Soul Provider

Sallie's Southern Soul and Creole Restaurant
1628 East Lake St., Mpls.; 728-9490

Danny Higgs has the strength of 10 men. Or at least of two and a half. Mere mortals work a single job, come home, eat dinner, and do it again the next day, but in the 10 years before his new Creole and soul food restaurant opened, Higgs was working two full-time jobs and one part-time job and spending the off hours working on a menu that he knew must one day exist.

Kristine Heykants

One day, Higgs says, his wife's boss, Charles Rodgers, looked at him and said: "Hey, Danny, if you're working this hard for three other companies, imagine what you could do on your own." Higgs agreed. The two started talking about restaurants, but nothing materialized. "We kept looking, we kept looking, and we kept looking," says Higgs. But when they climbed the staircase that led up to the dining area at the old Gustavus Adolphus fraternal hall on East Lake Street, "I took one look at it and said, 'I'll go home right now and get a menu ready." The long dining room, big ballroom, and little lounge of the old fraternal hall--still Barton Fink-glamorous with the burgundy carpets, polished pine woodwork, and Studebaker-era fixtures--seemed like the perfect place for the ambitious, black-owned, black-run restaurant they'd dreamed of. "I thought: You could have meetings here, you could have parties here," Higgs reminisces. "It's not all boxed in like so many soul food restaurants, like a matchbox and everybody's sitting there looking at everybody."

So Higgs did go home, sat down on his bedroom floor with pad and paper, and set about creating the Sallie's menu as a cross between memory and research. The memories came from Higgs's childhood growing up in the small town of Jackson, Tenn., eating soul food and hanging around his family's smokehouse barbecue business. The research involved Creole cuisine, which Higgs knew to have upscale appeal from his ample Twin Cities restaurant experience working in kitchens at the California Cafe, Tucci Benucch, and the Twin City Grill.

In his best dishes, Higgs turns that culinary training on soul-food staples like smothered chicken ($7.95) with three sides. (Much of the menu follows the "meat and three" Southern tradition, in which an item is accompanied by a bread--corn, biscuits, or French--and two side dishes chosen from a long list of homemade items such as black-eyed peas, fried okra, macaroni and cheese, and the corn-and-red-bell-pepper dish called maque choux pronounced "mak shoo.") Smothered chicken is fried chicken with gravy, and in most restaurants it's just chicken out of the deep fryer coated with gravy from a box. But Higgs has perfected a complicated, multi-step recipe that includes battering and oil-roasting the chicken on the bone until it's lush, buttery, and awesomely rich--if chicken ever envied cheesecake, it doesn't anymore.

The blackened shrimp ($6.95) from the appetizer menu is another good example of Higgs's culinary skill: Big shrimp are tossed in a spice mixture, then fried in a hot, dry skillet until they're perfectly pearly and tender. Other appetizers, like the catfish fingers ($6.95) and "Danny's Southern spicy wings" ($5.50) are surprisingly addictive, the catfish greaseless and architecturally crisp, the wings--and I don't even like wings--delicate and lacy, reminding me of Chinese salt-and-pepper shrimp.

The approximately one-quarter of Sallie's offerings that are strictly Creole, on the other hand, lack a certain something. The crawfish pie ($7.95) I tried had a deep, smoky base, but the crawfish were dense and clearly once frozen. When the person across the table has a big slab of moist Cajun meatloaf ($7.50) and two brimming little plates of, say, silky coleslaw and buttery mashed potatoes, and cornbread--well, you tend to feel a little left out.

That cornbread is going quickly to the top of my list of Lake Street treats: It's actually cornbread pancakes, palm-sized, served hot and steaming from the griddle, and made from an old-fashioned warm-water recipe that yields a dense, sweet dough. Watching other parties I quickly learned to order extra sides of cornbread ($1.50) to start each meal--it promotes table harmony.

Another sure step toward table harmony is to end a meal with Sallie's bread pudding with whiskey sauce ($3.25), a hot, buttery square of velvety pudding that had everyone I went with drooling over its jiggly bod. Other desserts such as sweet potato pie ($2.50) and peach cobbler ($2.75) were good, homey treats, but that bread pudding was a showstopper.

Lest I give you the impression that Sallie's is paradise on earth, I'll say that the place has many of the problems inherent in start-ups, mainly uneven service and occasionally very lengthy waits for food. I personally learned a good lesson about what happens when a restaurant is reviewed: The first time I went to Sallie's, it was nearly empty; the second time, it had just been reviewed in the Star Tribune and it was jam-packed, so the waitstaff was running around like chipmunks on woodpile-moving day. A few weeks later the restaurant was back to its more comfortable pace, but the newly added, inexperienced servers brought troubles of their own--like the time I ordered a bottle of wine and our server instead brought three glasses of wine at the glass-pour price, and one of those glasses was from an old, stale bottle. So the old restaurant-reviewing catch-22 rears its head again: If I review a brand-new restaurant, it's nearly sure to have all the standard troubles of a brand-new restaurant. If I don't review it (and don't bring it to wider public notice), I don't give it a chance to really succeed. No matter how you slice it, I come up an itinerant nightmare with a memo pad. Sigh.

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