Scripture informs us that a prophet is never welcome in his own country, and the same holds true for exceptional individuals in one's own backyard. Even the surly savants of the New Times editorial staff are not immune to this truism. Consider the injustice done to their next-door neighbor, Stacy Phipps of Stacy's.
Did you know this four-and-a-half-year-old establishment, which rightly labels itself Phoenix's "finest Southern down-home cookin'," has never received a proper review from the paper's scribblers? Instead, previous critics have lavished sweet praise on newcomers less adroit at preparing Southern/soul food, such as Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles, run by Larry White, grandson of Elizabeth White of the venerable (though not nearly as good as Stacy's) Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe. The younger White swiped the bird and battercake idea from Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in L.A., but that's okay because Roscoe's lifted the concept from the legendary Wells Restaurant in Harlem, where Cotton Club devotees would go after hearing the likes of Cab Calloway or Duke Ellington.
Despite its ghetto-fabulous lineage, you'd have to have a platinum-rimmed tummy to nosh this combo on a regular basis, with or without a 40-ounce of Old English. Let's be honest, it's a freakish dish, something akin to consuming fried Twinkies or cheeseburgers on a stick at the state fair.
But when I asked my new colleagues where, oh where, I could find fried chicken like in my native Dixie, they raved ad nauseam about Lo-Lo's, repeating the name so many times I thought they were mimicking Lil' Jon and the Eastside Boyz lyric, "Get Low, Get Low, Get Low, Get Low"! Problem is, I'd been to Lo-Lo's and knew the sad truth: Their chicken tends to be dry, and frankly, not as good as Stacy's. Lo-Lo's has an interesting gimmick, name and pedigree, but Stacy's has fried chicken that's the bomb. Not only that, it has exceptional fried okra, chicken gizzards, black-eyed peas, greens, sweet potato pie, and on and on. It's Stacy's that has the best Southern cooking that I've ever tasted outside of the South. And from an ofay escapee from the Tar Heel State, that's a high compliment indeed.
Stacy's fried chicken is crispy-moist on the outside, tender to the bone inside. It has that light greasiness that the best fried chicken always has, without being overly so. Some folks seem to believe the bleedin' fowl should be so lardaceous that Saddam Hussein could straighten his beard with the leavings. Balance and subtlety should be the hallmark of fried poultry, and Stacy's has it, by gum.
My favorite way to enjoy Stacy's bird is as a "smothered" three-piece plate with sides of mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas, fried okra and greens. The chicken comes bathed in gravy made from a savory roux that Stacy is more secretive about than any other item he prepares. Here, the gravy is not overly peppered or seasoned (like at Lo-Lo's), so you can still enjoy the mildly crunchy chicken beneath.
"We just put [the chicken] in the batter we use, and we use 100 percent vegetable oil for everything," explains Stacy, 35, an affable African-American gent originally from Chicago, who's usually sporting a baseball cap and blue work clothes. "And we don't cook the vegetables with pork or meat. They're all just cooked with the seasoning added. My grandmother cooked with a lot of pork. But we're trying to provide food on a healthy scale, while keeping the taste."
Healthy soul food? Stacy, you must be crazy. Down South, bacon and pork fat are used in everything to enhance the flavor -- from ham hocks placed in pots of collards to the bacon my grandmother wraps around baked green beans. Stacy also eschews the use of salt, declaring, "Salt's on the table," while using a mixture of spices to offset the missing sodium chloride. As skeptical as I am of such tinkering, Stacy's results are impressive. I'm used to salty fried okra, but Stacy's is a refreshing, lightly spicy riff on the artery-clogging original. The same goes for his greens, which have a delicious pot-likker taste without the pork fat that's de rigueur in the South. Still, Stacy, would a ham hock or two really hurt us that much?
Then, there are the gizzards. The only other Southerner I know in P-town -- the ever-intemperate and irascible Mikey -- shares my complete and utter adoration of Stacy's gizzards, which come in a large hopper the both of us can barely clear on our own, even with the aid of copious quantities of sweet tea. Back home in Carolina, these breaded, fried lumps of digestive muscle were prized whenever roasters were cooked up, as were chicken livers. We Southern expats want fried livers, and Stacy says he's carried them before and may one day again.
It's difficult to render justice to Stacy's bill of fare, there are so many outstanding items on it. Though I'm loyal to North Carolina's unique brand of finely shredded, pulled-pork barbecue, both Stacy's rib tip sandwich and his pulled pork are first-rate, with chunks of pig flesh doused liberally with Stacy's thick, sweet sauce. A couple of Stacy's competitors fail to understand that cornbread is not supposed to taste like cake. Stacy avoids this pitfall by making square-cut cornbread that derives its flavor from the natural sweetness of the corn itself.
Oddly, the items Stacy is famous for are my least favorite: his catfish and his peach cobbler. These may be the two most popular items on his menu, but I fear I'm spoiled rotten by my mama on both counts. I'm used to eating the whole catfish, head and all, not just the fillets, which Stacy serves. Stacy says he does this for practical reasons, so that folks won't choke on the bones. But as my grandpappy used to say, "Anyone who chokes on a fish bone is a durn idiot!" Of course, the old geezer didn't have to worry about getting sued by customers. I suspect cooking the whole fish, and not just the fillet, adds flavor you can't replace. I should mention, however, that Stacy promises to get and cook the whole catfish for those who call a few days ahead.
As for the cobbler, it's really heavy on the cinnamon, which is fine for apples but with peaches hides their true character. Once again, my mother's family hails from Candor, North Carolina -- a town not unlike the mythical Mayberry, which once prided itself on being "Peach Capital" of the South. The cobbler I'm used to is sweeter, without any cinnamon. Tips for Stacy: The best cobbler is made from fresh peaches, and you're supposed to put a few peach pits down into the cobbler for a more robust finish (always remembering to pick them out before serving).
Better than his cobbler is Stacy's sweet potato pie, which handily tops those I've had back home. Stacy says he's been trying to perfect the recipe from what his late grandmother left him, and I dare say he must be near the mark.
Stacy creates all of his comestibles in comfortable, laid-back environs that are a cross between Ice Cube's Barbershop and Tim Reid's short-lived TV series Frank's Place. Soft lighting with smooth jazz station KYOT-FM 95.5 on the box helps create a mellow mood, as do the thin reed blinds and faux New Orleans-style lampposts. Across the hall is George Greathouse's Esquire Barber and Beauty Salon, a hub of Phoenix's African-American community, and it's common to see parent and child go from the barber to Stacy's for some post-haircut barbecue.
It may seem a bit ironic that my pick for the Valley's best Southern-style chef has himself never visited the South, though his family has its roots in Tupelo, Mississippi. But this is not so strange. Most African-Americans trace their family trees through the South and back to Africa. Just before the writing of this article, Stacy was planning a Christmas trip to the Deep South because he wanted to see "how my cooking compares with theirs." I think he's found that it compares very well. One more suggestion for your menu, Stacy (especially when you prepare those catfish whole): hushpuppies, hushpuppies, hushpuppies.
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