Justin Fox Burks
Momma’s Veggie: house baked tofu, red bell pepper, lettuce, red onion, pickle, mayo (or vegan sub), extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar
I hate to admit this, but here goes: I tend to stereotype food. Suggest comfort food, and I think meat loaf and a heap of creamy mashed potatoes. Memphis food? Barbecue, for sure. Diner food? Coffee, eggs, and hash browns served all day and all night.
My expectations for diner food are especially strong, because my favorite restaurant growing up was Bob’s Big Boy. (I will never forget the hot fudge cake.) So imagine my surprise the first time I ate at Three Angels Diner on Broad. Yes, there were griddle burgers and cold salad plates on the menu, but a tofu sandwich with red onion was also listed, along with daily specials like soba noodle stir-fry and sweet potato soup.
I couldn’t help but wonder: What in the world is going on here?
In hindsight, I should have realized early on that Three Angels is not an ordinary diner. Tucked in the east end of the Broad Avenue Arts District, it fits seamlessly into a historic neighborhood where residents have enough chutzpah to paint their own bike lanes. Even more telling are the likes and accomplishments of owners Jason and Rebecca Severs, the couple behind Bari in Overton Square, and the diners’ name, a playful take on the Severs’ three young children.
Actually, there are six little angels when you add in the family of sous chef Jason Doty. “I also have three kids under the age of 8,” Doty says, “and I jumped at the chance to work here. I’ve never had so much fun cooking.”
There is family bonhomie at Three Angels Diner, but this place is no Chick-fil-A. A full bar serves beer, wine, and cocktails until 2 a.m., but meals arrive fast enough to please fidgety kids. With only eight tables in the restaurant, quick turnarounds also appease the overflow crowd that is sometimes waiting, especially for Sunday brunch, which begins at 11 a.m.
Open since last fall for lunch and dinner, brunch is a more recent add-on, so I stopped by a few weeks ago and sat at the bar where I could enjoy the restaurant’s kitschy decor: electric blue walls, pinball machines, ceiling fans on a slow spin, and waitresses wearing cute vintage aprons. When my friend arrived, we ordered Bloody Marys, a spicy mid-day favorite priced (like the other brunch cocktails) at $5 each.
Our food arrived quickly, and I wished immediately that I’d gone with my friend’s choice: a frittata made with egg whites. About the size of a cake plate, the frittata looked like a lovely meringue pie, fluffy in the center with a crusty edge. But instead of chilled and sweet, the eggs were a warm, white blanket for a savory mix of garlic, tomatoes, smoked Gouda, and fresh chopped herbs.
My dish was scrambled tofu, another savory success thanks to sautéed onions, smoked paprika, and large colorful chunks of red bell pepper and portabella mushrooms. As sides, I ordered garlic cheese grits (excellent!) and biscuits. Initially, I was disappointed in the biscuits. Instead of butter and bounce, these biscuits were crunchy and healthy, but by the second one, I liked them just fine.
I found out later that the biscuits were vegan, a description I hesitate to use, because some people shut down when they hear the v-word. Please don’t. At Three Angels Diner, there’s only one mantra: Serve fresh, appealing food that is affordable, locally sourced, and tastes good. To that end, the diner’s changing list of vegetables is seasonal, and some arrive daily from Urban Farms, located just a few blocks away. Veggies also are prepared with a light touch: turnip greens blanched with a sweet vinaigrette; Brussels sprouts oven roasted with garlic; mushrooms cooked with cumin and paprika.
Sometimes, this fresh approach translates into an inspiring twist on diner classics. On another visit, I tried Asian slaw with red pepper, broccoli florets, and chipotle peppers. Instead of its typical seat on the sidelines, this slaw was a standout player with kick. Luckily, I’d also ordered a strawberry-limeade, one of a changing cast of combinations squeezed from fresh fruit every day.
As with most diners, the menu at Three Angels is the same for lunch and dinner and tops out at $9. Salads and sandwiches are less. I’ve eaten there a handful of times, ordering from the menu and the chalkboard specials, and have never been disappointed. My only complaint has been food served a time or two at the wrong temperature, something easily remedied by the kitchen.
So far, my favorites have been the adult grilled cheese, a lovely, melted mess of Gouda, goat, cheddar, and green onions, and Earl’s salad, an iceberg wedge with croutons, pepper bacon, and gorgonzola buttermilk dressing that was so good we ordered two instead of trying to share.I also loved Three Angels’ take on a Southwestern favorite called pozole — slow-cooked pork, guajillo chilies, and hominy served with avocado, radishes, cilantro, and lime slices — and the diner’s burgers, which come three ways: a one-half pounder or smaller versions griddle-steamed or griddle-fried. All are served with house-made ketchup, mayo, chips, and deviled egg. (Severs’ motto: Why buy it if you can make it?)
Throughout the menu, dishes like blueberry pancakes and lemon icebox pie please adults and children alike. Add a fun wait staff, trendy location, and eco-friendly vibe, and it’s safe to say that Three Angels Diner is blessed with perfect timing. M