Soul food. It is one of the only forms of cooking we can truly call American. Sure, you may find lasagna on the menu, but it tastes nothing like the Italian-American version.
Certainly we Americans cannot lay claim to being the first to cook beans, greens and cornbread. But I am sure the soul kitchens of this nation are the ones that perfected it. Of course, there are meat products in almost every side order of vegetables, but if you wanted me to lay off the entrées and only eat sides, I would say, “Take me to a soul food restaurant.” That’s about as close to vegan as I can get.
So there I was at the tail end of Black History Month, searching for ideas to celebrate black culture’s contribution to American cuisine. It’s as important as the blues of the Mississippi Delta that permeated the rest of the country’s music and created rock ’n’ roll. Like those same blues, soul food’s influence crept through recipes and menus, snaking along the big river before heading upstream and casting its spell on the dishes found in the rest of our states.
When I travel, I often wish it brought more of an influence. Like bad music, bland cuisine is intolerable. Bland is a word not often used in describing soul food.
In honor of this time of year and as an excuse to indulge in the salty, savory goodness that is soul food, I made my way to Springhill Avenue’s Backyard Café. It says it plain as day on the menu, “Mobile’s soul food connection.” That’s no lie. It’s enough of a connection I almost asked for four fried chickens and a Coke. But I fell in line like everyone else with my tray of silverware and a couple of friends that met me for lunch, Kenneth and Courtney.
Kenneth, who had a late breakfast, was more or less along for the ride as he and Courtney had a post-lunch appointment with a fence (not a metaphor), so he was no help as far as reviewing. Courtney, though, was kind enough to sample the cafeteria-style choices. No matter that our thin friend was not participating in the glory. I ordered enough to feed an army anyway.
Let’s get the most important part out of the way. Fried chicken. That chicken is so good that it borderlines sinful. I went for the dark meat as I always do, and was happy I did. Mashed potatoes with gravy are a must-have with yard bird, but baby lima beans are the star of the show. Magically delicious, I could have made a meal of limas and the obligatory cornbread and gone home a happy camper. I couldn’t help but add turnips to this order to make it a soul masterpiece. I barely had enough cornbread.
Cajun sausage over noodles was nothing really to write home about. Not the “A” game of Backyard Café. I only ordered it to try something different. But if you are into candied yams, these are as good as it gets. And don’t complain about the peach cobbler being too sweet. That is the job of the peach cobbler.
Stuffed bell peppers really warm the soul. A little bit of rice and a lot of meat join just the right amount of tomato sauce. Two smaller versions outdo one larger version any day. I chose macaroni and cheese to go along with this pair. Not a mistake. Mac and cheese from a soul food place is like a chocolate malt at an ice cream parlor. It’s the litmus test. I’d say they passed. Black-eyed peas were my second side on this plate.
My favorite may be the smothered pork chop. It’s the fried, bone-in, battered variety that makes me drool just thinking about it. I never cut into it. I more or less just held it in place with the knife and pulled off bite sized pieces with my fork. You can’t go wrong with more mashed potatoes and gravy. Green beans were needed to, you know, keep it healthy.
So now that your mouth is watering, guess how much it cost. A mere $5.95 covers an entrée and two sides. Some items like the pork chop come with rice or mashed potatoes and gravy plus two more sides. Don’t tell me you cannot afford it. It may be the best deal in town.
I have yet to visit on Fridays, but I will jump at the next chance I get. Fridays are Seafood Days. Expect classics like catfish dinners, shrimp, crab claws, white trout and flounder. Prices vary from dish to dish in this case, but that’s to be expected.
Backyard Café is also associated with Elegant Catering. While I cannot speak for the quality or the elegance of the catering business (never had the pleasure), I can certainly say I have no problems with the quality of the café.
This place can be addictive. Ask your doctor to increase your Lipitor and head on over to Springhill Avenue. As for Kenneth, he missed out on sampling this great feast, but I believe he was there just to do research. He raises chickens in MiMo, and has dreams of opening his own soul food restaurant. Maybe one day we can ask him for four fried chickens and a Coke. Until then, it’s Backyard Café.
2804 Springhill Ave.
Mobile, AL 36607