Soul in the Hole owner Tonia Lopez (left) cooks with her mother, Frances Gilbert.
Soul in the Hole owner Tonia Lopez (left) cooks with her mother, Frances Gilbert.
Erik Guzowski

Cheese Whiz

Mom is making macaroni and cheese. The noodles are boiled and drained. The saucepot sits on the stove, heat rising to slow burps of milk, cream and chunked Velveeta. She takes the pan, pours the thick cheese liquid over the pasta, and frowns.

"I forgot to put the mustard in," she says, looking at a jar of Dijon waiting lonely on the kitchen counter.

"Just stir it in now," I say, and she does, spooning in a hearty glop as she tumbles soft noodles with molten, pasteurized, processed cheese spread. A little salt, a little pepper, and the casserole is complete, glowing in a shiny neon orange that, while I would find disturbing presented to me on a plate at a restaurant, I find absolutely luscious now. It's to be our dinner, paired with crisp raw string beans, tall glasses of clear ice-cold water, and few slices of perfect juicy mango for dessert.


Soul in the Hole

601 North Arizona Avenue, Chandler

Macaroni and cheese$1.50/$3
Sweet potato pie: $2
Dinners with two sides and corn bread:
Barbecued chicken: $7.50
Pork ribs: $9.50
Beef: $7.50
Hot links: $7.50
Catfish: $9.50

480-963-7787. Hours: Lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

It's a simple, Spartan meal to be sure, but so soothing it almost makes me sleepy after the first forkful. I've come over to Mom's for a Sunday-night meal and movie, just us girls, and I feel so wonderfully 5 years old.

I don't even like Velveeta, honestly. It's a blend of Cheddar and Colby with milk, but also plenty of multisyllable scientific ingredients. And cheese that comes in a fat log, unrefrigerated, wobbly like really old Jell-O, is this food? Yet, Velveeta is what I grew up on, and as Mom has expanded her pantry over recent years (suddenly it groans with dairy delicacies of artisan and farmstead creations like triple crème Brie and lemony teleme), she hasn't messed with her good old mac 'n' cheese. Velveeta has that secret ingredient of love and expectation for me, and there's just nothing -- nothing -- that can duplicate the deep pleasure of real home cooking.

There is a surprising variety in recipes for macaroni and cheese. Scottsdale restaurants take it upscale -- from Roaring Fork's gem of puréed poblano chile, red bell pepper, red onion, garlic and corn kernels with pepper Jack cheese and heavy cream, to Zinc Bistro's $12 dish of delightful ultrarich cream, butter, Parmesan, mimolette (piquant French cows-milk cheese) and nubbins of smoked ham. Then there's the macaroni and cheese served at Soul in the Hole, an unfortunately named but absolutely heartwarming soul food cafe that opened this September in Chandler. Owner Tonia Lopez embraces the traditional comfort dish in its most basic format, baking noodles plain with lots of mild Cheddar.

Which variation of the casserole do I like best? Them all.

I ate Soul's version, sitting at one of the dozen tables in the tiny place, happy to have stumbled across the joint while picking up some Mexican bread at one of my favorite bakeries, El Sol, just across the street. What a treasure, populated by people like Chandler policemen eating stoically, unglancing, unspeaking, in the casual surrounds of bright blue block walls, orange tile floor, counter service order board and a TV screeching Divorce Court. On Sundays, Soul in the Hole is packed with elegant church folk, dressed in their best dresses, hats and gloves, just like the old days.

I took home another helping of macaroni on a later visit, to savor its friendly chewiness of lots and lots and lots of cheese pulled in strings from plate to fork. I'm not embarrassed to admit that I ate an entire large order (just $3!), more than entree-size, all by myself, sitting in bed lazily draped in warm flannel pajamas against the drizzling rain outside. And I thought, the only thing better in life would be if Mom were here, too, like last week when we cuddled up to watch Italian for Beginners (an astoundingly joyous rental movie with Scandinavian and English subtitles).

I asked Lopez what her secret was -- I can't even detect any milk, cream, onion, mustard, pepper or anything found in most mac-cheese recipes -- but she just smiled.

"Home-style" is all she'll tell me, even when I call again later. "Everything here is made from scratch. I only cook everything when it's ordered, so it takes longer. Some people want their food fast, but it's better to wait, and I know it. You know it, too, as soon as you taste it."

Soul in the Hole is the real thing, its short menu focusing on stick-to-the-ribs specialties like barbecued chicken, beef and ribs. No way I mind relaxing for 15, 20 minutes while waiting for my orders to come up. What's so special about that crazy, Type A personality I see celebrated everywhere if it means missing out on some of the fattest, juiciest, full-flavored, from-the-bone and -skin barbecued chicken I've ever enjoyed? Lopez offers a choice of leg and thigh or breast and wing for the same price, gently draping it in a bright sauce that's slightly sweet, slightly tart, slightly thick and slightly thin. This is my kind of 'cue, not crippled by harsh wood smoke flavoring or camouflaged in cloying, sticky goo. The tomatoey sauce makes already pristine pork ribs nibble-to-the-bone-worthy with thick bodies of tender meat. Pulled beef is elevated to blissful in this sauce, the meat fall-apart soft and well-marbled with honest old-fashioned fat. The recipe is mild stuff; if we want it fiery, we can add in hot sauce at the table.

Or we can bite into hot links, presented as two enormous, plump franks in a thin chile sauce. These sausages shoot flames, made even hotter when paired with a side of greens studded with infernal red pepper flakes and pulled pork. Only several mouthfuls of mac 'n' cheese or buttery corn bread bring calm, and what are those tears in my eyes? From pleasure or pain, I don't really know.

The potato salad, chunked from white potato with egg and a hint of mayo and vinegar, is peaceful. The coleslaw, just barely sweet and crispy-fresh, is refreshing. And fried okra, fashioned into orbs the size of malted milk balls, is at once juicy and crunchy, dipped in fluffy batter and greaseless. I eat them like popcorn, thinking I've found a perfect, offbeat movie snack for the next time Mom and I celebrate a Sunday. Or maybe I'll bring a cozy dish called "walking tacos," tossing Frito chips with jalapeños, ground beef, diced tomatoes, Cheddar and onion.

Lopez is proud of her catfish. Rightly so; it's served in four generous fillets cloaked in cornmeal, presented moist, mild, beautiful and baked. Tangy tarter sauce is homemade (of course), and I like pairing fresh corn on the cob with my fish, so the butter seeps into the crisp breading. Another side adds kick: kidney beans in a soupy chile broth with hot red pepper, ground beef and onion.

Mom makes a luscious peach cobbler, and so does Lopez, but it sells out much too fast. Sometimes we have to fill in the gaps with other spectacular sweets (such suffering) such as nutmeg-infused sweet potato pie, rich pecan pie, fizzy 7-Up cake, funnel cake, brownies or cheesecake.

The buzz at Soul in the Hole is that of happy diners. The place is loose and warm, and we're not shy to remind Lopez she's forgotten our corn bread (again), neglected to bring the tartar sauce or run out of silverware. I don't mind when she says she misplaced the box of cutlery she just bought, bringing me a spindly plastic fork and a massive cleaver instead, taken straight from the chop line and so heavy it's an effort to lift above the Styrofoam plates.

"Have a blessed day," Lopez calls as I leave. I already have. And I've got another takeout tub of macaroni and cheese tucked under my arm. My night is only going to get better.


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