Robert Sweet lives in Crowley, but he stops into the Arlington Black-eyed Pea, 25 miles away, every time he passes through town, which isn’t often enough. Sweet, a burly guy in a bright yellow T-shirt who is waiting for his takeout at the bar, says it would be “devastating and heart-wrenching” if his favorite restaurant shut down for good.
“The pork chops here are so good, they’re dangerous,” he says. On this day, though, Sweet opts for salmon with carrots and green beans, a healthier item that was definitely not on the menu when I frequented the Fort Worth Black-eyed Pea on Camp Bowie Boulevard with my family, as a kid in the early 1980s.
Unlike its heyday, when there were 130 locations around the United States, the Arlington restaurant is the last Black-eyed Pea in Texas. All the Tennessee locations are shuttered, and only a handful remain in Colorado. For some, the fact that this country-cooking chain has dwindled down to one might not seem shocking, but those people have likely never eaten the deep-dish chicken potpie.
Dallas restaurateurs Gene Street and Phil Cobb opened the first Black-eyed Pea on Cedar Springs Road in Dallas in 1975, and the fried okra, squash casserole, and buttery rolls seduced generations of Texans. Many of those recipes came from Street’s mother, who lived in Salado. In September 2016, though, twelve of the remaining Texas Black-eyed Pea locations abruptly shut their doors for good after declaring bankruptcy in 2015.
I hadn’t heard about the bankruptcy or the closings, so I’m not sure what got me thinking about Black-eyed Pea’s evergreen-colored awning and curly sign font. Maybe I was missing Mamaw and Pampaw, who would always order chicken-fried steak smothered in gravy. When I started searching for the closest location to Hutto, where I live, I couldn’t believe it was 180 miles away in Arlington. I watched TV news clips from 2016 showing defeated regulars walking up to eat lunch only to find out about the bankruptcy. One woman was “astonished.” Another, as if dissociating from shock, lamented, “Today is Wednesday. It’s potpie. Chicken potpie . . .”
Like the customers in the news clips, I was crushed to learn about the closings. So, like Sweet, I decided to trek to Arlington.
“We get so many calls where people say, ‘Oh my God, you’re still open?’ ” says owner Cheri Coffin, who has worked at various locations of the chain in North Texas since she started as a server in Mesquite in 1987, when she was seventeen years old. “We have the same regular customers who come in every day. It’s like Cheers.”
Because of all those phone calls, Coffin put a billboard up on Highway 360 that says “OMG Yes, We’re Still Open.” Street and Cobb sold the chain in 1986, and Coffin says the Arlington location was under a different umbrella corporation than the other twelve Texas restaurants that closed, so she was able to scrape the funds together to buy it. She studied journalism and marketing at UT Arlington and never thought she’d manage a restaurant, let alone own one. “This place is my heart and soul,” Coffin told me over a video call. When all the other locations folded, she couldn’t bear to let the kitchen close for good. Through the pandemic, she and her loyal employees did whatever they could to keep the place going.
“We’ve all had broken bones and cauterized nerves,” she says. “But we’re still standing.” One of the reasons Coffin bought the location was that she couldn’t stand to see longtime employees lose jobs. When the bankruptcy happened, she says she would get angry calls from people asking why and how her location was open, while they were left without a paycheck. She couldn’t save every employee’s job, but she could save a few.
Now, almost daily, the phone rings and it’s someone shrieking with disbelief that they’ve found the last Black-eyed Pea in the state. “When I get those calls from people, it makes me goosebumpy,” Coffin says.
On a Friday in April, I hit the road to see if it would measure up to my memories.
I drove into the Arlington Highlands complex wanting to be transported to a time before kale and keto. It was 11:30 a.m. and several customers sat in black booths or at square wooden tables, eating salads and sipping from plastic cups of sweet tea or Coke.
Coffin is out working a catering job, so I meet manager Jennifer Peyton, who has worked at different Black-eyed Pea locations over the last 20 years. “I do a little bit of everything,” she says. When Peyton shows me around the kitchen, she introduces everyone by their name, and she also makes sure to add how many years they’ve worked there: Claudio, 20 years; Jorge, 36 years; “Pedro is the rookie,” she says; “Sharky,” a plucky server, has been there for seven.
The phone rings and Peyton excuses herself to go answer it.
“I got red beans, I got black-eyed peas, I got carrots,” she tells the caller. “I got fried corn, I got green beans. I told you, I got it all.”
When she hangs up, she tells me it was a woman who couldn’t believe she’d found a Black-eyed Pea, and she wanted to make sure the menu was legit and not some knock-off.
“I told her, ‘Girl, we have everything,’ ” Peyton says. “She said they’re driving right over from Dallas.”
The lucky ones, like friends Sandy Norrod and Nelda Blackburn, live close by. Norrod and Blackburn eat starter salads in the back of the restaurant, just like they do every Friday. Norrod tells me she and her husband eat at the Black-eyed Pea three times a week.
“Cheri fought real hard to keep it open,” Norrod says. “If it closed, my family would starve to death.”
Beverly Majkut, a local retiree, started coming in for lunch every Friday once pandemic restrictions eased, “so I wouldn’t go insane,” she says. She adores the food, but also appreciates the feel of the place. “I get a charge out of seeing all the different ages and races. It’s not just old people, even though there are a lot of those,” she says.
Peyton hands me a to-go bag full of squash casserole, black-eyed peas, fried okra, and those glistening buttery rolls and cornbread. I tell her I might just have to drive the 180 miles back up from Hutto soon for another meal.
“We have one guy who comes in town from Houston to visit his daughter up here, and he always comes in with a huge empty cooler and fills it with pot roasts and pork chops and shepherd’s pie,” Peyton says. Hauling a bunch of to-go pot roasts across the state might seem extreme, but I admire him.
When I get home to Hutto and share the meal with my husband and son, I swear it’s a transcendent experience. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to being back at that old Black-eyed Pea on Camp Bowie with my grandparents. If I close my eyes and take a bite, I’m right there.