Valley del Soul

Say "Amen," brothers and sisters, for soul food served in south Phoenix and Scottsdale

If I hear about one more "for the Soul" book, I think I'm going to scream. Not only is there that instigator of all the madness, Chicken Soup for the Soul, there's now the baffling Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul and the completely inexcusable Chicken Soup for the Backstreet Soul, listed as, no lie, "quality fan fiction involving Nick Carter and the other Backstreet Boys."

Then, this month, that horrendous 1997 movie Soul Food made its way to cable as a miniseries. Just what we need: a lighthearted look at three African-American sisters struggling to keep their family together through crisis, disease, philandering and psychosomatic collapse. But hey, the family, however dysfunctional, does cook up some pretty killer homestyle chicken, fried catfish, greens, black-eyed peas and sweet potato pie.

I guess the books and TV drama are supposed to be motivational. The only inspirational message I get from them, though, is that soul food is becoming increasingly cool to everyday eaters.

At Marcella's, the food is down-home delicious.
Leah Fasten
At Marcella's, the food is down-home delicious.

Details

Entrees (includes sides and muffin):
Three-piece chicken dinner: $6.29
Barbecued rib dinner: $8.99
Four-piece fish and chips: $8.10

Dessert:
Sweet potato pie: $2.00

Hart & Soul

Entrees (includes 2 sides):
Catfish: $5.99
Porkchops: $5.49
Chicken: $5.42
Sides: all 99 cents
Dessert:
Peach cobbler and sweet potato pie: 99 cents

Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

6339 East Greenway, Scottsdale, 480-556-6935

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Prediction: I'm betting we'll soon be seeing more of this grub in mainstream restaurants. As one of the few as yet un-fusioned cuisines today, soul food is ripe for celebrity-chef doctoring. We've already got 93 Black-Eyed Pea restaurants across the Southwest, and now the House of Blues has expanded to Chicago, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Myrtle Beach, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, serving trendy monstrosities like white chocolate banana bread pudding with crème anglaise and whipped cream.

Why mess with what's already pretty great? Soul food, often referred to as Southern cooking or African-American fare, embraces good old gritty simplicity. It's generally highly caloric, involving heavy batters, fatty meats, thick gravies and sugars like molasses -- what's not to love? Still, the food has an image of being healthy -- for the spirit, that is. My Oxford Companion to Food relates that the cuisine gained its name in the '60s, expressing the belief that African-Americans' souls are invigorated by consuming dishes from their own culture and tradition.

I can buy that -- one of the hallmarks of real soul food is warm-hearted hospitality. Guests at an honest-to-goodness soul food restaurant feel like members of the family, and that does any spirit proud.

But, besides Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe in Phoenix, where can Valley diners find such sustenance? Hallelujah! I've stumbled across two notable soul food shops catering to the most opposite neighborhoods imaginable: north Scottsdale and south Phoenix. Despite their disparate zip codes, these two gems serve authentic eats along with healthy portions of old-fashioned family friendliness.

Pull up a seat and tuck in your napkins. Soup's on.

Soul food in Scottsdale? Praise the Lord, yes. While this stuff is slick, served in spotless gray, red and black surroundings with a Coca-Cola decor under piped-in jazz, it's down-home delicious.

Opened in early March, the former bagel shop/strip-mall enterprise is owned by chief cook and bottle washer Sidney Terry. School's out, and it's not uncommon to be greeted by his brood of children, skillfully balancing restaurant work with bantering among their just-cruisin'-by school buddies. It's a fun, upbeat atmosphere.

I love restaurants where I can say, "Just give me one of everything." There's nothing worse for a food fanatic than feeling like she has missed that one earth-shattering dish, that one special concoction that could have changed life forever.

Marcella's is one of those places, and better yet, one of those "everything is really delicious" restaurants. Pickings are slim, limited to chicken, ribs and fish, but whatever your choice, this eatery will leave you happy.

Baked chicken soaks in broth while waiting to be plated, rendering joyously moist, full-flavored poultry (I even eat the skin, it's that marvelous). Four big slabs of barbecued pork ribs, meanwhile, have me second-guessing about bringing leftover bones home to my dog; perhaps there's yet the tiniest salty meat to be gleaned under the nicely not-too-sweet sauce.

And the fish, our choice of cod or catfish, is so delightful I pretend to forget to share with my companion. Flaky, tender fish, crisp batter, no bones and a dollop of minutes-fresh tartar sauce -- what could be better?

How about Marcella's side dishes? I'm an instant fan of Terry's homemade macaroni and cheese, Cheddary rich with a bubbled edge. French fries are what such spuds aspire to be: light, salty and goosed when we dip them in our own concoction of ketchup spiced with Tabasco. Soft steamed cabbage is bliss, blending kale with slices of real garlic in its own broth -- my companion tries to hide the dish from me in the huge jumble of plates on our table, but no such luck.

Even no-fuss items like coleslaw, corn on the cob, corn muffins and baked beans show true home-kitchen care. The only item I don't care for? Mashed potatoes that over several visits are equally watery and pasty.

Marcella's sweet potato pie brings this soul-food experience home. It's pumpkin-pie orange, made with light syrup and ever so subtly dashed with nutmeg.

Hart & Soul, 2019 East Broadway, Phoenix, 602-276-4255. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m.
I'm not at Hart & Soul 10 seconds before I know I'm going to like the place. There are bars on the windows of this rickety little wooden shop in a crumbling residential area. The front door is a steel screen. The ordering counter is glassed off (bulletproof, I imagine).

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