the chicken salad sandwich, but I’m in it for the sides: corn pudding and a red cabbage and horseradish slaw. My lunch companion goes for the egg salad plate, which does not come with a side. Sucker.
Another restaurant truism I’ve picked up over the years: Better ingredients make better food. Fresh apple chunks and shreds of good roasted chicken make up the chicken salad, which came on a flaky croissant with crispy romaine and a beautiful tomato slice. The egg salad, dense with fresh celery, would be the first thing to disappear at a potluck picnic.
But let me tell you about the sides. The red-cabbage slaw looks promising, beautiful, with walnut halves tucked among the brilliant shreds. But when I’m expecting horseradish, frankly, I am looking to get burned. It is, however, the healthiest thing I eat the entire day.
The corn pudding is another story. Fresh corn kernels become suspended in a flavorful and rich custard, graced with this crispy breading on top. It is magnificent — the best side item I’ve eaten all year.
The Iron Hen also serves breakfast with all the usual suspects — eggs, pancakes, grits, sausage and bacon, biscuits and gravy — along with a fine granola and a spicy take on eggs Benedict featuring blackbean cakes and tomatillo sauce. And they bake their own pastry, a fact I’ll have to exploit on subsequent visits.
The Iron Hen 908 Cridland Road Greensboro
by Brian Clarey / firstname.lastname@example.org
Sure, the chicken salad sandwich on a croissant was good, but the corn pudding at the Iron Hen goes on the short list of best sides. (photo by Brian Clarey)