It’s a long haul, but Christi’s Cafe is worth the drive. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

As soon as you walk into Christi’s Cafe, located in Valley Station, you know the fun is about to begin.

Pink is everywhere, a mural of the logo reaches out to your gaze from the back wall, homemade cakes beckon from the lunch counter, and photos of celebrities line the walls along the ceiling. There are photos of Marilyn Monroe — lots of photos of Marilyn Monroe.

Lunchtime crowds tell the story. | Photo by Kevin Gibson

My girlfriend, Cynthia, and I went for lunch recently and found the place buzzing — just one table was empty, a server told us to sit wherever we would like, so we grabbed it.

We quickly noticed the servers, all of whom were female, wore matching pink T-shirts bearing the phrase “Cancer Sucks.” Yes, yes it does.

We then noticed a T-shirt and sign noting that proceeds from shirt sales benefit Shirley’s Way, a local organization that helps families dealing with cancer to face the resulting financial difficulties.

“Cancer Sucks” is the organization’s spot-on motto. Nice touch to benefit a local cancer charity while filling people’s bellies.

Our smiling server quickly took our drink orders and brought menus, which beamed with so many homestyle- and diner-esque dishes that we could scarcely decide. Appetizers like fried green tomatoes and fried cauliflower gave way to homemade chili, country fried steak sandwich, fried bologna, beef liver and onions, and open-face roast beef.

There’s also a bulging breakfast menu filled with biscuits, ham, eggs and more.

I briefly eyeballed a menu item known as the Big Dixie Challenge, a triple-decker burger that is free — including a commemorative T-shirt — if you can finish it within 45 minutes. Much larger than the Big Mouth burger, the Big Dixie Challenge is a monstrosity that throws back to the Sweet Daddy Burger of Genny’s Diner fame.

“It’s a three-pound burger,” our server said. Not wanting my colon to rupture on this particular day, I opted for the far safer Big Mouth burger with cheese, onions, lettuce, pickles and mustard, skipping the mayo and tomato. Cajun crinkle-cut fries were my side of choice, although there are several from which to choose: mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, onion rings, seasoned green beans, etc.

The Big Mouth country fried burger | Photo by Kevin Gibson

For her part, Cynthia couldn’t take her eyes off the Big Mouth country fried burger, which is just what you think it is: A thick hamburger, rolled and battered like country fried steak, and then served on a bun — with country gravy on top. Her curiosity took over, and she ordered it with a side of fried okra.

As we waited for our food amidst the lunchtime din — we saw an order of boneless fried chicken go by that was enormous — I noticed a proclamation from the city celebrating the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary.

(Our server noted that Christi’s had been open for one year in a different location, and has now been in its current spot for 10 years.) Owner Christi Druin is a Valley Station High School grad and resident who has six kids and, clearly, a big heart.

I then began to notice that every server who walked by our table shot us a smile, and literally within seconds of me jotting “there are a lot of smiles here” in my notes, our food came to our table. Lo and behold, looking up from my bun at me was a smiley face made with yellow mustard.

How can you not smile when someone places that in front of you?

The food looked and smelled wonderful. I assembled my “smile burger,” keeping the thick, tasty pickle slices on the side, and took a bite. Fresh ground beef, fresh onions, spot on. Was it special? No. But it was darn good and quite a hearty lunch.

I couldn’t quite finish it, so clearly there was no reason to order the Dixie Challenge. About halfway through, I realized they’d forgotten the lettuce, but I wasn’t worried about that. The onions provided plenty of fresh crunch.

I have since nicknamed it the “Smile Burger.” | Photo by Kevin Gibson

I did note that the default setting at Christi’s is to cook the burgers medium well; I prefer medium rare, but it’s my fault for forgetting to order it that way. I was probably just distracted by all the smiles.

Cynthia took one bite of her massive burger, which dripped with white, peppery gravy, and said, “Sweet baby Jane, I’m in love.”

The inch-thick burger was coated in a batter that literally made it taste like a cross between a hamburger and a piece of fried chicken, and the gravy only enhanced this illusion.

The burger came with full dressing on the side (tomato, lettuce, onion, etc.), but it was completely unnecessary, and maybe even unnatural, for a burger like that one. I managed to get a few bites, and it was quite an experience. Truly impressive.

The fried okra was spot-on, and the crinkle fries were cooked perfectly. All in all, a fine lunch, and Cynthia finished it off with a piece of chocolate cake that lived up to how delicious it looked as it stared from beneath the glass cover on the counter.

It’s quite a drive out to Christi’s from the city’s epicenter, but Cynthia and I both agreed it was worth the long haul around I-265 to get there. The portions are big, the prices are small, and it’s just one of those places where it’s nearly impossible to not be happy.

Christi’s Cafe, located at 12810 Dixie Hwy., is open Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m.-9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m.-10 p.m.

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