1628 E. Lake St., Minneapolis; (612) 728-9490
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. Sunday; buffet available all day, every day, $10.99 Tuesday-Saturday before 5:00 p.m.; $12.99 after 5:00 p.m. and all day Sunday.
2013 Plymouth Ave. N., Minneapolis;
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-7:00 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; noon-7:00 p.m. Saturday; noon-4:00 p.m. Sunday; buffet $10.95 for adults, $5.95 for kids 6-12, $3.95 for those 5 and under.
A few months ago I wrote about the Midtown Chicken Shack and, really, it set off an unprecedented wave of phone calls from desperate citizens demanding to know: Where else is there soul food? How can Minnesotans learn more about soul food? What the heck is a chitlin? (And also, from one woman demanding to know what services specifically I offer restaurants suddenly flooded with new customers. Dear caller, forgive this impersonal notification, but let this be your sign to drop everything, rush to your mailbox, and await 2001's coveted, gold-plated Just Fell Off The Turnip Truck Award.) Cleaning out my voicemail, I could only conclude that Minneapolitans are absolutely parched for soul food but, for some reason, cannot figure out how to get any.
Which is odd, because right now Minneapolitans are about as well-supplied with soul food as we're ever likely to be, since two--two!--soul-food buffets are operating on either side of the city right now, nearly every day. Down south, we've got Sallie's, which is dripping with ambiance and has been sort of going up and down for a few years now, but now seems to be on a distinct up-tick. Up north there's Lucille's, which is such a local institution that if you ever gave a thought to soul food but haven't tried it, well, I'm going to require a thousand words explaining why on my desk by Monday.
Recent visits to the two buffets left me staggering and groaning--there was a lot to try--but altogether very happy. Actually, to be perfectly fair, the folks at Sallie's warned me, repeatedly: "You be careful," said the chef, taking a break and shaking his head at my third plate of greens. "You're gonna hurt yourself."
Now, Sallie's is the place up on the second floor of the building that held the old Gustavus Adolphus fraternal hall on East Lake Street, and it's still got that Studebaker-era charm: A decorating scheme of age-burnished honey-maple paneling, muted lighting, and Rotary Club flags make everything seem sepia-toned. And the distant soundtrack of Otis Redding and doo-wop sends you into exactly the right sort of relaxed nostalgia.
The Sunday buffet is really a couple of steps beyond epic: Last time I was there I counted fruit salad, chicken-and-macaroni salad, peppery green beans, smoky collards, sweet and chunky yams, beef-and-bacon baked beans, red beans and rice, macaroni and cheese, barbecued smothered pork chops, beef rib tips, cream-gravy-smothered chicken, fried chicken, corn bread, bread pudding, three types of layer cake...are you groaning and spinning yet? You will be. The buffet at Sallie's is self-serve, so you can take a little sampler run-through to figure out what you like best. I'm calling my favorites the long-cooked green beans, which are served plump and swollen with butter and pepper, the deeply flavored red beans and rice, the desserts, and ,perhaps above all, the salty, irony, tart, and profoundly flavored collards, seasoned here with smoked turkey wings.
I know enough about greens to know when they're good, but somewhere among us walks a legend who knows her greens so well that she peered into Sallie's steam tray one day and exclaimed, "Whoever cooked these greens is from Jackson!" Which surprised everyone, because Sallie's current chef and kitchen manager is Cedrick Farris, and he did indeed grow up and learn to cook in Jackson, Mississippi. "I was shocked. How did she figure that?" wonders Farris, still amazed that such a clear signature lurked in his all-collard brew, a recipe he learned from his mother. "That's where you learn to cook the best soul food--at home, from your family," says Farris, who likes to take a peek into the dining room whenever time allows. "Ain't nothing nicer than to see people eat. I love to see people eat and know they're enjoying it."
While Farris was watching a few post-church tables devour his cooking, I took advantage of the moment to ask what approach to his vast buffet he'd recommend to someone who'd never had soul food before. At the thought, his eyes lit up. "I'd take my greens," he said, heaping up an imaginary plate with greens and pot liquor. "I'd take my corn bread," he continued, setting up an imaginary pile at one elbow. "Mix it all in," he mixed. "Set my silverware all the way over here," he set it a foot away. "And just go to town. You just gotta go to town."
So now you know. That's how you do it.
