The gentrification of Southern cooking has yielded some outstanding benefits. It’s shed light on artisanal pork production, rejuvenated entire segments of the region’s agricultural economy (think sorghum), helped preserve vanishing livestock breeds and created a market for regional grains and vegetables that otherwise might have have vanished from the marketplace.
And many of the chefs who work in the Southern vernacular have a health-oriented sensibility that creates great flavors without oodles of salt and fat.
At the same time, traditional soul food restaurants — the low-priced neighborhood mainstays where folks lacking the time required for this kind of cooking can still tuck into slow-cooked, old-school meals — are harder and harder to find (notwithstanding the incomparable Shirley Mae’s Cafe, 802 S. Clay St., (502) 589-5295, where Thursday through Sunday you’ll find Shirley Mae Beard surrounded by a cast-iron mountain of skillets and folks who drive significant distances in search of her fried chicken wings, chitlins, greens and all manner of good things).
Food 4 Ur Soul, a soul food eatery on Fifth Street that opened just about a year ago, does a mighty fine job of filling that gap. Service is as warm as Southern sunshine. Manager and server Cheyenne Brown might very well rest her hand on your shoulder while she explains the daily specials.
And if things don’t come out at lightning speed, she’ll kindly explain that this isn’t fast food. But a little delay’s not a bad thing, anyway. The neat array of tables is tight enough that you’ll likely overhear other conversations around you, and on a good day, those conversations — some dealing with politics, policy and history — are way more entertaining than the sports pundits fulminating on the TV screens.
In a phone interview, one of the owners, Tyrone Lucas, told me that Food 4 Ur Soul is owned by a partnership that includes Lucas, Calvin Harris, Robert Wilson and Lamar Phillips. Lucas, a native of Prattville, Ala., says he learned the art of home cooking right where it ought to be learned, at home, from his mother, Annie.
Look at the menu, and you’ll see lots of items named after folks with some connection to the restaurant. Angela’s Soul Food Egg Rolls, for instance, are an Asian-soul fusion filled with cabbage, black-eyed peas and smoked shredded pork ($5.99). And there are Kay’s fried green tomatoes ($6.99) and Calvin’s bologna sandwich ($4.99), grilled bologna garnished with lettuce, tomato and onion (I didn’t talk to Calvin, but I’d gamble a buck that since the fried bologna sandwich is named after him, he’s from right here in town).
The Soul Food Burger (topped with greens, fried green tomatoes, pepper Jack cheese and more) is named after someone named Tee. And that helping of catfish, coated in-house with cornmeal, is proudly named after Big John ($9.95).
The menu includes a mix of sandwiches and wraps (pulled pork sandwich, $6.49; Mama Rosetta’s Reuben Wrap (pork, or veggies, with sauerkraut in a tortilla shell, $6.49) and entrees (baby back ribs, $14.95; sauced-up barbecue chicken, $8.95), and a fine list of sides, including several that are vegetarian-friendly.
On the subject of Southern sides, I usually defer to my mother-in-law, Roberta, who’s been cooking and canning Southern-style vegetables for most of her 91 years. She thought the green beans were about as good as they get; I agreed, and I liked that they were touched up with a subtle, spicy kick from what might have been Old Bay seasoning. That little kick made me thing I ought to be using Old Bay in new ways — and it more than compensated for the fact that those beans were meat-free.
Roberta liked the fried chicken, too — crisp, juicy and seasoned with a house mix of herbs and spices that merits close attention. Is it secret? I didn’t ask, but if it’s not it ought to be. Two pieces with a couple of side dishes cost $8.95.
Of sides again, there’s sweet potato casserole, greens and cabbage, macaroni and cheese, barbecued baked beans, cornbread dressing and cornbread that doesn’t carry a trace of sweetness. Sides are included with sandwiches and entrees; can be ordered a la carte for $2.49; and can be had as a vegetable plate for $6.49.
The kitchen sometimes runs out of things (one night they were out of ice, but the sweet iced tea came right from the fridge and was cold and sugary enough to serve as a dessert beverage). But let’s hope the kitchen never runs out of Lamar’s meatloaf ($8.49 as an entree, $6.49 in a sandwich). Here, the kitchen infuses the beef-based loaf with a piquant salsa, touches the outside with a house-made sauce, finishes the slices on the flattop grill, and brings them to the table hot and ready.
And let’s hope they don’t run out of desserts, either — like cobbler, hummingbird cake or transparent pie (wittily described on the menu as “a rich divulging pie”).
You can email freelance restaurant critic Marty Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.