Cafe Reviews

Catfish Connoisseurs

Having spent my formative years in the Land Time Forgot (i.e., the South), soul food is as dear to me as pasta is to the Italians. How fortuitous, then, is my current place of employment, which so happens to be smack dab in the soul food section of town. Right next to the New Times building is Stacy's, one of my faves, and up the street a bit is Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe. From there, it's only a hop, skip and jump to Lo-Lo's Chicken and Waffles. Only Lil' Mama's Soul Cafe is a bit of a drive by comparison, located as it is up on Seventh Avenue, north of Indian School.

Now I have yet another reason to feel as spoiled as week-old milk when it comes to my proximity to soul food providers. That's because of Bobby C's Lounge and Grille, a swankish new eatery on East Washington, just west of 12th Street. Actually, owner Robert Clayton opened the establishment 11 months ago, and it has quietly been building a solid following since. Bobby C's is only open for dinner at the present, but on any given night of the week, the place is packed with a sophisticated clientele who've come to sup, sip drinks, soak in the sometimes live jazz or R&B, and/or slide across the dance floor.

Clayton, a retired vice president of the engineering firm CH2M Hill, runs his vibrant, friendly establishment with the aid of his charming, beautiful wife, Joy, and their equally enchanting daughter, Angel Reynolds. The family has lived all over, from Colorado to California's Bay Area. But when Clayton retired, he wanted to settle in a place where he could hit the links year-round, so Phoenix became home. And the family's long-talked-about dream of opening their own lounge and restaurant became a reality. Even the establishment's name and logo are golf-inspired: Bobby C is what Mr. Clayton's golf buddies call him; and the sign outside the red-bricked business features a chap with a putter, making a shot.

A thin man with an avuncular, Bill Cosby-esque aura, Clayton explained to me recently that Bobby C's was aimed at an "old-school," 35-and-up crowd, and the design of the interior seems to reflect that approach. From the door nearest the parking lot, you enter a railroad-car-size room with a bar to the right and about four or five booths to your left. The mirror behind the bar reads "Joy's Lounge," and the space above patrons' heads is festooned with white Christmas lights. The walls are painted a deep, rich merlot and are hung with captivating, African-themed paintings by Clayton's brother-in-law Robert Wilder. One shows a mother giraffe kissing her young, and another a pair of African warriors dressed in red with bushy yellow headpieces.

To the right of Joy's Lounge and up a few steps is a large room with a dance floor and several tables ringing the sides. Up here on Mondays and Wednesdays are held wildly popular step classes, making it a little tricky to get a table these nights (unless, of course, you join the class). Already, the throngs that Bobby C's regularly attracts have spurred plans for expansion, and there will be even more space in the future for partying, imbibing and noshing.

The bill of fare is a brief one, but everything that Bobby C's makes, it makes very well. Perhaps the best item on the menu is the catfish dinner, with a healthy hunk of fillet encrusted with corn meal and spices and accompanied with your choice of two sides. Mark Twain once wrote that "the catfish is a good enough fish for anybody," and in the hands of Bobby C's cooks, it's a dish fit for kings and uppity culinary critics both. Undoubtedly, other soul food purveyors in Phoenix will be jealous when they hear me say that Bobby C's serves the tastiest catfish in Maricopa County, but the truth will set you free to eat more catfish. Bobby C's catfish is firm, yet moist, with a thin brown layer of crust that seems to trap and maintain the sweet flavor of the fish's flesh.

There is a nice assortment of sides to choose from so your catfish is not lonely in your stomach. These include collards, mashed potatoes, candied yams, black-eyed peas, dirty rice, and green beans. I like all of them, but especially the green beans, stewed until soft and especially savory, from the addition of smoked turkey. These are prepared as we eat them down South, quite unlike they are served in other parts of the country, unless you happen to be in a soul food joint. And Bobby C's candied yams are just like the ones my mother makes back in North Carolina, so syrupy from brown sugar that you could literally eat them for dessert. I have but one trifling complaint regarding the collards: too salty. But I'm sure some folks want them that way. As the French say, chacun a son goût.

Next to the catfish, I love the smothered pork chops and the peppery chicken fried steak best. The pork chops are tender, and the gravy atop them is not so overwhelming that it prevents enjoying the meat. The gravy on the schnitzel-like chicken fried steak is slightly more piquant, but delicious nonetheless. I've also had the Southern fried chicken, which wasn't bad, but I was disappointed to receive only wings, which were meaty but left me unsatisfied. Moreover, the wings were reddish, with a thin crust, almost Buffalo-style, like those served as an appetizer on the menu. Thus, the adjective "Southern" is ill-used here, as that modifier usually implies a thicker, brownish crust.

However, the starters, particularly the catfish nuggets and the Buffalo shrimp, make up for any letdown experienced in the clucker category, as do desserts such as Joy's superb peach cobbler, and her daughter's divine banana pudding with chunks of banana and whole vanilla wafers. To wash it all down, there's a full bar as well as several non-alcoholic liquids. But my preferred libation? Grape Kool-Aid, on the rocks. Why, with places like Bobby C's so nearby where I ply my trade, should I ever feel homesick for Dixie, the land of my youth is but one glass of Kool-Aid away.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons