Back in 1995, Harley Livingston and his wife, Margaret, opened a little diner with Southern roots. Livingston was the only cook and his wife the only server - which was fine, because they weren't getting much business. Then Kim Severson, long-time food writer for the Daily News, wrote a favorable review, and folks started packing into the homey space for brisket, fried pickles and pie. Harley's Old Thyme Cafe has been busy ever since.
Livingston was born into a food-loving family in Oklahoma, beginning his culinary career at the tender age of 12 in his uncle's restaurant. In the early '60s, when he was 23, he opened his first restaurant. Then came stints cooking for hotel chains and hospitals before winding up in Anchorage in 1978. Eventually he decided he wasn't quite busy enough and his eponymous café was born.
Harley's has a huge menu. (And if you look at the online menu, it also includes a dancing baby.) My friend and I had to deliberate at length before we could decide on the H.B. Scrapwich ($9.50) and chicken-fried steak ($10.65). Harley's has the type of menu that inspires crazy people like me to think, "I wonder how long it would take me to eat every single thing on here," and then to start mathematically calculating visits per week times number of years, factoring in specials and dessert and doctor's warnings.
The appeal is dishes like reindeer 'n' beans ($9.95), pig fingers ($9.25) and "This Ain't Chili" ($9.50), a type of deconstructed brisket nachos. No fewer than 22 side dishes are available, perhaps stretching the genre a little (peach cobbler or banana pudding with your turkey club?) but comforting in its breadth. No judgment here when you ask for three deep-fried sides, as I did, with a fried entrée.
The chicken-fried steak came out with fried pickles ($3), fried okra, onion rings and mac and cheese. Surprisingly, the sides outshone the steak, which was not nearly crispy enough for my taste. Everything else was spot-on, in that I felt a certain release of tension at the first bite of Velveeta-drenched macaroni.
My friend's brisket sandwich was incredible -- crispiness, chewiness and tenderness intermingled in a single pile of barbecued glory, the bun melting into the meat and the sauce dripping willy-nilly onto the plate. She became unresponsive for several minutes.
Our server talked us into a piece of coconut cream pie ($2.95) with the magic words, "Harley baked the pies this morning." Tall, fluffy, dusted with coconut and wearing whipped cream like a jaunty top hat, the custard was coconut essence -- neither overpowering or cloyingly sweet, just light and refreshingly tropical.
For my next visit, I ordered the chorizo scramble ($9.95) and sourdough pancakes ($7.65) to go. It was Sunday, and every Sunday Harley's gives a free pecan pancake with every order. I found this little treasure when I got home and eyed it curiously -- pancake on one side, a pecan-toffee-brittle on the other. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Then I took a bite, and seconds later I was dangling it over my sleeping husband's face, demanding that he try it. Being used to this type of behavior, he did, and it literally made him sit up and take notice. But there was only one and I lamented the years that I had not been eating these non-stop.
The sourdough pancakes, made with Harley's own starter, had the taste of tangy authenticity. We both enjoyed the scramble, which was generously laden with mild chorizo.
Besides the tried-and-true food, Harley's has excellent, friendly service, the kind that is epitomized in small-town diners but so rarely seen anymore. A type of genuine neighborliness pervades the café, whether you are a new customer or confirmed regular.
Kim Severson got it right the first time: There are poseur diners and then there's the real thing. Harley's is the silver spoon of greasy spoons.
By Riza Brown
Daily News correspondent