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SMOTHER LOVE

Every now and then, the world around you shifts slightly and your personal universe expands. This is how I feel after discovering Bev's Kitchen on South 16th Street. Finally! A down-home restaurant serving soul-tinged Southern cooking at inexpensive prices. It's enough to make a Yankee start whistling "Dixie."

An anonymous tipster is responsible for alerting me to Bev's. The New Times cohort who fields the call expresses interest in the restaurant, so I invite her to join me there for an exploratory lunch. From our offices on East Jefferson Street, it's an easy swoop across the freeway, railroad tracks and riverbed to the tidy industrial area that houses this soul food emporium.

I am charmed by the clean and casual look of Bev's. My cohort and I enter the restaurant through a seemingly unused lunch-counter area. The dining room, to the right, is decorated simply with red plastic tablecloths and a red silk rose on each table. At the far end of the room, red satin drapes obscure what appears to be a stage area--for bands? It is a nice room for a small reception.

We're the first party to arrive for lunch. A most pleasant woman--who turns out to be Bev--gives us menus and encourages us to sit anywhere we like. We select a booth by the window and begin to salivate over the menu. "Mmmmmm," my cohort says. "My husband's gonna love this."

He's not the only one. Bev's menu is classically Southern and meat oriented. The steak, pork chops, chicken and hot links are greatly enhanced by the addition of ten fabulous-sounding side dishes. Red beans and rice, smothered cabbage, okra gumbo, string beans, candied yams, rice and gravy, zucchini and cheese--how can we possibly limit ourselves to the two choices that come with our dinners? Answer: We don't. When Bev comes to take our order, we ask her if we can order vegetables as sides. No problem, says Bev.

We sip our pulpy homemade lemonades and sit back to watch as the restaurant fills with other enthusiastic eaters. We can tell they've eaten here before by their knowing and eager expressions.

Our food is up promptly. In minutes, our table is piled high with dishes that look and smell marvelous. And we're not disappointed once we dig in. Smothered chicken is very good. Three tender pieces of chicken are, indeed, smothered with peppery chicken gravy. Maybe there's a tad too much salt in this dish, but I like it a lot.

The catfish is filleted, then fried lightly in yellow cornmeal. At $7.50, it's tied with the rib steak as the most expensive thing on the dinner menu. My cohort thinks maybe there's not enough of it, but on taste alone, it's worth the price of admission.

And the side dishes! Bev's chef husband hails from Louisiana, which explains red beans and rice and okra gumbo on the menu. The latter, especially, is noteworthy. Far from the slippery stew served elsewhere, Bev's lovely okra gumbo features ungummy corn and tomato. Sadly, the red beans seem to lack the depth of smoky flavor I crave in them, but I add a dash or two of Tabasco and they taste mighty fine.

By far, the best side is the zucchini and cheese dish, which is just plain scrumptious. Surprisingly light, the oregano-seasoned squash, onion and tomato mixture is flavored, but not overwhelmed, with cheese. Both my cohort and I rave over this one. Candied yams are cinnamony and sweet enough to substitute for dessert in an emergency. Stick-to-your-ribs macaroni and cheese is satisfying, hearty and served in a square chunk like lasagna.

My least favorite vegetables are the string beans and the smothered cabbage. Both are overcooked, and the cabbage lacks sufficient flavoring to be interesting.

A basket of hot, homemade jalapeno corn muffins completes the meal. My cohort and I are very happy, and this is what we tell Bev when she stops by to see how we're doing.

Somehow we manage to save a little room for dessert. Peach cobbler and lemon-sour-cream pound cake sound too good to pass up. The pound cake is dense and moist with lemon flavoring crystallized into the crust. Hot peach cobbler, fresh from the oven, is the best I've ever had. My cohort and I struggle back to the office, sated but happy. We both vow to return to Bev's soon.

The following Saturday is about as long as I can wait. Visions of smothered chicken and peach cobbler have danced like sugarplums in my head all week.

Several tables are occupied when we arrive at Bev's for a late lunch. At one, two young men, dressed in Nike Air shoes and "Just Do It" shirts, phone each other on their mobile units. There is no music in the restaurant, so the ringing is quite audible over the whir of the ceiling fans and conversation.

 

We order the smothered pork chops and fried chicken. Again, both are good. The fried chicken is lightly breaded in cornmeal and is succulent, moist and hot. The pork chops are large, smothered and satisfying. Three different people, including Bev and her husband, stop by our table to see that everything is okay and we like our food. We give them an emphatic "Yes" each time.

