Tootsies Salad Express–Familiarity with a side order of variety (and barbecue sauce)

“I think I’m going to be underwhelmed by Tootsies,” I said to my companion as we walked towards Reading Terminal Market. “Underwhelmed?” he responded, “I didn’t think you’d even been whelmed yet.”

True. When setting upon a project like eating at each stand in the Reading Terminal Market, clearly there are going to be places that you are just not looking forward to very much. Tootsies Salad Express, a throwback to nights at Sizzler with my sister who discovered it as a teenager and loved it mainly for the fact that she could put sprinkles on pudding, definitely fit in this category.

At the same time, Tootsies had a certain charm. As RTM shifts inexorably towards hip foodieism, Tootsies is a mainstay, with three islands with sneeze guards and an array of elderly men and women who, for all I know, have been eating Sunday lunch on the same stool since 1982. In fact, sociologist Elijah Anderson describes one such lady, who takes the bus from Germantown daily to eat at Tootsies, and maybe buy some produce for later, in his book Cosmopolitan Canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. That’s the kind of loyalty that your local gastropub probably just can’t evoke.

remember that song "one of these things is not like the other"? it's the vinaigrette salad in the upper right.

My culinary time travel began with the prepared salad bar, which seemed to only include foods glued together with mayonnaise, from tuna salad to coleslaw. Somewhat drab pieces of cake were scattered around the edge, looking suffocated in plastic. I have a deep aversion to mayonnaise, so I passed this island entirely, as I did, honestly with the second, the DIY salad bar. It looked fine, actually, better than the salad bar at Whole Foods (and if anyone reads this works at Whole Foods, can you up your game a little bit? How about some nicer cheeses? Or some nuts? Did the corporate powers-that-be read those articles about how to work the Whole Foods salad bar system and counter by making everything completely uninteresting and not worth the price?) with a variety of greens, meats, and accoutrements. But, salad? Hardly what someone goes to Tootsies for, so I moved onto Island 3–hot prepared foods.

Well, Dr., I see an ancient sea creature, rearing up out of an oily lake. What's the spoon for? Not in mixed company, Dr.!

Vaguely Southern comfort food, this island offered mac ‘n cheese, collard greens, barbecue chicken, sweet potatoes, yams, chicken stew, sliced pork, white and brown rice, roasted potatoes, chicken tenders, fried whiting and probably another dish or two that I’ve forgotten. When in Rome, I thought, and dug in for some barbecue chicken, collards, and roasted potatoes. My companion requested I eat a chicken tender and fried whiting too, so I threw those on as well. It’s easy to see how unhealthy a meal could get, given the ability to just focus on fried foods to the exclusion of all else.

doesn't the potato in the middle look like Pac-Man?

Certainly, one doesn’t go to Tootsies for ambiance, or ecological friendliness, but, dammit if it isn’t pretty good food. Not the best barbecue chicken, but charred and saucy (though you can add more barbecue sauce on the side if you like, but my god, why?). Eating at Tootsies is sort of like eating at a combination of your neighbor’s pretty good picnic–the roasted potatoes were nicely crisp on the outside, soft inside, and well-salted as potatoes must be–and a decent cafeteria. Or a wedding buffet, held at the VFW. The chicken tender and whiting were both fried perfectly, with no hint of grease, but not much detectable flavoring either. I suppose that’s what the side sauces are for? Collards and mac ‘n cheese were satisfying too, tender in the first case and toothsome in the latter. In any case, it’s good southern-style comfort food, and a reasonable place to fill the gap left by the sudden closing of Delilah’s, which I wasn’t much impressed with anyway. The menu at Tootsie’s changes daily, and I’m going to have to check if they ever have fried chicken, which I’ve been craving, and which I’m going to bet they could do a pretty decent job on. What the Tootsie’s staff definitely does a good job on is offering familiarity within the context of variety and individualization, while maintaining a solid level of execution.

Now, if they only had some pudding and sprinkles, I’d invite my sister.

Recommended: anything vaguely Southern. Probably not the prepared salads, but I couldn’t say. Try one and tell me!

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About Mary Rizzo

No denying it, I like the sensual things of the world, especially good food and drink, though I'm no snob when it comes to either. A background in American cultural history and food studies makes me approach the world with a desire for contextualization and connection on the way to synthesis.
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