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Valley del Soul

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

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.

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).

I study a brief listing on the wall, push a doorbell and wait for a cook to slide open a tall, narrow security slot covered with such heavy black steel mesh I feel like I'm at confession. My order is taken, and when the food is ready, it's placed into a black kettle mounted on the wall -- the pot's back half is chopped off so that it spins like a revolving door to deliver my goodies.

There are rules to eating at Hart & Soul, posted in no-nonsense fashion next to the kettle: No credit. No bills larger than $20. No checks. No profanity. No fighting. No loitering. No harassing customers. Must wear shirt and shoes. Check your order -- there is a 30-minute time limit on returned food.

After a few visits, I have little doubt that Hart & Soul's toque-topped cooks -- Virginia Henry and Patricia Miles -- however dainty, would have no second thoughts about stepping out from behind their glass shield and rapping any troublemaker's knuckles. The expectations are clear: You order food and leave, or you sit quietly and enjoy your meal at one of six barstools lined up against the clean, white-painted walls. There's no spilling sauce on Hart & Soul's scrubbed white tile floors, no dirtying the shop's crisp checked curtains and no fiddling with the TV set propped in the corner, unless you want to get smacked upside the head.

If you get restless waiting for your order (entrees are homemade and fresh-cooked), you can amuse yourself by shopping at the merchandise case (complete inventory: three tee shirts and a handful of baseball caps), or by reading the bulletin board with its eclectic selection of clippings -- Water Discovered on Mars, Texas Execution Successful, Weight Limits on Airline Passengers, Shoplifting on the Rise in New York, and Marmaduke cartoons.

Hart & Soul is the two-and-a-half-year-old family business of John and A.D. Hart, Valley residents through multiple generations. It's their first restaurant, but if the steady to-go traffic I witness on my visits is any indication, their first time is a charm.

Don't come here looking for frills. What Hart & Soul has going for it is quick service, cozy menu items and a price tag of $6 or less for an entire meal, including two side dishes and a corn bread muffin.

Choices are simple: catfish, pork chops or chicken. If you're truly boring, you can get a hamburger, a taco or chicken wings. I almost order a "throwdown," but am disappointed to learn it's simply a nifty term for a triple cheeseburger.

Hart & Soul is another of those "just give me everything" places, and in this manner alone soothes my greedy little spirit.

By far, the best meal here is the catfish -- served headless but otherwise whole in a light cornmeal batter. The two fish are shockingly meaty on their anorexic frames, and juicy with lemon. You'll want to swallow these delectable critters in one bite, but exercise caution -- chokingly tiny catfish bones are part of the deal.

Fried chicken is another righteous choice, as long as it's consumed on-site or minutes after leaving the store. The thick batter doesn't hold well in its Styrofoam container, turning from crisp to mush. As Hart & Soul's menu board says, "Get Ready to Eat." Quickly. And white meat? I don't even ask. A thigh, a drumstick and a few wingtips do just fine.

Two fried pork chops epitomize another cornerstone of soul cooking -- making the best of cheap ingredients. Any other place, I'd send these wizened little pig pieces back, but when eaten here, they're weirdly attractive. The chops are boneless and draped with a crunchy, peppery batter that ably masks the dry meat under a pool of oil. And perhaps it's the blistering humidity in the store, but any will for complaint is completely lost in me.

To many folks, soul means barbecue, and they may wonder why it's not featured on the menu here. Perhaps one reason is that just across the street is a mighty fine 'cue shop, a teeny house converted into Black's Smoky Hog BBQ. But Hart & Soul periodically offers specials, such as one day's barbecued beef sandwich. The meat is thick, rather fatty, chewy and absolutely appropriate for its $3 price tag. A hot link, too, is essentially a spiced, extra-firm sausage coated in barbecue sauce and served in a hot dog bun. It's not terribly exciting, but for 99 cents, I'm not whining.

 

I'll also pass on the red beans and rice -- the white rice is too gummy for my taste, and the whole dish is baby-food bland. But the mashed potatoes? Bring them on! Good mashed potatoes, as prepared at Hart & Soul, bring heaven to earth. Lots of tooth-tender chunks of real potato swim with golden gravy (but go for extra gravy, at just 20 cents more).

Collard greens are a symphony of simplicity, too -- just juicy, sour leaves cooked to wet tenderness. These vegetables will frighten the children, no doubt, but more sophisticated adult tastes will treasure them. Black-eyed peas and yams are other traditional soul sides, and these are pretty honorable -- mushy peas are nicely peppery, and if you like super-sugary yams, these spuds will knock you flat.

The tiny kitchen at Hart & Soul surely is cranking. Two homemade desserts are inviting -- soft, virtually crustless sweet potato pie heavy with dark syrup, and a divine hot peach cobbler that feeds my soul oh so sweetly.

At the end of this adventure, my spirit is enriched, my taste buds rewarded and my pants undoubtedly two sizes larger. So what? "If you ain't got a soul," I always say, "you ain't got a life."


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