We're not sure if the food at Yo Mama's is actually good for your waistline -- fried chicken and waffles, anyone? -- but it's definitely soul-satisfying.
We're not sure if the food at Yo Mama's is actually good for your waistline -- fried chicken and waffles, anyone? -- but it's definitely soul-satisfying.
Jackie Mercandetti

Who Cares Whether the Soul Food at Yo Mama's Good Cook'n Is Healthful?

Uh-oh, not again!

I've found another restaurant that I'd love to keep a secret. As a critic, this happens to me pretty regularly, and every time, I force myself to spill the beans anyway.

My friends have already given me plenty of gentle flack for giving glowing reviews to closely held haunts, like the dim sum place I wrote about a few weeks ago.

"My parents went there on Sunday and had to wait for a table!" said one of my pals.

Don't get me wrong — I can keep a secret. Slip me some industry news on the sly and I'll never reveal a source. But when it comes to good food (or, for that matter, bad), I'm telling the whole wide world.

So here's the lowdown on my latest darling, a down-to-earth soul food restaurant called Yo Mama's Good Cook'n. This South Phoenix restaurant caught my attention with the unusual proclamation on its menu: "Healthy soul food that's good for the soul, 100% pork free."

What, no pork? And it's "healthy"? How can they even call it soul food? I went in bracing myself for the worst.

There was a moderately busy lunch scene in the no-frills dining room when I got there, with people digging into plates of chicken gizzards and yams as Sirius XM's Soul Town channel played a steady stream of '60s Motown. Paintings on the wall illustrated African-American musicians in the heat of performance, and there was a framed photo of President Obama near the counter. I think I was hooked from the moment that heady aroma of sizzling fried chicken hit my nostrils.

Yes, they have fried chicken. And fried zucchini. And fried okra. And ridiculously good mac 'n' cheese. Nope, there's no pork on the menu — they flavor some of the vegetable dishes with smoked turkey or turkey sausage instead of swine — but there's plenty that looks deliciously naughty.

To be fair, one of the appetizers struck me as a good-for-you dish, a bowl of chunky tomato "house soup" accented with basil. It wasn't bad, especially on a chilly day when I was in the mood for such a hot, fragrant thing.

Besides that, however, the starters were deep-fried. I went with the "soul fries," skinny, crisp French fries smothered in thick, mildly spicy chili and melted cheese. They were so sloppy-good I had to gobble them up five at a time with a fork, but the effort was worth it. They really ought to sell that chili by the bowl. Southern fried okra was also outstanding, each tender green nub veiled in a thin coating of crispy cornmeal.

Combination plates were a steal, heaped with piping-hot comfort food (meat, two side dishes, and a warm cornbread muffin) that amounted to a feast. Even a quarter of a barbecued chicken was a lot of flavorful meat (smoked with cherry, apple, and mesquite wood) — that must've been one big bird. Thick, deep mahogany BBQ sauce had lipsmacking, smoky intensity. And enormous barbecued beef ribs had gnaw-worthy flavor, too.

Moist fillets of cornmeal-dusted fried tilapia were decent, while fried chicken and waffles were downright killer. Batter was coated on pretty thickly, yet the final effect was still appealingly crispy and not too crunchy, its lightly salty seasoning complementing the juicy meat inside. Tender, crisp waffles, served with hot maple syrup, provided the perfect sweet contrast. I'd never heard of "Mama's famous chicken & waffles" before, but I think it could be a self-fulfilling title.

One day, the special on the dry-erase board was smothered chicken, a welcome variation on fried chicken. Instead of waffles, there was a pile of red beans and rice, and the whole thing was blanketed in rich brown gravy. Keep an eye out for this one.

I ended up sampling all of Yo Mama's side dishes, and when it comes to picking a favorite, I'm torn between the greens and the mac 'n' cheese. The former contained bits of smoked turkey for savory dimension, while the latter had toothsome pasta in a velvety sauce. I alternated bites of each until long after there was room left in my stomach.

As with the greens, no pork was to be found in the hot cabbage and green beans, which were flecked with turkey bacon instead. I liked the tinge of spiciness in the cabbage. BBQ baked beans were of the potent, smoky variety, and everyone at the table wanted a couple bites of them. And potato salad, jazzed up with sweet pickle relish, contained soft chunks of potato amid a creamy potato cloud.

Supply and demand determined the dessert selection more than the actual menu. I was a little disappointed that peach cobbler and bean pie weren't in the rotation one day, although Bundt-cake-style red velvet cake, drizzled with icing, and candy-like sweet potato pie more than made up for it.

As to whether Yo Mama's is actually healthy in any way, well, who cares? I like to think of it as "nourishing." It's darn tasty, and if there's a fringe benefit in there somewhere, then lucky me.


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