Soul Food

Chowing Down on Detroit Soul Food
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Photograph by Joe Vaughn

Metro Detroit’s connections with the South run deep. It’s a cultural link that’s evident at family dinner tables, where platters of fried chicken and mac & cheese are stalwarts. Fortunately for us, a hankering for cornbread, gravy, or collards can be satisfied at a number of local dine-in and carryout soul-food restaurants. We asked two frequent Hour Detroit contributors to sacrifice their waistlines for this roundup.

Gina’s Soul Food and Breakfast

17141 E. Eight Mile Rd., Eastpointe; 586-778-7902.

Ask Gina Russell what’s good to eat at her restaurant, and she’ll quickly reply: “Everything.” And from our many experiences at the cozy Eastpointe eatery, she’s right. One of our personal favorites is her waffles and chicken wings, but other dishes that will make you moan in delight are the yams, the catfish, and the short ribs. Gina has studied gourmet cooking, but her preference is soul food prepared with her own twist. She tries to be as health conscious as one can be in preparing soul food, replacing pork fat with smoked turkey in her collard greens, for example. Gina’s is a comfortable dine-in spot with well-appointed décor and a polite, uniformed wait staff. You’ll most likely find Gina banging pots in the kitchen.

Sunday Dinner Company

6470 E. Jefferson, Detroit; 313-877-9255.

Chef Eric Giles admits that the focus of his Southern comfort restaurant on East Jefferson in Detroit is 75-percent people and 25-percent food. As part of their commitment to the community, Giles and his business partner, David Theriault, opened their soul-food restaurant this year on Mother’s Day as a training center, creating employment opportunities for disenfranchised citizens and at-risk youths. Much of the courteous staff was hired through Goodwill Industries and trained personally by Giles to be polished waiters, hosts, cooks, and kitchen staff. In addition to supporting the community, Sunday Dinner serves good food. This dine-in and carryout spot is buffet style, with a server assisting guests with their selections. We liked the dirty rice and seafood, fried chicken, fried corn, and fresh green vegetables.

1917 American Bistro

19416 Livernois, Detroit; 313-863-1917.

Don Studvent wants to make one thing perfectly clear, his chic little restaurant on The Avenue of Fashion in Detroit, is not a “soul-food” restaurant. It’s an American bistro, he says. When we see such menu items as fried catfish, barbecue ribs, and fried chicken, we think soul. Studvent counters, saying his most-popular item is crab cakes. Studvent offers a Sunday brunch, but we prefer the catfish to-order, which was perfection, and the waffles, which were probably the best we’ve ever tasted. Bistro or soul food, this one’s worth a visit.

Beans & Cornbread

29508 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield; 248-208-1680.

Patrick Coleman describes the food he serves as an “epicurean spin on Southern cooking.” We get hungry just thinking of his $9.95 Sunday brunch, which includes morning standards plus fried chicken, catfish, barbecue ribs, greens, and macaroni and cheese. Beans & Cornbread takes a health-conscious approach: no salt pork or lard here. Coleman says he’s proud to call his place a soul-food restaurant, and he has great fun with the concept, offering Kool-Aid flavored martinis in the adjoining Sidebar Lounge, for example. All around, Beans & Cornbread is a favorite, with solid food, friendly staff, and a comfortable atmosphere.

Motor City Soul Food

12700 W. Seven Mile Rd., Detroit; 313-863-7685.

If you’ve ever been in the vicinity of Seven Mile Road and Meyers in Detroit around the dinner hour, you’ve surely noticed the hubbub coming from the northwest corner of that intersection. A line of cars snakes around the corner,  and the indoor waiting area is jammed with anxious customers. The brainchild of George and Martha Clay, this 10-year-old establishment is a perennial favorite. Here’s a place where you can pretty much count on everything being good. Martha, who’s in charge of the kitchen, says, “I’m from Mississippi. Nobody does soul food better.” Underscoring her boast is the list of celebrities who pop in on a regular basis. Fans include Aretha Franklin, Red Man, Tommy Hearns, Greg Mathis, and, until recently, Kwame Kilpatrick.

 

My Sisters and Me

17410 E. Warren, Detroit; 313-343-0493.

Five sisters and a brother from Alabama found their way to Detroit by way of New York. With some nieces and nephews in tow, they opened a restaurant seven years ago in Harper Woods called My Sisters and Me. (They’ve since moved to a bigger venue on Detroit’s east side.) The siblings agree that what keeps people coming back is the warm, Christian atmosphere. “And the good food,” a voice chimes in from the kitchen. They don’t go for the health-conscious stuff. “We don’t make playhouse greens,” one sister told us, referring to greens that are not seasoned the good old-fashion, fatback way. You can dine in or carryout. What to have? Great short ribs, pork chops, catfish, and collard greens. There’s addictive banana pudding here, second only to their caramel cake.

