Sampling New Additions to a Soulful Stretch
If you haven't headed down Liberty Road in a while, you may be delighted, as I was, to discover that it's turning into Soul Food Central. Last year we found Courtney's Place (Belly Up, March 22, 2000), and now two new bastions of Southern cuisine have appeared. For all I know, another one may have sprung up by the time you read this--perhaps in the time it takes you to read this.
I pressed my friend Mike into joining me at Jennifer's (7021 Liberty Road, Woodmoor Shopping Center, Randallstown ) for a pre-movie supper. Folks are lined up for carry-out, but Mike and I study the menu, order at the counter, and settle in with sodas served in Mason jars to wait for delivery at one of the tables.
Mike opts for a fully loaded 12-inch hamburger sub with fries ($7.25). Not exactly a Southern standard perhaps, but these burgers are the real deal, thick and hand-formed, though there's nothing special about the roll or the fries. But his order of potato salad ($1.95)--potatoes cannot come in too many forms for Mike--is homemade and beautifully seasoned, with just enough mayo to bind and a little crunch of celery.
Left to sample the soul-food fare solo, I order barbecue ribs with two sides ($9.50; $10.75 with three sides), selecting corn pudding and creamed peas--only to learn that there's no ribs, pudding, or peas to be had today. Nor baked chicken or sauerkraut. I'm reminded of the lesson I've learned through years of dining at Southern-style restaurants--the menus might be large, but never is everything available all at once. I'm flexible; I can adjust. How about a large (two-piece) order of fried catfish with sweet potatoes, coleslaw, and macaroni and cheese ($9.50; $8.25 with two sides)? Bingo!
Another legacy of that soul-food-eatery experience is that I'm rarely overwhelmed by the size of a portion, but on this occasion I'm floored. The catfish, in a whisper of floured coating, is thick and meaty and as delicious as catfish gets. I can't fork it up fast enough, but I force myself to pause for the occasional bite of chunky, cinnamon- and clove-scented sweet potatoes. The coleslaw, a soup-bowl full, is on the sweet side, crunchy and fresh, with lots of celery seed and small squares of carrot. Only the mac 'n' cheese disappoints, lacking the crunchy crust I relish in the dish. A small square of corn bread, properly crumbly and sweet, comes with my meal.
Desserts, while not made in-house, are attractively displayed in a case up front. You may find room for a slice of cake, a muffin, or a bowl of banana pudding, but Mike and I just couldn't.
A couple of weeks later, we get C.C. and Dottie, Mike's mom, to join us a few miles north at Symone's Soul Café. Symone's is a cafeteria with a bright, open dining room. One wall is mirrored and another is all windows, so it's cheerier than Jennifer's, but because the food is sitting in warming pans, by the time we get through the line and grab a table most of our meal is no longer hot.
Dottie's bowl of crab soup ($3.45) is the exception--hot in temperature and spice quotient, though shy of much crab. Her smothered pork chops ($8.50 with two sides) are remarkably tender. Her collard greens are mildly seasoned, free of grease and bitterness, and much better than her bland, gummy mashed potatoes, which are unsalvageable even with gravy. Mike's fried chicken ($7.45 for white meat with two sides, a dollar less for dark meat) is a bit dry, but that doesn't dampen the big guy's enthusiasm. He again gets potato salad, perky with mustard and squares of green pepper, and tries the mac 'n' cheese, which is the crusty, cheddary kind I missed at Jennifer's.
C.C. tries the Cajun catfish ($8.50 with two sides), which is moist and flaky with a peppery coating but lacks that freshly fried flavor. The candied sweet potatoes are quite sweet and a shade smoky. Fresh broccoli is just a bit overcooked beneath a blanket of nondescript cheese sauce. Making up for what I missed on my last Liberty Road trip, I have barbecued ribs ($8.75 with two sides). The serving is generous, which is a good thing, because the ribs aren't too meaty, although I like the hickory and spice in the sauce. I side them with cabbage, a bit salty and very tender but barely warm, and corn pudding, which turns out to be the highlight of my meal: a big scoop of sweet corn soufflé, comfort food fit for a queen.
By dessert, Mike can barely manage to polish off an enormous hunk of moist coconut cake ($2.25) while the gals go for cobbler ($2.25)--peach for C.C., apple for Dottie. The crust is flaky and thin, the topping crunchy, and the fruit predominates, with the apple flavors more compelling than the peach. Neither Jennifer's nor Symone's can challenge Courtney's for supremacy on this soulful corridor, but a dinner at Jennifer's followed by dessert at Symone's could make for a formidable--and unfinishable--meal.