One of the first places I was taken to when I arrived in San Antonio, more years ago than I’d care to admit, was Earl Abel’s. Then located at the corner of Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue, it was famed for its call-you-honey waitresses, mile-high pies and fried chicken — the latter available at all hours via a drive-thru window. It was considered a local icon at a time when the term didn’t seem trite or clichéd.
Times changed, and eventually the restaurant moved to Austin Highway under a new management team that tried hard to replicate the feel and menu of the original. That crew survived longer than might have been expected — at least until times changed again. Under even-newer management, Earl Abel’s is now located in tinier, more fashionable digs next to Pearl.
It’s not fair to suggest that the shrinking size comes with diminished expectations, but there is this observation: the only hints of the original operation are a display case full of pies and pastries, a few kitschy sayings on the walls and the wax-works butler that was a fixture at the Broadway location. Little surprise, fried chicken remains on the menu.
Relentless marketing and pollo-centric food porn have raised our visual expectations of fried chicken — perfectly golden, geographically craggy and practically levitating above a plate. Imagine the disappointment when my two-piece — one light, one dark — plate arrived at lunch. The expected crags had been reduced to bare hillocks with a dull brown color, and the portions were accompanied by a flat, sad looking biscuit.
The taste wasn’t at all bad, with the dark meat portion juicier than the breast, as is usually the case. As sides, I ordered “the best macaroni and cheese” and cole slaw. At best, the mac and cheese was ordinary, though at least they didn’t try to trick it out with truffle oil. The cole slaw, flecked with what appeared to be tiny bits of pineapple, was acceptable.
Brunch was a better story. Served all day Saturdays and Sundays, brunch attracted a decent crowd on the outdoor patio, its fire pits blazing to ward off a slight chill. Brunch is also the restaurant’s largest menu category and where ol’ Earl attempts to update its homey food offerings with creations including the kale-and-egg white superfood frittata and cider-glazed pork belly. I briefly considered the slightly renegade rancheros Benedict with black bean and cheddar-stuffed quesadillas, but in the end I didn’t trust tricks too new. Chicken-fried steak seemed like a better test of traditions preserved. This despite the claim that the CFS is made with Akaushi beef.
The steak was decent, but by the time it’s tenderized, fried to a fare-thee-well and doused in peppery gravy, the classy breed of beef is the least of it. The drop biscuit that came with the plate was better than the first example, though it still needed salt. The accompanying hash browns were shreddy and light as opposed to crisp and greasy — and better for it.
Though I had pie on two separate occasions, I’m going to lump them together here as a dessert course. Those offerings appear on a board at the bakery window near the bar, and not all of them will be available on any given day. But no matter which you happen upon, I have to believe all will be plagued by the same, sub-standard, under-baked crust. Of the two fillings, I much preferred the coconut meringue with its delicate custard and toasty, coconut-strewn topping. The maple pecan, crowned with unconvincing whipped cream but real pecans, tasted of extract, and its texture was pasty.
But wait. There’s solace of sorts to be had in the bar. Stopping well short of suggesting you try the chicken leg accessorized bloody Mary, I can report that Abel’s Ace — gin, lemon and pomegranate juices, egg white — was a properly made drink. First, its given a dry shake to emulsify the egg, then shaken again with ice. It’s also pretty.
1639 Broadway, (210) 444-9424, earlabelssa.com
Mon-Fri: 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat: 8 a.m.-8 p.m., Sun: 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Accessible
Sandwiches and plates: $9.95-$14.95
Best bets: chicken fried steak, pork belly, bar drinks
The skinny: The fourth incarnation of a beloved San Antonio restaurant that began life on North Main Street in 1933, Earl Abel’s spent decades at Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue before its most recent move, into a former burger joint next to Pearl. Some historic décor made the transition, as did the once-legendary fried chicken. Nostalgia may make that chicken better than it actually was, but the current iteration isn’t in any way exceptional. Nor are the pies, which may also suffer from the same, rosy, reappraisal. Chicken-fried steak was decent, however, and bar drinks show real promise. Maybe the new owners need a little more time to exorcize Earl’s ghost and develop some nostalgia-worthy aspects of their own.
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