East side treasure

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If you’re free for lunch, and it’s a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, and you like soul food, have I got a deal for you: $10, fresh flowers on the tables, all you can eat.

The Kingdom Men’s Café, which opened in October 2002, is a project of the East Lake Baptist Church. The food is equal to many other soul food restaurants, but it costs less, your plate sits on linen tablecloths and the service is fastidious.

The menu follows a standard formula among soul food restaurants: entrées, sides, cornbread and dessert. Entrées include baked and fried chicken, catfish and fried and smothered pork chops. If you’ve had your fill of skinless, boneless (and tasteless) chicken, try the Kingdom Men’s herb-baked dish. Whole chickens are split and baked; basted in their own juices, they are full of flavor. The fried chicken is crispy on the outside, moist inside. Whole, dressed catfish are flown in from Louisiana daily; they are prepared with a cornmeal crust and fried.

But the smothered pork chop is my favorite. The large, though not thick, chops are coated with nicely seasoned gravy. Barbecued ribs and other items are added to the menu in the summer.

As with most soul food restaurants, the real treats are the sides. Two are standouts. The candied yams achieve a higher state in which the sweetness of the syrup doesn’t just coat the potatoes, but is baked right into them, yielding a caramelized taste. The macaroni and cheese is also way above average. It’s creamy and cheesy, just like it’s supposed to be. It tastes nothing like the processed supermarket types, and the lumps reaffirm that the dish was made from scratch.

One afternoon the collard greens were sweet; on the next, savory. I like them both ways. Chef Eric Giles says he starts with fresh greens and cooks them with smoked turkey. The green beans, also prepared with smoked turkey, have had the living daylights cooked out of them, but still taste good.

A salad, dessert and iced tea are included in the price. Be warned: The sweet tea is almost sweet enough to pour on pancakes.

One of the church mothers makes the lemon pound cake, which is stellar. I love the dense texture of a pound cake set off by a thin lemony glaze, which turns brittle when it cools and shatters as you bite into it. The peach cobbler is made with a buttery crust and served warm in a little bowl. (“No margarine has ever been in my kitchen,” Giles says.)

As stated earlier, there are other appealing things about Kingdom Men’s Café. The service is courteous and attentive. The pig-out factor of an all-you-can-eat buffet is mitigated by the fact that the food is served to you, though you can order as you please. The room is comfortable with well-spaced tables. Church music plays in the background, but it is quiet enough to conduct business during lunch (no martinis though).

The Kingdom Men’s Café evolved from a series of parties that were part of a celebration of Pastor Michael Cunningham’s anniversary at the church. Chef Giles sees the café as an opportunity for men in the church to work together on a project, at the same time providing work experience and mentoring for teenagers.

Giles says that one thing about running a restaurant out of a church, especially an African-American church, is that “the church mothers don’t let you slide. They will tell you, ‘Baby, you need to do this, you need to do that.’

“But when one of them told me that I made the best macaroni and cheese, well, that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Proceeds from the café underwrite church programs.

“Look at where we are located [at the intersection of Conner and Jefferson],” Giles points out. “I mean, these people have needs.”

The Kingdom Men’s Café is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Fridays.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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