Much about Merritt's Country Cafe is big. From the weathered sign that towers over the cafe, an indicator State Street commuters can see for hundreds of yards; to the oversized, plastic-covered menus rife with spelling errors that fold out almost as far as an adult human's arm span (and which contain two full pages of breakfast); to the smile on the busy server's face; to the giant eagle's nest mural in the women's bathroom; to the single-person plates that look like courses for family style dining. It's big.
The I.T. Guy loves eggs Benedict like rappers love their shorties, and spending a Sunday morning over a plate of Benny is his idea of a perfect end to the week. At 8-ish on a Sunday morning, the sounds of Slayer or Poison pounding out of the jukebox, the I.T. Guy ordered eggs Benedict. With the cafe's famous scones on my mind—the deep-fried elephant ears kind you get at the fair, not the dense British triangle type—I ordered a la carte, pairing one with a sausage patty and an order of hashbrowns.
Sadly for the I.T. Guy, the Benny was covered in cheese sauce and not a true hollandaise. His disappointment was quickly replaced by astonishment and a twinge of joy when he lifted one of his eggs with a fork to discover a ham steak so large it covered both English muffins, laying over the sides like a queen-sized blanket on a twin bed.
The hashbrowns were fine, as was the sausage patty, but it was the scone I was after. A bottle of honey graces every table at Merritt's, but I kept my pale pastry golden pure-ish by spreading a bit of butter on the already powdered sugar-covered surface. Maybe it's the crunch followed by the airy chew in which the scone's appeal lies, but whatever it is, little else compares with the fried delight. So much so, that one of the cafe's $2 "I Got Sconed" bumper stickers could be applied with as much veracity and pride as one reading "My super smart kid is an honor student at Super Smart charter school."
The next visit was also at 8-ish, but on a Tuesday evening. Sharing the restaurant with a foursome of teens, two seniors at the counter and Led Zeppelin rocking from the juke, we ordered the chicken strip dinner ($8.95) and the Trucker's Special No. 2, a burger with Swiss cheese and ham ($5.75). Both were sided with fries, and the strips came with salad and scone nuggets (a misnomer if I've ever heard one). The I.T. Guy foolishly supplemented his as-yet-unseen portions with a boysenberry shake ($3.95). When the waitress plunked down our plates, seasoned though she appeared to be, I assumed she'd made a mistake. We hadn't ordered a full chicken, and it was supposed to come with nuggets, not mattresses upon which hundreds of fries lay their crinkly little heads. The mattresses were a famous scone cut in fours, the chicken was two huge strips, and the meal was ours. Though the oil the chicken was cooked in may have been due for a change, the "strips" (more like landing strips) were brown and crispy outside, moist in. Dipped in also homemade sweet-tart honey mustard, they were hard to put down. I slathered a bit of homemade bleu cheese dressing on the burger, and even the tangy, salty flavor couldn't hide the rich, smoky taste of the ham. The fries, some a little overcooked like I like them, held up beautifully as I dragged them through the dressing as well.
For about $20 (including tip), the I.T. Guy and I walked away from dinner stuffed and with two take-out boxes full of the next day's lunch. In the future, we may be at Merritt's any given Tuesday night at around 8 p.m. But next time, we'll share a meal.
—Amy Atkins is taking the "d" out of deep-fried and putting it back in diet. Sigh.
In my mind, I was decked out in a hooded sweatshirt and Carhartts, like usual. I chilled in a booth and then started feeling good about the beats. And then sliding up to the dance floor at Neurolux—or was it somewhere in BoDo—I got my bump on like we used to back East. Maybe we were at the new Bouquet. It's not clear anymore.
I was halfway through whichever barkeep's cheapest dark rum. It was after a fat stogie under the still chilly but springing Boise night sky. It was the time of night, early morning actually, when we had everything all figured out and were famished.
It was the kind of night that is ancient history in my Hunter Thompson meets Cliff Huxtable world. But it's the kind of night that, in Boise at least, ends at Merritt's.
That was the fantasy. In reality, Amy Atkins and I had big plans for this review (as described above, from my point of view). But reality is sometimes hampered by other facts: family, fatigue, flat tires, creeping middle-aged lameness. So we met up for a reasonable Sunday morning breakfast at Merritt's—kids, spouses, used envelopes to scribble down notes all in tow.
I had been to Merritt's before and remembered it (fondly, actually) as a smoky and rather dirty joint. But walking in with fresh, hungry eyes, I was struck by the utter calm that suffused the dozen or so parties fork deep into their scones.
Everyone was speaking in hushed tones, like at a museum. Waitresses moved slowly through the small dining room pouring coffee.
Even my kids relaxed into their chairs, seeking things to throw on the floor (gently) or stick in their mouths (quietly).
The menu at Merritt's is huge and overwhelming. It contains everything you think you'd find—all the standard eggy things, pancakes, breakfast meats, and a full lunch menu, too. As we reviewed the menu and discussed the progression of our weekends, the calmness in the room took a detour. "Is that a jukebox?" I asked, as Marvin Gaye glissaded across the dining room at an optimal breakfast volume.
But, back to the menu. Focus. There are some weird dishes that I was naturally drawn to. The Indian Scone, for one. Or the Scone Eldarado [sic] ($7.95 plus 75 cents extra for sour cream). My Eldarado was basically a gringo taco in which the taco was replaced with a giant, lumpy-soft scone, not the tiny, hard English scone you may be used to. Topped with ground beef, iceberg, chili and cheese, and a side of sour cream, it was quite a sight.
A sight of which I ate every bite. Oh, Mother, Mother, moth, ma, ma, mo ... what's going on? Others in our party were satisfied with the firmness of their eggs (Merritt's Lite, $4.50, two eggs, two bacon strips, English muffin), though the Benny—perhaps connected to the apparent lack of real cream in the place—left something to be desired.
The coffee was refilled frequently, though, again, there was no cream, just milk. Which did not bother me, but could ruin a sister's morning coffee, I suppose, if she pours that way.
It took a while to get down through the taco meat and stuff to the scone, but let's talk about the scones for a while. My daughter, not quite 1 year old, nearly foreswore nursing for these things. Her eyes rolled into the back of her skull, as she licked and sucked the grease off of the fistful I handed her. She kneaded the scone into a saliva-laden mess and then begged for more.
The scones at Merritt's are large and in charge. Most of them are on the sweet side, but some of them complement a meal or even make up half a breakfast, as in the case of the Eldarado.
Someday I will find a reason to be out late and check this place out after midnight. But until then, I'll add it to my breakfast list and venture up State Street from time to time for a gilded scone and the quiet calm of a place that never sleeps.
—Nathaniel Hoffman nurses his coffee, black and bitter.