Cafe Reviews

The Soul of Phoenix

Letters, I get letters. Usually, if a reader takes the time to write or call, he's pretty passionate about his food. It's impressive how worked up some folks get over a taco or a burger.

Sometimes, these readers are almost scary in their pleas. I have here in my hand a recent letter about Puerto Rican groceries that begins, "My marriage relies on this . . ."

Who am I? Friggin' Dear Abby?

It's usually a kick to interact. The only time my shoulders slump and my head starts to pound is when the e-mail slug is "Dining in Downtown Phoenix." I just know I'm going to break another heart, with our lack of destination eateries in the area. Chinese? No thanks to the tired Sing-Hi. Italian? Fast-service pizza isn't enough. Something really cool, like Cuban? Chary's Place tried to make a go of it last year, but found that downtown diners preferred to lunch on turkey sandwiches rather than carne con papa.

It particularly bothers me if the quest is for fine dining, because there is no Vincent's, no Christopher's or Rancho Pinot or Daniel's in downtown Phoenix. Not even in the general vicinity of downtown, let alone in the shadow of the high-rises.

I hate to break the bad news to readers eager for a good meal within driving distance of the office. So I took great pleasure the other day when a reader lamented that there was no soul food to be found in downtown Phoenix. In fact, dear reader, there are plenty of soul-satisfying restaurants in the neighborhood -- or just beyond -- and the opportunity to stuff on high-calorie, high-fat, down-south-style cooking just keeps on growing along with America's (and I'm guessing Phoenix's) collective waistline.

And I don't mean Black-eyed Pea, that chain run by the same folks who run Denny's. No, these are family-run cafes with authentic Southern-style casual cuisine.

The grandmother of Valley soul food, of course, is Mrs. White's Golden Rule Cafe at Eighth Street and Jefferson. Anyone who's lived here for more than a few weeks and craves succulent chicken smothered in buckets of creamy gravy calls Mrs. White's home. Nobody does a better chicken and waffles, meatloaf or pork chops. I love her concept: We order off a menu written on the wall, and when we're done, we simply tell the cashier what we ate and she rings us up.

Then there's Honey Bear's on Central and Thomas, which has long served up spectacular Tennessee smoked barbecue, corn on the cob, cobbler and sweet potato pie. The quick-service shop has won more awards than I can count, and for good reason.

Yet there are other hidden gems, for Phoenix diners looking for a little soul with a side of greens. In the course of several days, I sampled them. Urp. It was a labor of love. And while the indulgence has unquestionably damaged my health, at least I'll die happy.

La Mesa Pit BBQ, 20 West Adams, 480-214-0048. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Okay, so I'm intrigued by what La Mesa calls "beer butt chicken." Not because I'm really able to taste the beer in the recipe, but because I'm wondering about the poor fool who has to prepare the poultry for smoking. Because, yes, beer butt chicken is exactly what it sounds like: A half-full can of brew is crammed up the keister of a chicken.

Supposedly, the liquid steam keeps the bird from drying out, while the yeast and malt in the beer work some kind of science with the poultry, making its skin thin and crispy while keeping the meat juicy.

However it's done, La Mesa barbecue is topnotch stuff, hand-rubbed in spices and smoked naked over pecan (sauce is a self-serve proposition, in mild or hot, thin and blissfully sharp). I've never been able to finish the he-man helpings, either, with mounds of thin-sliced sweet ham grilled to a crispy edge, plump hot links, hunks of beef brisket, and baby back ribs (thunderously salty, peppery, gnaw-worthy slabs loaded with meat).

Do the La Mesa folks have a fascination with posteriors? Besides their BBC, they've got a "Big Ass" plate, fat with a choice of three meats plus pinto beans, "frings" (a mix of great crispy onion rings and fries), and red skin potato salad or coleslaw. Follow up with fresh-baked dessert -- hefty marvels of cookies, gooey chocolate-chocolate fudge brownies, or a fat slab of chocolate cake -- and people will talk about your rear end, too.

