Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Yams, hams & jams

Posted By on Wed, Apr 5, 2006 at 12:00 AM

I chanced to be at Bert's for the fifth anniversary of Open Mic Night and — Lord have mercy! There but for the vagaries of circumstance played musicians whose records you might have collected, if only fate had dealt them a chance with a label.

At least I was ready to think so, bathed in the warm affection and homey feeling that Bert's creates. Owner Bert Dearing, who was raised eight blocks away and who's been in the bar business for 38 years, says his customers feel like they're eating at their kitchen table. Which could be true if local trumpet star Marcus Belgrave has a habit of knocking on your screen door.

It's not common to find a bar where everyone seems to know each other and yet newcomers — of any race — don't feel excluded. Dozens of regulars turn up Wednesdays and Thursdays for the open mic jazz jam sessions, to perform or to listen, and to eat. They're in the capable hands of the SBH Trio — Spider Webb, Bill Meyer and Hubie Crawford — who are marvelous at improvising behind and musically supporting anyone who gets up to the mic. More jazz is played on weekends, and on recent Sunday through Tuesday nights the entertainment has alternated through jazz videos, blues and Motown.

Chefs Jimmy D, Cora Caindall and Jai-Lee Dearing (Bert's son and City Council candidate) serve the fans bargain-price soul food from rows of steam tables: meat and two sides for nine bucks, or up to $25 for a whole slab of ribs. In keeping with Bert's bare-bones, working-class atmosphere, their food is more down-home than much of the soul food you find in restaurants, which has often been upgraded from its humble origins.

Ribs, for example, have a higher bone-to-meat ratio and are not quite as tender as you often find. This is not a criticism — meat can be as tender as need be and still require a tad of effort to remove from the pig's skeleton. The sauce is hot and vinegary.

The greens are perfect, sharp and smoky and plentiful. String beans acquire a richness from the ham hock they're graced with, and the chunks of potato thrown in absorb the pot likker that results from hours of slow cooking.

The order I saw whizzing by most often was wings, and I know why. The oversize, meaty wings make you think that bird could fly! All Bert's portions are generous, and half a dozen of these perfect-skinned beauties is plenty.

Two big pork chops are smothered in a fairly good gravy; they're so tender you can cut them with a butter knife. Catfish fillets have an appropriately crunchy crust. Vinegary red beans and mellow black-eyed peas are both served with rice. Peach cobbler is the mixed-up, gooey kind, with no discernible layers, where the peaches seem to have been stewed and steeped for hours till their essence becomes sharper and richer.

That's not how my mother made her cobbler, though, and criticizing anybody's soul food is like talking about their mama, but here goes: I was less crazy about the way-sweet yams, though I'm not claiming they're not traditional, and of the two cornbread conventions, sweet and non-sweet, the chefs chose the sweet one. Their macaroni and cheese, which should be a staple, needs a makeover. It's not cheesy, and what cheese there is turns into a crust that's tough enough to be almost unchewable.

It's probably not their mama's, but I didn't taste anything jerk-like about the "Jamaican jerk chicken," either.

When I go to Bert's again, I'll stick with ribs or wings, string beans and greens, maybe try the beef short ribs and the fries. Also possible are potato salad, turkey wings, barbecued chicken, beer-battered shrimp, salmon, whiting and Porterhouse, as well as $4-$6.50 sandwiches of all the above, or a burger. It's all served with as much goodwill as the music is.

Bert's holds maybe 100 people on dinette-set-style chairs, and if you're lucky you may share a table with someone previously a stranger. I met Pablo, who drives a truck days and plays percussion at night but who blew a flute for Bert's regulars. Anyone will tell you that saxophonist James Carter is apt to visit when he's back in town, and Bert says that, besides Marcus, Detroit saxophonist Larry Smith and national recording artist Wallace Roney have stopped by, not to mention Milt Jackson, Betty Carter and Beans Bowles before they passed away. Martha Reeves is a regular. Wynton Marsalis played for Bert's birthday.

Bert's Marketplace makes you proud to be a Detroiter.

No cover. Open seven days, from 11 a.m. or noon till the wee small hours.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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