Detroit’s Joe Louis Southern Kitchen is a brunch heavyweight champ

Oct 13, 2021 at 1:00 am
Bananas Foster French toast.
Bananas Foster French toast. Tom Perkins

Just north of Stevie Wonder Avenue lies a restaurant named for Black Bottom's most famous son. My guess is that the adulation Joe Louis earned from Black Americans during his 12-year reign at the summit of boxing, 1937-1949, went unmatched till 2008.

Imagine the joy, during the Depression, of seeing a Black man, a former Ford worker, not only prove himself the best in the world but also get to repeatedly punch white men in the face. I won't lie; I hate boxing, but watching the video that silently plays at Joe Louis Southern Kitchen is infinitely satisfying (it's a compilation reel). So are the murals that surround the waiting area, which show the worked-up ringside crowds instead of the pugilists.

Son Joe Louis II is a managing partner in the restaurant, open since May. He's serving meals that would not be out of place at training camp, at least before the trainers got all scientific. The "Training Camp" combo includes sausage, wings, shrimp, eggs, biscuits, and your choice of buttered rice, potatoes, or cheese grits. I was just surprised that last "or" wasn't an "and."

This is not a high-falutin' restaurant, though the meals are not cheap. The décor is meant to look like a front porch, complete with white wooden railings and pretend windows into a house. The friend I took said it reminded her of Applebee's and asked if it was a chain. Another friend said "Denny's."

I wouldn't go that far, but it's not a place where the owners are attempting to wow patrons with the quality of the ingredients. Rather, it's familiar. Yes, there's avocado toast, and the eggs are cage-free, but the menu of flapjacks, waffles, wings, eggs, and biscuits is mostly old favorites. On questioning, the server admitted that the $5.50 "fresh-squeezed" orange juice was not squeezed in-house, and I've had "fresh-squeezed" from a carton that was far better.

Lesson to self: So don't order a dish that is not well within the restaurant's wheelhouse. I asked for eggs Benedict. It was fine that it came on a biscuit rather than the traditional English muffin, although I would have preferred a non-sweet biscuit, but the Hollandaise was... not. It also included an extremely pale tomato, a make-the-record tomato rather than a flavor.

Likewise for the thick Creole seafood gumbo: the taste was fine but it was just one taste. "Gumbo" implies that a whole lot of ingredients have gone into the making, and you want to be able to pick them out. Here it was pretty much just the roux and the filé. Another way to try the gumbo is atop a deep-fried catfish.

The chef was on firmer footing with cinnamon roll flapjacks: a plate-covering serving, tall and fluffy, cinnamon roll flavor in pancake shape. My companion kept trying not to finish the whole thing, but it was too delicious; she failed. Bananas Foster French toast and Southern Cobbler French toast are also possible, both featuring Cool Whip and, in the cobbler, what look like canned peaches.

A different co-diner finished off his "Martha's Seafood Skillet" despite its heft and without complaint. It was tricolor lovely: yellow eggs, red peppers, green spinach, plus potatoes, salmon, and shrimp. Like the "Heavyweight," a three-egg omelet with two types of sausage, bacon, spinach, mushrooms, onions, and cheese, and the "St. Antoine Street" (four fried wings on a Red Velvet Belgian waffle drizzled with cream cheese icing), these are the sorts of just-eat-once-today meals that the restaurant is built around.

Splitting a dish is allowed.

My Creole Shrimp & Grits hit the spot — so many spots — in just the way they were meant to. These were real cheese grits, infused with plenty of cheese — too often the cheese is evident only in the name. The sautéed spinach was garlicky, the grilled shrimp numerous, the beef sausage spicy, the onion straws crisp, and the hot "creole sauce" conservatively ringed around the edge, giving the diner freedom to add it when and where she pleased.

Bread pudding was also enormous, a solid cinnamony chunk, comfort food at its finest. A manager said the ingredients were "top secret."

Like so many restaurants, Joe Louis is struggling with keeping enough staff for rapid service. One Sunday morning our wait was 38 minutes; we got fair warning. You peruse the menu with a QR code but a live server will take your order.

Joe Louis II has said he wants to take the restaurant national, and I predict success.

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