Uptown Barbecue

15700 Livernois, Detroit; 313-861-7590.

Just off the Lodge Freeway on Livernois, Uptown Barbecue opened its doors a little over 20 years ago. Starting out with just ribs, shrimp, and fried chicken, about five years in, owner Nathaniel Fanning was persuaded to use some of his family’s recipes to create a full soul-food menu. Teaming with his brother, Shannon Wilson, a nutritional, holistic chef, Fanning created healthier versions of soul food with amazing results. Uptown Barbecue uses only Amish chicken and turkey, healthy oils, and vegetable broths. Among the several dishes we sampled, the rib-and-shrimp combo reigned supreme. Pair that with two sides from this list of options: black-eyed peas and rice, collard greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, cornbread dressing. Your taste buds will thank you.

Baker’s Keyboard Lounge

20510 Livernois, Detroit; 313-345-6300.

If you go to the historic Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois just south of Eight Mile Road, you might be pleasantly surprised to find what’s cooking. In 1996, when Clarence Baker retired and sold his popular jazz joint to John Colbert and Juanita Jackson, the two breathed some fresh air into the club and added a menu of Southern-style cuisine. Taking the food that Jackson made famous at her former Juanita’s Lounge, she and Colbert made food a mouth-watering sidebar to the live jazz offered nightly at what is known as the world’s oldest jazz club. Jackson has retired, but Colbert continues to work her recipes, with the chicken wings and fish (especially the pickerel) falling into the must-have category. Baker’s also offers great pork chops, a good turkey dinner, and rather tasty greens and black-eyed peas.

Steve’s Soul Food

1440 E. Franklin, Detroit; 313-393-4846.

You can’t talk about soul food in Detroit without mentioning Steve’s. Former Detroit police officer Steve Radden opened a deli offering some Southern-style dishes in 1986. In no time, the demand for the soul-food prepared by his mother and aunt became overwhelming, so he turned his spot into a full-fledged soul-food restaurant. With the original restaurant still going strong on Grand River (where you buy your food by the pound), and the newer annex on Franklin near the east Riverfront (which we suggest to new visitors), Steve’s serves up all you can want for your basic home-cooked style meals: turkey, catfish, chicken (fried, baked and smothered), smothered pork chops, yams, greens, macaroni and cheese, several fruit cobblers, and big pitchers of Kool-Aid. Steve’s is what it is — no atmosphere, no great service — just good food at a place that will have you in and out as quickly as it takes you to load up your plate and eat what’s on it.

Flood’s Bar & Grille

731 St. Antoine, Detroit; 313-963-1090.

They call it Detroit’s upscale, urban Cheers, where everybody seems to know everybody else’s name. This downtown Detroit spot is where many of Detroit’s African-American movers and shakers have congregated for more than two decades, seeking cocktails, dancing, live entertainment, and really good comfort food. Bar none, the beer-battered shrimp is the best thing on the menu, reminiscent of the old Dot and Etta’s, which was the go-to spot for outstanding fried shrimp at a few inner-city locations for many years. Flood’s kitchen also puts out a pretty mean chicken wing, along with great greens and good macaroni and cheese. Much of the same fine, down-home cooking can be found at Mr. Mike’s (about 5-10 minutes north on Woodward), which is under the same ownership. For regulars, eating at Flood’s is like dining with your large, extended family buzzing about. Newcomers will enjoy the food with a generous helping of people watching on the side.

Irene’s Southern Cooking

(By Terry Parris Jr.)

18680 W. Eight Mile Rd., Southfield; 248-423-0988.

This is a place that, if you’re from the South, feels just like home. From the fried okra to the country-fried steak to the cornbread on your plate, it’s just like Grandma used to make. And, just like a Southern family dinner, the portions aren’t small, either. Each meal comes with two sides, and that wonderful cornbread. (For an additional 50 cents, you can order another piece, if the first one isn’t enough.) It’s a laid-back atmosphere — a seat-yourself or order-carryout kind of place. An image of the Jackson Five greets your arrival, and the deep-red booths set a 1950s vibe. Without knowing the portions, the prices might seem moderate. But when you leave, that chicken plate with two sides plus cornbread will feel like a steal.

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