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cheap eats
by dan leone

Smother me

I CAN'T REMEMBER if it was a foreign movie or a Woody Allen movie when Woody Allen was making foreign movies – the one where there are two trains leaving a station, and on one train the people are in color, laughing and partying and drinking and making out with one another and having the times of their lives in general. On the other train, with Woody, in black and white, everyone is staring suicidally straight ahead or out their windows, looking like they've just been diagnosed with fatal diseases and the 49ers lost.

That's what it was like last night at the Bank Club Cafe in Emeryville. On the bar side of the place, with its richly lit wooden walls and loud music, people were shooting pool and hanging out around cozy little tables, boisterously talking and laughing and drinking cold drafts; in the café side of the café, under stark fluorescent lights and between tile walls, nothing but the noise of the bar by way of legitimate atmosphere, it was me and the cook/waitressperson's young son, elbows into an ugly fake-wood counter with a cold draft coming from either the door or our cook/waitressperson/mom's bad attitude. In her defense, it was 6:30 p.m., and the kitchen closes at 7, and if I worked on the Woody Allen train, I'd be itching to get off of work and go home too – and I'd get there by way of that other train, if possible. (But she had her son in tow, so such shenanigans would probably not be possible for her.)

Wait. It gets bleaker: they were out of gravy. I wanted smothered chickens for dinner, but they didn't have anything to smother with, so that left me with unsmothered chickens (fried), meat loaf, turkey wings, and pork chops to choose from. There was a whole wallful of menu stuff, including breakfasts, up over the door to the bar, but the waitressperson had already pointed me to the chalkboard menu in the corner, which had those five or six things on it, all for right around six or seven bucks.

I chose chickens ($6.50) and regretted it as soon as she pulled three pieces of already fried chicken from a big tray next to the stove and disappeared around the corner, presumably on her way to the microwave.

This is all my fault, by the way, and I'm not done kicking myself – as I may have mentioned a few weeks ago, when I tried to get to the Bank Club and wound up with a wonderful Black Muslim Bakery fish sandwich to show for it. Years ago someone sent me a menu for the Bank Club Cafe, and that menu had Cincinnati chili on it, but I never noticed until last month (damn me), by which time the place had changed hands (damn it). Now they are strictly soul food, specializing in smothered stuff.

Sans smother. The good news was that they sure were big chickens. And we all know where I stand on the issue of quantity vs. quality. If I have to choose, I mean. In an ideal world, I'd just eat at Gravy's all the time. But – and I think this might be the point Woody (or whoever) was trying to make – there is no ideal world. There is no Gravy's Train, so to speak. And in some cases, such as last night at the Bank Club, there isn't even any gravy.

So you eat your dried fried, and you shut up, and you like what you can like about it. It was big: two big wings and a thigh so huge I thought at first it was a breast. I don't know what those Emeryville chickens are eating these days, but I'll have what they're having for my little chickens. Something tells me it's not just corn and grass and bugs.

Then the other good thing was that the sides were great. You get two with your dinner, and I chose pinto beans and cabbage – the alternatives being yams and rice (without gravy). The beans were great. The cabbage was great. The chicken was better than KFC. The little disk of cornbread could have substitute-hockey-pucked for a living – and it did need work. Or butter, or – but if I say gravy one more time I think I might have to scream.

Other than that, I don't know what to tell you about the Bank Club Cafe, except to go there for lunch, if you're going to go, because then, you gotta figure, there'll be plenty of gravy (aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!), and the chicken, though it won't be made to order, at least will not have been waiting around for you all afternoon.

Bank Club Cafe. 3900 San Pablo, Emeryville. (510) 654-2981. Tues.-Fri., 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Takeout available. Credit cards not accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Dan Leone is the author of Eat This, San Francisco (Sasquatch Books), a collection of Cheap Eats restaurant reviews, and The Meaning of Lunch (Mammoth Books).