We were in the middle of our ten day southern road trip, headed to Montgomery and had, so far, been eating more like Californians than southerners. As in avocado toast in Savannah. As in grits but with fancy, artisanal cheese. As in plenty of fresh vegetables. As in sweet tea without the sweet.
It was time for some real southern grub. It was time for Zach’s, which Yelp found for us in Dothan, Alabama.
It was an extraordinary experience from the moment we entered. A sweet hostess, recognizing we had no idea what we were doing, cheerfully led us to an adjacent room, where the line for the buffet spilled into. It was like waiting for a Disney ride – the anticipation, the snaking handrail keeping us in order, the customer friendly signs on the walls with instructions on what to expect once we got to the front of the line.
We must have really radiated our outsiderness, as the hostess found us in line again and explained the how to’s of a Zach’s buffet: Pick a salad. Then pick one main. Then pick two sides. Or skip the main and pick three sides. Or skip one of the sides and pick two desserts. But definitely pick a dessert. Everyone gets dessert. And corn bread. And bread bread.
It was good she prepped us, because I felt overwhelmed when we got to the front of the line. Between all of the different choices, there were dozens of combinations possible. Maybe even hundreds. Fried chicken or beef stew or bbq ribs? Mashed potatoes or mac ‘n cheese or fried cauliflower or dirty rice or collard greens or yams or hush puppies?
Everything oozed life giving (and coma inducing) greasy and fatty goodness.
Hearing that a group of Californians had somehow found their way to his restaurant, Zach himself came out to greet us. Round and jolly, he was the perfect ambassador for his own brand. His wife, not quite as round but just as gregarious, came by to offer just out of the fryer fried green tomatoes and samples of anything else we wanted to try, but couldn’t squeeze onto our plates. Another fellow diner, hearing the hubbub around us, came over to say hi and offer tips on where to go in Natchez, including the country’s oldest saloon. Another waitress refilled our sweet teas and told us her dream of vacationing outside of Alabama, maybe even going to California, now that she was rid of her psychopath husband.
Our time at Zach’s also taught us that there is such an extraordinary thing in this world called Watergate Salad. Which is not a salad at all, but a combination of pistachio pudding, pineapple, and whipped cream. The waitress couldn’t tell us why it was called that. She was even surprised that we would ask, as if she’d never thought about it before.
According to Wikipedia: “Syndicated household advice columnists Anne Adams and Nan Nash-Cummings reported that name came from the similar Watergate Cake (which shares most of the same ingredients): ‘The recipes came out during the Watergate scandal. The cake has a ‘cover-up’ icing and is full of nuts. The salad is also full of nuts.’ Both cake and salad were part of a trend for satirically-named recipes such as Nixon’s Perfectly Clear Consomme and Liddy’s Clam-Up Chowder.”
It looked toxic but was delicious. Everything was delicious. We joked about bringing Zach’s to California, and updating it to accommodate our culture of artisanal/small batch cheeses and gluten-free takes on Americana classics. Funny but not funny, right?
But what’s a southern gut busting buffet without the southern hospitality? Sure, we may one day find $12 Watergate Salad made from local goat milk and sustainably grown pistachios at our hipster Left Coast restaurants. But we know it won’t taste as good without hearing Zach’s big belly laugh and seeing the giddy families and senior citizens lining up, thinking about what combination of mains and sides they are going to choose this time.