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.