Once you've returned from town, you're sure to be irresistibly drawn to the big, silvery three-tiered stand Sallie's uses to showcase various layer cakes. I tried a really nice lemon layer cake; a sweet yellow creation with a buttery, zest-livened boiled icing. Then I tried a charming German chocolate cake ("You're gonna hurt yourself" indeed), which had beautiful icing that tasted of fresh-toasted coconut. These cakes are the work of just-hired baker Kathleen Anderson, who says a lot of her recipes come from her grandmother. There are precious heirloom recipes everywhere at Sallie's; Anderson says she soon plans to debut her family's homemade beaten biscuits. I can't wait.
Across town, the Sunday buffet at Lucille's Kitchen is equally beguiling. One recent day of rest saw a spread of corn bread, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, corn-bread dressing, spaghetti casserole, collard greens, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, chicken wings, fried catfish, chicken and dumplings, sweet potato pie, and I don't even know what else.
At Lucille's they serve you the buffet, generous scoops of everything, and if you can sample it all, you're stronger than I. If I had to pick darlings from this charming spread, I'd point out the unbelievably creamy, custard-hearted mac and cheese with its savory, orange, baked-cheese crust, the light catfish, the silky, tender dumplings in the celery-accented chicken and dumplings, the firm but spice-saturated yams, the smooth and savory sweet potato pie, and--be still my beating heart--Lucille's famous "Wingmaster" chicken wings.
I know. Chicken wings don't sound like much. Unless you keep in mind that I've thought for many, many years that Lucille's makes the best fried chicken in all the land. I mean it, all the land. And while the truest expression of this knee-weakening magic is to be had in a half-hour investment in a special order of one of Lucille's chicken quarters ($7.25 for a dark-meat quarter with two sides and bread; $8.25 for white meat), a fresh wing off the buffet should be enough to make you understand.
By the way, I lied up top about readers asking me about chitlins. Nobody has asked me about chitlins--or chitterlings, chitlings, or however you want to spell it. As far as I know, I've never typed the word before. Chitterlings are intestines, usually pig intestines, long-stewed. And, more important, they're serious, inside-pool soul food, not for dilettantes or the squeamish, and I'd never have figured them for a buffet tray in the North Star State. But Cedrick Farris from Sallie's says he's been musing on it for a long while, and one Saturday soon he's going to spend the half-day it takes to clean them, and then there's going to be pork chitlins out for anyone to try.
And if that doesn't quench your collective awakened thirst for soul food, heaven help us all. I can't even imagine what the next level beyond chitlins would be, short of digging barbecue pits up and down Nicollet Mall.
BEVERAGES A GO-GO: Is 24 just too many hours in a day for you? Are you walled in on all sides by time, time, time? Well, get rid of some of it the way I do, with your jaw hanging open as you peruse the beverage-industry online magazine Bevnet.com. Why? Primarily it's the only place I know of to read reviews of brand-new beverages that we Twin Citians only have the smallest chance of ever seeing, never mind sipping, such as Stillhouse Springs Sparkling Beer Water. Quoth Bevnet: "Beer Water features the 'taste of beer...the smell of beer...without the alcohol'; Giving it an 'F' doesn't even do justice to how bad it is. In fact, we think that giving Beer Water an F is an insult to all other products that have ever received an F. It is by far the worst beverage we have ever tasted. Not only is the idea ridiculous, but it tastes like cheap seltzer water that accidentally fermented, and it smells like a roadside pub at 3 a.m."
Bevnet actually isn't anything like the industry cheerleader you'd expect from a beverage insiders magazine. They do review every new bizarre, redundant, and strangely targeted product that beverage makers put out--Blaa Energy Drink (I guess "Blech" was taken), G-Up Energy Drink, Reebok Fitness Water. But they're sassy enough to note that Red Tiger Energy Drink "will undoubtedly get Red Bull's lawyers jumping." That snarky tone is pulsing just below the surface at all times. "How many times have you placed a beverage in the refrigerator, only to find that it really isn't that cold?" Bevnet's reviewers quip. "Well, suffer no more!"
Or maybe that's not even my favorite thing. Maybe my favorite thing is the Bevnet message boards. I guess it's all that sugar, but the posters seem unusually witty--in the context of beverages, of course. Consider, for instance, the exchange about where and when one can get Mountain Dew Code Red. One poster noted that he saw it "in a local (Houston) stop-n-rob." (Take that, Pump & Munch!) Another held forth on Reebok Fitness Water: "Reebok water? You have to be f...ing kidding. Don't you think this is taking cross-branding a little too far? What's next, Bounty feminine napkins--the quicker picker upper?" All you have to lose is your whole day: www.bevnet.com.
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