Stacy's, 1153 East Jefferson, 602-254-1736. Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. A friend of mine called the other day, grumpy about the lunch he'd just had at Stacy's. The food was fine, but he hadn't felt very welcome. It was like he'd had to work to pay them his money, he said.

It's true that I've had indifferent service at this small, dimly lighted shop, though my feelings usually are smoothed by the lovely catfish. Owner Stacy Phipps (the restaurant used to be called "Stacy's House of Catfish") keeps it simple, rolling fillets in well-seasoned cornmeal and gently frying the fish in vegetable oil. He's got a tasty touch with other specialties, too, like hot links, pork chops, smothered chicken, chicken fried steak, sweet potato pie and peach cobbler. Gizzards? Stacy's got 'em, great with black-eyed peas. Well worth a few ruffled edges.

Karim's Cobbler Shop & Deli, 333 East Jefferson, 602-257-1801. Hours: Lunch and early dinner, Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; lunch, Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; open until 7 p.m. on game days. I like to call Karim's "soul on the go." We can grab a seat in the tiny store plunked next to Bank One Ballpark, or do the more common takeout. It's a cheap thrill -- we can't spend more than $8, and that for a three-piece catfish plate with jumbo slabs served moist and mild in crisp cornmeal, along with plump fries and wheat toast. A barbecued-beef sandwich is another filling choice, piled on an onion roll with lots of thick, sweet sauce. There's great gumbo, red beans and rice, and decadent homemade fruit cobbler, too. It's my pick for a feast on the fly.

J.D. Hogg's BBQ Company, 1112 South 16th Street, 602-252-5127. Lunch, dinner and late night, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m.; Saturday, noon to 3 a.m. That's no typo: This place is open until 3 a.m. on weekends. The kitchen closes at midnight, but my trick is to arrive about 11:45 p.m., order up a mess of delectable ribs and a cold beer, and then party until the wee hours. The 'cue is slow-smoked over pecan wood, grilled to a crackling edge, and paired with slightly sweet or spicy sauce.

The Hogg has been open just over a year, and despite its south Phoenix digs in a barren strip mall, it's classy. I love listening to R&B classics while wolfing deep-fried whiting or catfish, with sides of soupy braised cabbage spiked with ham, black-eyed peas and cornbread. It's a weak justification, but my dining companion decides we can work off calories with a couple games of pool -- soon our table is laden with smothered pork chops, a pulled pork sandwich, and a Texas red hot link served crisp-skinned in a hot dog bun. Warm peach cobbler, expertly crafted sweet potato pie and "mom's" cheesecake, and forget any pool-playing -- I'm lucky if I can waddle to my car.

Lil Mama's Soul Food Restaurant, 4306 North Seventh Avenue, 602-266-9980. Lunch and dinner, Monday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 7 p.m. There actually is a "lil mama" in residence here -- 3-year-old Kamryn Berry, daughter of restaurant owners Antoinette Nash-Berry and Edwin Berry. My companion gushes over the cute kid, but I've only got eyes for the cooked-to-order food. It's my kind of comfort grub, wonderfully heavy on salt, much of it deep-fried, and generously dusted with old-fashioned black pepper.

Which dish is my favorite? I'm a sucker for the fried chicken, juicy under its crispy batter. I can't resist the traditional cornmeal-cloaked catfish, or the skillet-fried pork chops. And barbecue brisket is so tender it practically has me drooling into my red beans and rice. I can almost feel my butt getting bigger as I settle into my chair, feeding myself yet another forkful of truly fine sweet potato pie or banana pudding goosed with bits of cake. Nothing fancy here, just friendly staff, order-at-the-counter service, and real home cooking.

Lil Mama's has only been open since March. My prediction? It'll be around for a long, long time.

So we don't have Vincent's downtown. It's a trade-off. I don't recall the last time Vincent featured smothered catfish or chicken fried steak on the menu.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet