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Side dishes make an excellent meal by themselves at Michael & Christi's.
Erik Guzowski

Michael & Christi's Heavenly Soul Food

Soul food is so simple, it's easy to overlook as a cuisine in its own right. Yet embracing good old gritty calories, heavy batters, fatty meats, thick gravies and sugars like molasses -- what's not to celebrate? It's high time that diners salute this simple sustenance, also known as Southern cooking or African-American fare.

My march of tribute begins at Chandler's year-old Michael & Christi's Heavenly Soul Food, owned by Michael & Christi Miller. The soul food offered by this family-run place is authentic, sublime, and served in generous portions for fast-food prices.

It's surprising to find soul food in a strip mall in contemporary Chandler, tucked in a sparkling-clean storefront next to a Starbucks, no less. Yet it's true -- fried chicken gizzards, ox tail, ham hocks, neck bones and all. Recipes are handed down from Michael's mom, we're told, and while finessed by the current Miller generation, remain true to Deep Southern-style cooking.

The place doesn't look like it should be schlepping this no-frills fare, decorated as it is with sponged walls of blended purple and teal, slick booths, curving ceiling pop-outs and high-tech lighting. A centerpiece painting is upscale, too, featuring a trio of angels descending from a heaven supported by phalanxes of knives and forks.

There's no doubt that items like navy beans are true soul satisfaction, though. This side dish is headliner quality, soupy and sensuous in a rich broth of its own liquor and tidbits of pork fat. Simple macaroni and cheese makes another stellar snack, the tender noodles enrobed in gooey Cheddar and sprinkled with a hint of what tastes like red pepper. Even sautéed cabbage is superior, newly introduced to the menu and glowing with a subtle, vinegary kick. Cabbage doesn't always take kindly to cooking, often fighting back with a bitter bite, but here it's crisp, gentle and juicy.

Fried catfish is the real deal as well, dredging a moist fillet in a light, peppery batter and sizzling it in fresh oil, while country-fried chicken brings a drumstick and breast treated in the same beguiling fashion. I'm also pleased with a Thursday special -- chicken and dumplings. Two golf-ball-size dumplings are feathery wonders of herbs and bread, floating in a clear, peppery stock buoyed by shredded dark-meat chicken, white rice and onion -- a splash of salt, and the meal is sumptuous. Other daily specials -- jambalaya on Friday, gumbo on Saturday, should be part of the daily offerings -- these are soul staples, and Michael & Christi's does them with style.

Entrees come with a choice of two sides and a choice of breads -- an everyday dinner roll, a flaky buttermilk biscuit, or fine, rich corn bread served in a hefty square to be drenched in creamery butter and honey.

I'd happily make meals of the sides alone. Most are terrific. Mashed potatoes boast hand-prepared chunks. Red beans and rice -- while leaning toward watery on occasion -- are pure comfort food. And sweet potatoes are fresh, cut in chunks and kissed with the nuance of cinnamon.

Mustard greens spiked with real bacon, and string beans, meanwhile, speak of vinegar, in a likable, tangy manner. Black-eyed peas, too, have been jazzed with a bit of ham hock, to a tasty conclusion. And while potato cakes are listed as appetizers, they're actually three salad-plate-size portions -- lovely meldings of fried hash-brown potatoes, cheese and bits of pork.

Not all dishes are winners. An entree serving of hot links includes two butterflied, grilled sausages that are worthy for their sparks of heat, but otherwise dull under a lifeless barbecue sauce (Michael blames his Kansas mom for the restraint on spicing). Brisket, while featuring a nicely moist handful of shredded beef, goes down like burned tree trunk, so powerful is the smoky flavoring. Southern-fried pork chops, meanwhile, means two petite porkers, verging on dry and edged with too much fat, but saved by a thick, remarkable batter tinged with lots of pepper and -- could it be? -- buttermilk. And barbecued ribs are only buffet-worthy, two meaty but dry bones that don't earn their $8 lunch tariff. Gravy, too, needs to aspire beyond the thick, brown cafeteria variety, while corn on the cob has sat too long in a steamer.

