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June 20-26, 2007

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First Bite

Red Rose Cafe

By Carey Sweet

I really want to love the charming, earnest, Red Rose Cafe that opened a few months ago in Santa Rosa. And how could I not? It seems to be everything I want in a restaurant.

It's family-owned (Arkansas transplants Harold and Nancy Rogers do the cooking, with their bevy of kids and grandkids helping out). It's as cute as a button, looking like a little cottage with faux brick walls, red vinyl booths and potted plants everywhere. And it serves one of my favorite cuisines: soul food, with Southern staples like barbecue, fried chicken, catfish and sweet potato pie, plus daily specials like smothered pork chops, meatloaf and oxtails.

As a bonus in my book, Red Rose is quirky. Alongside the chicken-fried steak with gravy is a tofu-tempeh scramble and a Thai noodle salad with mint and sweet chili. Perfect for that mixed dining couple of hardcore carnivore and vegetarian, I suppose. Mom and I have certainly come prepared to adore. We've greedily ordered way too much food, not because I feel we should (professional duty) but because it all sounds so delicious.

Except now, we're gnawing on pork ribs ($12.50), easily a full pound mounded in front of us, and the meat nicely edged with glistening fat. But the pork tastes primarily of smoke, and is interesting only when dunked in the mildly spicy-sweet barbecue sauce served on the side. We're working our way through a pile of catfish fillets ($11.50), the breading gummy and the fish dry, revived only by the juices of very wet collard greens we've ordered alongside. We're picking apart crispy fried chicken ($8.25), hoping for a little more good grease than this pressure-cooked (instead of dunked in sizzling oil) bird can give us.

As we poke at a dish of tepid, boiled-to-mush mac and cheese, and avoid ownership of a hot link ($7.25) that's one-dimensional cayenne, I sigh. This isn't the comforting soul food I crave, with deep flavors from achingly slow-cooked tender meat, loads of spunky spices and lots of fat. At least the hot link tastes like something, unlike the watery red beans and rice, or soft-as-paste yams. I focus instead on my salad, an excellent toss of romaine, cucumber, red onion, tomato, mushroom and chopped red pepper in tangy Italian dressing. Cornbread is superb, too, like crunchy edged cake, and mom and I jostle for the last crumbs.

As we wait for our check, I study the menu again. Maybe this visit was on an off day, I tell myself. So the very next week, mom and I are back, anticipating a big brunch of oxtails, rice, gravy and green beans that's listed as a Sunday special--except that the cafe no longer serves it. Our waitress apologizes, explaining that a menu revamp is underway. Mom settles on the chicken, Belgium waffles and rice ($8.50). I get the chicken fried steak ($8.50). We order a combo of ribs (beef and pork) and catfish, in the spirit of second chances.

But problems abound: the waffle is more like a pancake with grill marks; the poultry is just three skinny wings; and the rice never shows. Mom pushes her fork around forlornly, and wishes for the coffee she's requested twice now. Despite its light golden breading, the steak is absolutely raw inside, red and gristly when I try to cut into it. Our waitress is appropriately horrified when she sees it, and rushes the mess back to the kitchen. When the new chicken fried steak arrives 20 minutes later, the cheap-grade meat is burned. Pudding-thick brown gravy studded with bacon is no help, and soggy hash browns desperately need crisping, salt and lots of ketchup. No harm's been done to my side of eggs over easy, but a leaden biscuit isn't worth the butter spread on it.

When we finally leave, it's with unsettled stomachs and upset hearts. Because there's just no kinder way to say it: This rose is seriously wilted.

Red Rose Cafe, 1770 Piner Road, Santa Rosa. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Monday through Saturday; breakfast and lunch, Sunday. 707.573.9741.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.