Soul & heart

Jan 23, 2002 at 12:00 am

Co-owner John Thompson says the kitchen alone at Southern Fires is the size of his former soul food restaurant, East Franklin. Serving up the same bill of fare in the new place off Jefferson since late November, Thompson and wife Malvina are cooking for their old customers, particularly the Sunday after-church crowd.

The restaurant is designed for families, extended and nuclear, with some long tables to hold the whole clan, and TVs everywhere.

The prices at Southern Fires are also family-oriented, if that means lots of food at low cost. Sweet, cheerful-yellow cornbread comes with your entrée, and you get the traditional choice of two sides.

I claim some minor, homegrown expertise in soul food because that’s a lot of what my Alabama-born mother fed me. I know that someone else’s mother may have done it differently.

In Southern Fires’ case, it’s actually a daddy, Joseph Thompson of Fayette, Ala., who is the source of 80 percent of the recipes. But the principle remains the same.

Of the dozen side options, I put mac and cheese first, followed by cornbread dressing and collard greens. The macaroni is fairly sharp, and the dressing is spicy and melt-in-your-mouth. Collards are tangy and not overly limp.

Thompson told me the top four sides customers order are macaroni and cheese, yams, dressing and collards. I’d also plunk for the buttery mashed potatoes, which taste like — spuds.

I found the baked beans, on the other hand, overly sweet, and the black-eyed peas and potato salad very mushy.

Southern Fires’ green beans have too slippery a taste for me — too much fat on that hock? — and they might just need another hour on the fire.

Here’s an omission which is common to every soul food restaurant I’ve been to around Detroit: grits. I know my daddy’s favorite daughter is the one who will make him cheese grits. Restaurants, take note: Look at a box of grits and think of the profit margin.

Sides are very important in a soul food restaurant, but not more important than the meat. The menu here is from the upscale end of the soul spectrum — no chitterlings or pigs’ feet, but three kinds of steak.

Best of all are the short ribs: tender beef on the bone, slow cooked with mushrooms and a luscious gravy. As I write this I can conjure up the taste and wish I had time to cook like that.

Baby-back ribs — crucial to a soul food restaurant’s reputation — are admirable too, with a spicy sauce that’s just about the right sweetness level. It’s a generous half-slab for $10. Like every other barbecue cook, Thompson is secretive about his recipe.

Marinated chicken breast is also delicious, and Thompson will admit only that the marinade contains “eight different things.” That’s playing your cards close to the vest. Fried pork chops are cooked in a breading that’s quite reminiscent of KFC. They taste pretty good, if you like the colonel’s chicken.

Less successful is the meat loaf, which the menu says is “just like you remembered it.” I found it lacking in flavor, though it was hard to tell with all that non-tasty gravy. It’s not only not as good as my mom’s, it’s not as good as my husband’s. In general, the gravy here is not what it should be, with the exception of the short ribs.

Other possibilities are smothered T-bone, New York strip, country-fried steak covered in gravy, fried chicken, cod, catfish and orange roughy. The fish can be fried with cornmeal or broiled.

For dessert I highly recommend the house-made peach cobbler a la mode, spiced with cinnamon and served warm.

Southern Fires is open for lunch and dinner every day but Monday. There’s plenty of street parking a few steps away, plus valet parking. No smoking, no alcohol.

Eats: Three stars; Experience: Three stars

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].