It is uncomfortable to be informed of the 10 percent gratuity that's added to all takeout orders, as well. Perhaps tips are needed to supplement the traditionally dismal restaurant employee salary, but this policy is pretty chintzy.

Desserts put us back on course -- hefty slabs of moist bread pudding, decadent chocolate cake and lush sweet potato pie. Homemade peach cobbler is pie, really, but delightful all the same, crisscrossed with lattice crust and stuffed with fresh fruit slices plus a whisper of cinnamon.

Hallelujah, I say -- Michael & Christi's soul sensation is a spiritual high.

Spiced With Jazz

The owners of Spiced With Jazz were born into the restaurant business. For Levetta Daniels and Barbara Caldwell, the restaurant world was an integral part of family life, a day spent in a commercial kitchen was as normal as time spent hanging out in their kitchen at home.

Last fall, the duo opened a restaurant of their own, emphasizing Southern cuisine paired with live music played several evenings a week. The entertainment is great, but the food is outstanding, offering a creative mix of soul-food favorites along with a few gussier items to tempt the flashier nightclub crowd.

There's just one failing to this restaurant, really, but, unfortunately, it's a big one. The location is miserable. Seventh Street and Southern is pure barrio, and, in fact, Spiced With Jazz looks like a condemned building from the outside. Nighttime excursions can be scary, tiptoeing through an unlit parking lot. A small, crude sign doesn't help -- if not for the covey of elegant cars parked out front, would-be diners might just keep on driving.

Venture inside, though, and worries melt away. This place is smooth, with cushy hunter-green chairs and drapes, black floors, a suave, carved wood bar, and dark supper-club lighting. A stage sits in the corner, bookended by walls stenciled with silhouettes of dancers and singers (check out the boisterous jazz and blues that rock the house Friday through Sunday).

The menu is more ambitious than its surroundings suggest, too. A shrimp appetizer is sweet, and special for its stuffing of havarti and basil, wrapping of bacon and hickory-wood grilling. Deep-fried zucchini is another winning starter, bringing four egg-roll-size critters tucked full of ground sirloin, jack cheese and herbs. The appealingly bitter vegetables are draped in a light, crispy batter -- wonderful to dip in ranch dressing.

Meals begin with a basket of hot, chewy white bread, but hold out for the corn bread that comes with the entrees. This is spectacular stuff, cut in pie wedges and gorgeously fluffy, moist and buttery. Dunk the bread in Jazz's dreamy gumbo, stocked with shrimp, crab, oyster, chicken and sausage in a rich roux ladled over rice.

We've also got a winner for the Valley's best fried chicken here. This is a half bird with meat that's almost impossibly juicy, dipped in thick, crispy breading. Catch-of-the-day fried fish is superb, too, luring us in with tender catfish in a perfect cornmeal batter. And I haven't had a better pork chop in recent memory -- these two monster bones burst with juices under a smothering of creamy gravy.

Spiced With Jazz's fancier fare is fine -- garden-vegetable lasagna, shrimp Alfredo, top sirloin and, no kidding, bananas Foster flambéed over ice cream.

But why bother with this, when we can dive into soul specialties like greens -- a musical blend of collard, turnip, mustard and spinach with ham hocks? Or finely riced grits, served with gravy or cheese? Sweet potato pie and peach cobbler rarely get better than this, either, arriving wonderfully warm and spiced on flaky pastry crust.

As we prepare to leave following one dinner, a gentleman approaches our table. He apologizes for interrupting our evening, but he has a flier promoting a survival and revival kit for Christians, and would like us to join his church's family. It's a pleasant discussion, and completely appropriate for the setting.

Unless his congregation can cook like the folks at this restaurant, however, I'll satisfy my soul at Spiced With Jazz.


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