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A Whole Lotta Soul 

The Goody Pancake House serves up flawless fare

When you go to the Goody Pancake House -- and if you live, work or play anywhere remotely near downtown, or if you just plain know what's good for you, you will -- you will meet Audrey. Audrey will be your hostess, as she will tell you more than once, and once you order your food straight from the cook and carry it to your table yourself, she will bring you plastic utensils and a big bottle of no-name ketchup and a big Styrofoam cup of ice for your can of soda. She's more of a waitress than a hostess, technically speaking, except she doesn't expect tips and she's so damn hospitable that "waitress" somehow seems like an insult. She will check in on you with alarming frequency, and she will tell you over and over how glad she is to take care of you, and she may even ask you whether you live nearby or whether you're religious.

The only drawback to Audrey is that she doesn't come into play until after you've figured out what you want to eat. Goody Pancake House is highly disconcerting on first glance, and newcomers unwittingly sport that glazed-over, dazed-and-confused look of, say, jet-lagged travelers arriving in an unfamiliar airport fourteen time zones away. For starters, you may wonder whether the place has anything to do with the Goody Goody Diner, the institution of blue-plate eats out on Natural Bridge Road. The rumor going around town a couple months ago was that Goody was trying to cop some favorable rep off Goody Goody, hence the name, but one look at Goody confirms that there's nothing Goody Goody about it.

As for Goody, the space is huge (too huge, really), with all the ambience of a health clinic or a bus station. To the right are the tables and booths; to the left is a salad bar, a short cafeteria-style spread with the heat lamps and the sneeze guards, some sort of heated pizza-display box with no pizza in it, a single cardboard sign dangling from the ceiling that reads, "Try Our Gyros," and a menu mounted on the wall behind all this that's about five placards long. You might pick up or be handed a takeout menu to help you decipher all your options, but it will only render you more confused; the paper version mentions even more stuff than what's listed above you. (Jumbo shrimp and foot-long Polish sandwiches and bread pudding, oh my!)

It will take you forever (and maybe even more than one visit) to figure out how it all works: that the salad bar is serve-yourself and all-you-can-eat; that the cafeteria-looking part is where you get the soul food and that it comes in takeout containers whether you're staying or going; that the sandwiches and steak dinners and breakfast foods are all made to order; that there's no pizza on the menu and that there never will be any discernible reason for that barren pizza thing and you're just going to have to let that one go. And, more important than anything, that you are here for the soul food, the soul food, the soul food.

What other culinary genre engenders near-euphoria at the mere discussion of it? (Think about it: "edamame," "California roll," "tekka maki"? Or "chicken and dumplings," "macaroni and cheese," "biscuits and gravy"?) Someday they'll come out with a study affirming the healing power of soul food, and Goody will be ahead of the curve. Whoever's doing the cooking here knows that the keys to cooking this stuff are to simply season with a heavy hand and then submit to the flame with unending patience. There is not one misstep or shortcoming, and it is arguably the best soul food in St. Louis -- not just stick-to-your-ribs good but so-good-the-paper-napkins-stick-to-your-fingers good.

The rotating menu of meats and side dishes reads -- and tastes -- like a greatest-hits playlist of soul classics, all of it mercilessly calorific: fried chicken and neck bones and Salisbury steak and corn on the cob and black-eyed peas and on and on. Turkey legs are haloed by glistening ribbons of fat. Meat loaf comes smothered in blood-red sweet-and-sour sauce (and encased in a nice crust that doesn't belie the tenderness of the meat inside). Collard greens resonate with ham-flavored smokiness. The sweet potatoes will bring you closer to your divine being of choice than any other root vegetable you will meet in your life. Even the boiled cabbage is cooked and peppered to such perfection that it could be eaten straight.

Goody's desserts, sweets in the soul-food vein, are few but worthy follow-ups to all this sumptuousness. The heated peach cobbler is so gooey it's almost one part liquid. The individual slices of cake all retain their moistness even though they're plastic-wrapped on foam plates and waiting for who knows how long by the cash register; the lemon cake is the best. Also look for the chocolate pudding with Nilla wafers that sometimes shows up at the salad bar.

Though there may never be a good enough reason to stray from Goody's soul food, the non-soul-food items rarely disappoint. Unlikely though it may be, the best sandwich here is the gyro. The meat is nicely charred, giving the sandwich a crispiness you don't often get in a gyro, and it comes piled high with lettuce, tomatoes and onions. It's possible that the very same batch of meat is used to put together the Philly cheese steak, even though gyros are supposed to be made with lamb instead of beef, but both are so tasty that it's a forgivable and even laudable inaccuracy. The hamburger holds its own just fine, and the tripe sandwich will please both tripe-o-philes (because of its tender texture and subtle flavor) and tripe-o-phobes (because the sandwich is drenched in enough mustard, pickle and hot sauce to make you forget you're eating the lining of a cow's stomach).

There are two very weak links at the Goody Pancake House. One is the salad bar. Its offerings are largely uninspired, and the produce -- particularly the brown-tipped iceberg lettuce and the soggy cucumbers -- can look downright unappealing and past its prime. Hominy corn is the one truly quirky item, but truth be told, it's too salty and dry to mesh well in salads. The one bright spot: When the croutons are homemade -- which they are occasionally, and you'll be able to tell when they look like fried wontons rather than something off a supermarket shelf -- they are so delicious that you could justifiably help yourself to a bowl of them and call it a meal.

The other unenjoyable part of the menu at Goody Pancake House is, believe it or not, the pancakes. Although the rest of the breakfast items (bacon, sausage, hash browns, grits, etc.) come out just fine, the pancakes are bland and awfully spongy, and it's disheartening to see them served with store-brand syrup, considering how much homemade-ness there is to the rest of the menu. Stick to the soul food, the soul food, the soul food.

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