RECENTLY I purchased a pair of jeans without performing the "sit-down" test. Proud of my ass-loving pants, I paired them up with a smallish T-shirt and sported my bound body down to Tacoma's Southern Kitchen. Here is the story of why this particular outfit in that particular kitchen was a mistake.

In a small red shack up the hill from downtown Tacoma, Gloria Martin wipes the countertop, chats with customers, and washes dishes, dipping in and out of the kitchen that kicks out her legendary Southern specialties. Probably the last restaurant in Western Washington with a screen door, the small but comfortable Southern Kitchen cradles its regulars: college kids, families after church, old folks, everybody. Gloria and Thad Martin bought the place in 1994, and have been slathering their customers with love and country gravy ever since.

Needless to say, on my first visit I bellied up to the Fried Pork Chops (one for $6.95, two for $8.95) with eggs, grits, and biscuits, and while I did clean my plate, it was a question of honor, not hunger, that compelled me to finish. What pushed me right over the edge, though, was the Mango Lemonade ($2.95, fresh strawberry and regular lemonade also available). Mango slices floating in fresh-squeezed lemonade, topped with real whipped cream and served in a mayonnaise jar begs the question: beverage or dessert? In this instance, I had to call it dessert, and, sadly, pass on the award-winning Peach Cobbler ($2.95).

Then came the return visit, in aforementioned snug-fitting jeans. I dragged several hungry helpers along, and, after much study of the extensive, hit-after-hit menu with its concise but effective descriptions (Texas Hotlinks Breakfast $7.95: "Delicious." Period.), we hunkered down to our lunch. The Kitchen offers almost everything served up breakfast-style, with eggs, grits/hash browns, biscuits and gravy, or as a dinner deal with pan-fried cornbread (heavenly--moist and sweet cakes) and three sides (more on those later). This time I ordered the Homebrewed Iced Tea ($1.50) in the hopes of breaking down some of the peppery breading, gravy, and grilled onions on my Chicken Fried Steak ($7.95). Like the helpings of food, the drinks are generous, rendering refills obsolete. Unfortunately, the chicken fried steak was the best and biggest (believe it or not, those words are not synonymous in my hedonist's lexicon) I have ever devoured, and devour I did, unmindful of the swell straining against the rigid waistband of my new jeans. I had the foresight to order strong collards, fortified with even stronger chunks of pork--not exactly a light salad, but a vegetable nonetheless.

My table fellows wore more intelligent outfits and ordered delightful Catfish ($8.95, or two $10.95), delicately fried and served with hush puppies laced with jalapeños. The Southern Fried Chicken (two-piece $6.95, half-chicken $9.95) knocked Ezell's socks off, with its tender flesh ensconced in the perfect balance of fiery spices and crisp breading. Besides hangover-curing REAL mashed taters, you can choose from homemade (of course) sides of mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, black-eyed peas, red beans, rice, buttered corn, cornbread dressing, fried okra.... The candied yams stood out, surprising me, since I generally find yams, well, nauseating. Gloria's yams glistened with butter and had a bite of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, rendering them sweet without being cloying.

What's the secret? Gloria became rather tight-lipped when I pressed for ingredients: "I don't even let my line cooks touch my secret-recipe breading!" Gloria's hands-on approach, her perfectionism, and plain hard work (70 to 80 hours a week) drive her little kitchen to provide inspired standards and knockout specialties. When she talks about her work, her voice resonates with pride. "I love it; you know, it's not just some object I'm selling. Every order is individual and unique, a performance really, every time. It's labor intensive--I had two day's vacation this summer--but so satisfying." It's this unflagging love that works its way into every dish and warms the belly of everybody who stops in. When Gloria announced she'd like to open a place in Seattle, I heard bells tolling for those tight jeans. Ah, well.

Southern Kitchen Restaurant

1716 Sixth Ave, Tacoma, 253-627-4282. Mon-Sat 7 am-8 pm, Sun 10 am-6 pm. No alcohol. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up.