What we used to know as soul food is now known as African American Cuisine. This soul-satisfying genre of American cuisine evolved, over hundreds of years, from the southern kitchens of African American slaves. Aunt Babe's version of soul food has a Texas accent, since her recipes have been handed down through generations of her Texas kin. Dishes here seem less salty and less sweet than similar versions I've had in the deep South.
Once inside, you'll catch a whiff of down-home cooking wafting from the kitchen, and you'll feel like you've been transported to a neat and cheerful church social hall for a fish fry. The room is spacious, with off-white walls, decorated with leopard-framed prints and a large picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Old fashioned “sheers,” as my grandmother used to call them, provide attractive, translucent window treatments. Well-spaced, mismatched tables and chairs are covered in pretty, patterned plastic tablecloths, and help keep the church basement theme going. An unobtrusive flow of background soul music kept my foot tapping and the young waitresses (Babe's granddaughters) in perpetual motion.
Everything about the place screams family. I grew up in the restaurant business, so it felt familiar to me. Four generations of the Bradford family seem to share this need to feed others, the need that drives us into the restaurant business. Here overfeed is really what they do, since the portion sizes are gigantic. I am what you might call a hearty eater, and I could not finish the combination plate ($10.95). It was piled high with outrageous tender collard greens, black-eyed peas (which I normally eat only on New Years Day for good luck). The plate also included a succulent pig's foot that was plump, tender and falling off the bone (or is it foot?), a tasty beef neck and unremarkable fried chicken (all wings and legs). Moist, smoky barbecued chicken and giant meaty pork ribs fleshed out the plate.
The barbecue sauce was tasty but unlike any I have ever tasted. It wasn't sweet or spicy, and Aunt Babe refused to share any insights into the making of her sauce. The above dishes may also be ordered separately with two sides and corn bread for $8.95. You can also order barbecued chicken and pork ribs by the pound for $10.95 each.
Wednesday nights there's always a special you won't find on the usual menu. When I last visited, the special was a fried pork chop with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and corn bread for $8.95. Don't miss the weekend fish fry served only on Friday and Saturday evenings. Sweet catfish filets are dipped in cornmeal and fried to a crusty perfection. The fish is moist, not greasy, and comes with two sides and corn bread for $8.95.
Speaking of cornbread, I'm sweet on Aunt Babe's spectacular rendition, a perfect compliment to soul food or just about anything, for that matter. Its lightly browned edges really brought out the strong sweet flavor of corn. I couldn't help lusting for Irish sweet butter to slather all over the crumbly, golden treat, but even the small size of the tub of butter I was served couldn't bring this cornbread down.
The highlights of Aunt Babe's menu are some of the hard-to-find soul food side dishes. Turnip greens were absent both times I dined here, but the outstanding collard greens were cooked to a tender “fare thee well,” just the way I love them. They were salty but not over the top with pork; in fact they're often made without pork. Black-eyed peas were also excellent, and a bright yellow potato salad did the mustard mambo on my tongue—perky with pickle relish. Other choices for side dishes include creamed peas, corn on the cob, pinto beans and macaroni and cheese
When it comes to desserts ($2.50) there are just a few choices, but they're all made on site and are quite good. I enjoyed the pecan pie, with a crust that was short, flaky and not too sweet. The pecans were chopped instead of whole, which gave it quite a different texture and even flavor. My companion was pleased with her peach cobbler à la mode. The pastry part was golden brown and the peaches not overcooked. Try the old fashioned banana pudding; it's thick and cake-like with lots of vanilla wafers and ripe bananas (served on Sunday only).
Aunt Babe and her family are a friendly lot and would love to show you some good old-fashioned hospitality. Hours vary considerably from day to day so I would advise a quick call first. “Y'all stop by now, y'hear?”
Aunt Babe's Kitchen; 2125 Broadway SE; 242-2437; Hours: M-Tu 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., W-Th 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., F-Sa noon-11 p.m.; Su noon-6 p.m.; Price Range: Inexpensive; All major credit cards accepted.