Several weeks ago, driving across a familiar stretch of Indian School Road, just west of the 51, I noticed something that hadn't been there before: a bright purple building, spray-painted with big, sassy, graffiti-esque letters.
I usually slam on the brakes and pull a U-ie when I spot a new place to eat.
Okay, the building had been there all along, but it sure hadn't been purple. It last housed Memphx, the short-lived Southwestern soul food joint, and had since been sitting dark for quite a while. To see it slicked with a fresh coat of paint — and brightened with a much-needed front window — made me smile.
But what made me even happier, once I did another drive-by, was actually getting a glimpse of the name: Stacy's Smokehouse.
Could it be the Stacy, as in Stacy Phipps, whose eponymous Jefferson Street soul food restaurant left a huge void in many hearts when it closed nearly two years ago? You bet.
I knew right off the bat that word of his resurfacing would please a lot of hungry people.
Located right across the street from New Times, Stacy's was a longtime staff favorite, especially with the Southerners among our ranks, who dreamed about the greens and fantasized about the fried chicken whenever they craved a taste of home cooking. (I used to go there for a splurge, too, although not often enough for Phipps to know me when I showed up at his new place.) It was also a social hub for the African-American community.
No one ever could've imagined such a popular place going out of business — not even Phipps himself, who got a 30-day notice to vacate when new landlords took over the building with plans to open their own soul food restaurant. (That never panned out — now it's occupied by 12 East Café, which serves breakfast food and sandwiches.)
But he's back, and his food's just as delicious as ever.
Stacy's Smokehouse won't win any accolades for décor — the space is Spartan, with only a handful of tables, some small, framed pieces of decorative art, and a few funky sculptures of jazz musicians on otherwise bare white walls. The menu's written on a chalkboard posted above the counter, and just beyond that, you can see right into Phipps' kitchen. Half-audible strains of R&B emanate from a radio tucked somewhere behind the antiquated cash register. (Which doesn't seem to work, by the way. Somebody will figure out your tab on a handheld calculator, and they only take cash.)
However, I couldn't ask for any more atmosphere than the mouthwatering aroma of barbecue, which enticed me as soon as I stepped out of my car. Shiny metal meat smokers burning almond and hickory wood are tucked alongside the eatery, so even the rear parking lot smells like a kitchen. And once the feast landed on my table, I wasn't paying attention to anything but the next bite.
Stacy's smoked meats were fantastic, slathered in sweet, rich sauce. I sampled moist chicken and sliced beef sandwiches packed so full that I could barely hold them together; the soft bun was more a formality than a practical component. On another visit, I swooned over the tender pulled pork, which turned out to be one of my favorite dishes.
The brisket was another winner. I ordered a half-pound of it to share with my sweetie, and surprised myself with how quickly we gobbled it up. Even after I'd stuffed myself on some corn bread muffins, crispy onion rings, and a few dessert-like "sweet fries" — thick-cut sweet potato fries coated in cinnamon and sugar — I still kept sneaking more nibbles of that brisket.
The beef ribs were the most primal food experience I've had in ages, and I thought about them for days afterward. My dining companion ordered them with sauce on the side, and as it turned out, they didn't need it anyway — the smoky, darkly caramelized meat was really flavorful.
Although barbecue is in the spotlight at Stacy's Smokehouse, there's also plenty of lick-your-plate soul food, like expertly seasoned, cornmeal-battered catfish, which was just as I remembered it from Phipps' old restaurant. And the juicy, golden fried chicken is some of the best around, definitely worthy of a visit to this no-frills spot. It's not available until after 3 p.m., though, so unleash your cravings accordingly.
I could've just filled up on the side dishes here. And faced with the choice of Southern-style greens, sticky-sweet candied yams, or crunchy hush puppies, I couldn't deny myself any of them. Peppery cole slaw was nothing special, but it was nice to see corn on the cob on the menu, available plain, smoked in the husk, or deep-fried. Black-eyed peas had a kick to them, and so did the lightly peppery gravy that smothered a scoop of mashed potatoes. Fried okra was killer, too. I thought I'd try just a couple bites, but the dynamic between crunchy, salty cornmeal and tangy, tender okra was irresistible.
Desserts were just as seductive as the savory stuff. Sweet potato pie was easy to love, a cool, custardy foil to spicy barbecue sauce. One night, I happened to stop by right after a fresh batch of peach cobbler came out of the oven, and it called to me. Dense buttery pastry was the best thing about it. It was just the right level of sweetness, too. But I did wish the peaches had been fresh, not canned; alas, they're not in season yet.
Interestingly, pecan pie and red velvet cake were listed as "seasonal desserts," and weren't available the times I visited.
Honestly, I already had plenty of reasons to go back to Stacy's Smokehouse, but a couple more can't hurt.