Thursday, September 12, 2019

Josephine St. Revisited: 40 Years On, the Roadhouse-Style Standby Delivers the Hits — and Also Some Misses

Posted By on Thu, Sep 12, 2019 at 12:34 PM

click to enlarge LEA THOMPSON
  • Lea Thompson
An iconic local restaurant is celebrating a landmark anniversary this year.

“40 Years and Still Rammin’,” proclaims Josephine St., which opened its doors in 1979. The milestone also marks the beginning of my food writing career, when Rick Casey, then editor of SA Magazine, assigned a precocious 15-year old to write a story on the new “steaks and whisky” joint. Casey went on to enjoy a distinguished journalistic career, while I am still sorta hangin’.

Much has happened in both the national and local food scenes since 1979. We’ve mostly moved beyond the notion of stodgy country-club and snooty-waiter cuisine as the apex of fine dining, tapas have come and gone, sushi can be found at neighborhood supermarkets and we’ve embraced fusion cuisine, tasting menus and food pop-ups as art, finding fashion in everything from cocktails to barbecue.

Yet, Josephine St., perhaps the epitome of a laid-back Texas café, endures unrepentantly unchanged. Almost. I recently revisited that first review to compare then with now, starting with the salad.



In 1979, the restaurant’s salad was filled with fresh, crisp iceberg lettuce that was perplexingly billed as “wilted” with tomatoes and green olives that were not subdued by hot, flavorful bacon fat. Today, The Wilt — as the salad is known — offers the same ingredients sans mention of bacon fat, but the greens are so overwhelmed by a lemon and garlic dressing they might as well be called “The Swamp.” My food knowledge has grown since my cub reporter days, but I admit that I still appreciate iceberg for its neutral crunchiness, a quality The Wilt does not exploit.

Josephine’s original menu was “a simple chalkboard affair” that featured six items including the chopped sirloin at $3.45 and the broiled chicken breast at $4.45, served with French fries of heroic proportions and the best homemade onion rings in town.

Prices have gone up, and the menu has long-escaped the bounds of a single chalkboard to offer seafood, burgers and nostalgic plates — including the original broiled chicken breast, which I revisited. It’s still as “moist and [reasonably] flavorful” as it was 40 years ago.

I don’t personally need to have it again, but I recognize that at $10.95, a dish that offends almost nobody doesn’t necessarily need to change. Order it with the original onion rings, a hot ticket item that fights back in a way the chicken never could.

In retrospect, it seems odd that Josephine St. didn’t lead its original roadhouse-style menu with a chicken fried steak, but the error has since been corrected. CFS is a condition of Texas citizenship, after all. With a crust as craggy as the snoot of a weather-worn cowpoke, Josephine’s CFS is duded up with just enough pepper-flecked cream gravy to fill in some of the arroyos. This I’d order again. I’d also repeat house-fried spuds and coleslaw spiked with serrano — as arid in its judicious dressing as the wilt was daunting in dampness.

The green beans offer standard tomato and bacon sidekicks in a punchy potlikker that more than compensates for the beans’ just-short-of-mushy texture. However, the 10 oz. bone-in strip steak — replacing a boneless original that, like most of the meat selections in that original review, “benefitted by a discreet application of A-1 Sauce” — arrived undercooked for medium rare and with unexceptional zest. The menu claims the gristle along the bone “adds extra flavor,” but the kitchen doesn’t believe it either as A-1 is still on the table. A-1 is not the answer.

The debut menu offered one dessert, a Sara Lee cheesecake tarted out with strawberries. Josephine’s eventually got me with a “fresh baked” peach cobbler that now shares space with the likes of Jack Daniel’s pecan pie and a Toll House cookie bar. Yes, I now know a cobbler offered year-round will be made from canned or frozen fruit, but many a mighty fine cobbler has been made out of season. This, served barely warm and swamped in cinnamon, just wasn’t one of them.

It seems reasonable to ask if a vastly expanded menu is necessarily a better menu. Both the question and the answer may also be irrelevant. The place was already full at 6:45 p.m. on a Wednesday, while cars outside played parking roulette for the closest available space.

Many may visit out of habit or nostalgia, to pay homage to the eatery’s truncated pecan tree or the neon Fincke’s Market sign that reveals the name of the building’s previous occupant — a butcher who would surely be shocked at a $25.95 Prime NY Strip and the baller-bait Silver Oak Cabernet ($95.00) that could accompany it.

Restaurant criticism is likely the last thing on these diners’ minds, which is a conundrum.

If the food world has become broader and more sophisticated, the task of the restaurant critic has become both easier and more difficult. In those uncertain early days, it was enough to have a reasonable knowledge of food, to be willing to try anything — and to know a woman with a large purse and possess a certain sense of petty larceny.

The internet, of course, changed everything. Not only is news of the latest food fad immediately available to the world at large, but the danger is that the loudest voice becomes the one most heard. The posting of food porn on Instagram is not going away any time soon, but neither is serious, experience-based criticism.

According to Casey, a critic is someone who observes a battle from the safety of a mountain top, then descends to the valley after it’s over to dispatch the wounded. Not true. I sometimes bring bandages. Often, they’re not enough.
So many restaurants, so little time. Find out the latest San Antonio dining news with our Flavor Friday Newsletter.

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