Bev's potato salad is different from any I've had. Reddish in color (from paprika?), it is laced with sweet pickle relish. The potatoes are tender, intact and not mushy. I like it very much.

As we gorge on this feast, we hear the young men behind us debate the merits of one mobile phone carrier versus another with two similarly dressed youths at the table next to theirs. Company X, one insists, is better. "When they have a sale," he says knowledgeably, "their prices are smokin'." And so is Bev's. This soul kitchen is a great Phoenix find. Today, we're so stuffed we order a piece of sweet potato pie to go. My only regret is that I don't have room for peach cobbler, too.

Home cookin'.
There's nothing like it. Especially if it's from a kitchen as talented as Bev's.

The venerated Hodge's Famous Barbecue, which has operated for some time on East Southern Avenue in Phoenix, recently opened a second location on East Washington Street. An accomplice and I decide to check it out on a recent Sunday.

Hodge's opens at one o'clock on Sundays. We arrive sometime after two. Even so, things seem to be operating behind schedule in the tiny restaurant.

For instance, when we ask to have lemonade, our young, unpolished waitress says, "How about pop? We don't have any ice yet for the lemonade." Realizing we have little choice in the matter, we agree.

When we order the rest of our meal, more red flags surface. Hodge's specializes in five kinds of mesquite-smoked meats: ribs, hot links, chicken, pork and beef. Funny, when I try to order a combination plate ($7.99) of chicken, hot links and ribs, our waitress tells me they're out of the first two items--can I order something else? I settle for beef and ribs. My accomplice orders a pork sandwich ($3.75). Between us we order four different go-withs.

Besides a small lunch counter, there are only four or five tables in the restaurant. A small-screen TV embedded in a large "boom box" fills the air with chatter as we await our orders. People come and go for take-out, but only one other table is occupied besides ours. Soon, our young waitress appears, poorly managing a tray with our side dishes on it. The plates have slid against her chest, and we watch, dismayed, as she removes the dishes from the tray by sticking her thumbs in some of them. She seems oblivious to her faux pas.

An attractive woman still dressed in her Sunday church clothes brings us our barbecue. She is obviously the person in charge of the kitchen--today, anyway. After the other couple leaves, she sits at one of the tables and gazes at the small-screen TV. In contrast to Bev's solicitous service, we are pretty much ignored by her. Neither she nor the waitress asks us how we like our food. Which maybe is a wise thing. Though the meats are tender, neither of us is wild about Hodge's barbecue sauce, which is thin, vinegary and somewhat gritty. But 'cue is such a personal thing, I'm sure some people will find it exactly to their liking. I don't.

We receive a plate of soft, white Wonder-type bread with our meals. It is the same bread that provides the foundation for my accomplice's pork sandwich. One thing in its favor, it really does soak up that sauce.

Of the side dishes we order, the macaroni salad and cole slaw stand out. The former--at least on the day we visit--is made of large pasta, not tiny elbows and is nice and thick with mayonnaise. The cole slaw is refreshing and lightly dressed with vinegar.

Less successful are the potato salad and pinto beans. Eggy and sweet with pickle relish, the potato salad is nearly mashed. The pinto beans are barbecue flavored but not as spectacular as Honey Bear's spicy ranch beans.

A couple comes in to order take-out as we work away at our plates. The man tries to order chicken and corn on the cob and is informed Hodge's is out of both. Apparently, the absence of items is routine at this restaurant. A subsequent phone call to Hodge's discloses that it has only beef and hot links that day--no chicken, ribs or pork.

 

Personally, I don't think this is any way to run a business.

Bev's Kitchen, 4220 South 16th Street, Phoenix, 268-8569. Hours: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday; closed Monday.

Hodge's Famous Barbecue, 1202 East Washington, Phoenix, 254-5176. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 1 to 8 p.m., Sunday.

Production: first pullquote
goes with first restaurant

Saturday is as long as I can wait. Visions of smothered chicken and peach cobbler have danced like sugarplums in my head all week.

Second pullquote goes
with second restaurant

An attractive woman still dressed in her Sunday church clothes sits at one of the tables and gazes at the small-screen TV. We are pretty much ignored.

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miles
Bev's Kitchen

5815 S. 16th St.
Phoenix, AZ 85040-3512

602-323-0721


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