A better back yard

Driving into the parking lot of Mama’s Place, we noticed smoke rising from the oil-drum barbecue. "That bodes well," my co-diner commented.

Mama’s Place is in a sunny yellow building in northwest Detroit, and features a garden of found objects in the front. Inside, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming. For ambience, there’s a basketball game in one ear and jazz recordings in the other.

Food-wise, Mama’s Place is equal to some of the metro area’s upscale soul food eateries. The barbecue is delicious. For $10, you get a half slab of ribs. For $8.50, half a chicken. Both are cooked to tender and bathed in a rich and kicky sauce.

Every dinner comes with two sides from the 14 varieties offered. Among our dinners, we had nine of them: Candied yams (sweet and syrupy), black-eyed peas, pinto beans (both seasoned with fatback), green beans (cooked to well-done), French fries (hand cut!), potato salad, collard greens (sharply spiced), mashed potatoes (not instant) and macaroni and cheese. ("Isn’t it lumpy?" my 12-year-old asked. She didn’t realize that the smooth, soupy stuff from the box isn’t the real thing.)

A corn muffin or a honey biscuit comes with dinner. The biscuits are light enough to float, and brushed with honey while hot. "Suitable for strawberry shortcake," my co-diner noted.

Also available chargrilled are Mama’s Burger and Papa’s Burger. Mama makes hers with bell peppers and onions, Papa’s with a secret sauce. Neither was available the night we were there, nor was the soup of the day.

On our first visit, my co-diner ordered short ribs of beef. After the first bite, he said in amazement, "This is better than I make."

Mama’s Place opened three years ago, taking over Mama’s Country Kitchen, which had been in the spot for 25 years. Owners Lydell and Pat Ankton and their partner Ed Sasnett have been in the restaurant business since 1979. Pat Ankton is the chef and Sasnett is the manager.

I asked about the biscuits. Scratch or mix? "Oh, homemade," Sasnett assured me. "Miss Pat and Miss Cora, they make the biscuits." At my request, Sasnett made a quick trip to the kitchen and confirmed my suspicion: real buttermilk biscuits.

"Everything is made from scratch," Sasnett says. "We put the black-eyed peas up to soak. We cut up the yams, the greens. Everything."

That kind of attention to detail draws business. "On a Sunday," he warns, "you can’t hardly get in here. We’re going to boom." Indeed, on a recent Friday night, Sasnett was still fielding customers an hour after closing.

Mama’s also serves breakfast. The complete menu is available as carryout, and we carried home barbecued ribs and chicken on a hot day. Sitting in our garden, we got to lick the wonderful sauce off our fingers. When it was gone, we agreed that we couldn’t have done better ourselves. But Mama, you forgot to put in the biscuits!

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