In the interest of maintaining some sense of that nebulous word ‘authenticity’, the sandwich Ed Murph has just recently brought to the table cannot justifiably be called Grilled Cheese.
Sure, he calls it that, but a grilled cheese sandwich is just that – cheese grilled between two slices of bread. What Murph has just presented is packed with bacon and green chiles, too, though admittedly, the cheese is abundant. This is no grilled cheese. This is grilled bacongreenchilecheese.
Murph smiles and starts talking about the chiles; where they found them and all the different dishes with which he wants to experiment. He makes it abundantly clear that he enjoys what he does, and with a grin and a hearty hello, makes everyone feel welcome at his cafe.
Though he never would have guessed it nearly 50 years ago when he started frequenting a small cafe in Oak Cliff, today it’s clear to see that Ed Murph has, in more than a small sense, become the Norma at Norma’s Cafe.
“When you would get to the cafe, Norma had that smile and her eyes would light up in a way that would make you feel warm and welcome to her place. And that was genuinely her. That, and her ability with the food, was what attracted a lot of people to the cafe,” says Murph, who bought the cafe in 1986 after being a decades-long customer. “Her personality translated to the restaurant.”
And in the 30 years since, Murph has made it his goal to build on – though still retain – that personality that was so unique to the cafe he frequented so often in his youth. And it’s a mission that Norma’s has accomplished well in Murph’s eyes, and clearly those of his customers. Now with two restaurants – the other is located in Far North Dallas, Norma’s has continued to retain the feeling of a welcoming, down-home diner without trying to simply appeal and rely on the nostalgia of generations past.
“For the Addison location, Ed did a great job translating the feel of a 50’s diner into a more modern setting – of course, the building’s 50 years newer. We brought some of the elements up here, though: the stainless steel, the old black and white photographs of Dallas, the counter, and the Texas flag booths are here,” says Bill Ziegler, Director of Operations at Norma’s. “He did a great job of making the 50’s diner translate into the Texas cafe that Norma’s is.”
And while the differences between a 50’s diner and a Texas cafe may be noticeable, there’s little doubt that Norma’s lives up to the idea of what a Texas diner should be – pies and chicken-fried steak included.
Though the grilled cheese (and variants upon it) is loved by the customers at Norma’s, they are particularly proud of their chicken-fried steak. Served under a healthy portion of homemade gravy, the large, twice-breaded cut of top round is crispy on the outside and tender within. The breading adheres well to the meat, and the abundant sides are no mere afterthought.
“The vegetables and the sides may be my favorite thing here,” says Murph. “And I’m also talking about our soups, a tomato basil soup, a beef brisket soup that’s just phenomenal, and I’m crazy about the garlic mushroom soup. But you know we’ve got great navy beans and pinto beans, and I love our turnip greens; it’s the stuff I grew up on. It was not uncommon to have a meal in our household made up of all vegetables, and I really enjoyed that.”
They make it a point to serve healthy portions, too – a fact that Murph knows leads many people to forget to leave room for pie. And a significant pie it is.
There’s a reason they call it mile-high; the meringue makes a reach for the ceiling on many of Norma’s pies, and while Murph claims the coconut creme as his favorite, there are at least a dozen sweet treats to choose from.
But to Murph, what is more important than any of the food they prepare is Norma’s ability to help the community. Twenty-three years ago, Murph began a Thanksgiving tradition of giving meals to those in need, and it has grown to an event that gave more than 6,000 meals last year to the community. Last year, they started a postcard campaign for Texas-based troops serving overseas. There’s a toy drive at Christmas, and events for Big Brothers/Big Sisters. To Murph – and Norma’s as a whole – it’s not just about serving meals; it’s about serving others.
“I think one of the things that Ed has brought to Norma’s was his sense of giving back to the community and being involved in the community and charity,” Ziegler says. “It’s about more than money; it’s about doing anything we can to help people out.”
What it is, is taking a Dallas icon and turning it into a reflection of himself. Murph remembers Norma in her restaurant as a kind, welcoming lady who always made her customers feel at home. He’s continued to do that at his diners, but with one major difference: in the process, he’s making his hometown a better place to be.
by Rich Vana