Deano's Cafe and Lounge
Or, the Return of Ms. Helen
2030 E Madison St (Central District), 322-7670. Kitchen hours: Mon-Sat noon-10 pm; closed Sundays.
Take any kind of food, and someone will always come along and upscale it. Simple recipes, comfort-food standards, ethnic foods, it doesn't matter--it still has the potential to go the way of the Jeffersons, and move on up. (Just look at what's happened to macaroni and cheese. Look at super-trendy versions of "Nuevo Latino." Or celeb chef Daniel Boulud's $50 burger, with shaved black truffles and ground sirloin stuffed with foie gras and braised short ribs. Or the most expensive hot dog in New York City to date: a foot-long Kobe beef dog with Kobe beef chili, Cheshire cheese, grilled onions and peppers, and fucking white truffle mustard. For $19. I could go on, but it would be very, very upsetting.)
I'm not sulking from reverse snobbery. Chefs have interpreted and deconstructed and "rediscovered" every cuisine under the sun--with very successful, intelligent results. But there are still some things that are firmly off-limits to me. In the kitchen, as in life, There Are Rules. You cannot, for example, make fried chicken with olive oil. You just can't. Roasted-red-pepper aioli and guacamole do not belong on a BLT. Pesto needs to be used like cologne--in moderation, and in appropriate places. And so on.
Ms. Helen Coleman understands this. Plenty of restaurants all over the country have revamped soul food and moved it on up, but Ms. Helen, who single-handedly runs the kitchen at Deano's Cafe and Lounge in the C.D., leaves well enough alone. Her Southern dishes, all made from scratch, do not stray from tradition; they resist any sort of well-intentioned upscaling, despite the well-intentioned upscaling occurring right outside Deano's. You can build condos and mixed-use retail structures and a big Safeway down the street; but leave the candied yams alone.
For those who remember Ms. Helen from Ms. Helen's Soul Food Restaurant on Union and 23rd (which was virtually destroyed in the 2001 quake), you'll be relieved to know that she's fine, and that she's found a new home on the left side of Deano's. She cooked for a couple years at the Silver Fork (amazing breakfasts--3800 Rainier Avenue South, closed on Wednesdays), and now she's back, running her own kitchen alone--from prep, to taking orders, to cooking, to dishwashing.
With Ms. Helen, oxtails are exactly what they should be: softened with brown gravy and melted fat, cooked out so thoroughly that the flavorful, shredded meat comes right off the bone with a slight poke of the fork. I had mine ($8.50, all entrées come with your choice of two sides) with braised cabbage, and delicious black-eyed peas enhanced with meat stock--perfect texture and moisture content, not mushy at all, but not at all undercooked (which is a challenge with black-eyed peas).
Catfish ($8) is rolled around in cornmeal, plainly seasoned and fried quickly, so that the fish stays moist and the filet tastes fresh and distinct, offset ever so slightly by the sweet cornmeal. I love how catfish tastes like the river. It's not supposed to taste clean and oceanic. How come such an ugly fish, which swirls around in murky, muddy waters and eats crap all day, tastes so GOOD? Fried pork chops ($9.50 for two), on the other hand, are coated in flour (and salt & pepper, and perhaps a bit of paprika) and fried all the way through; dunking these chops in a side dish is the way to go, such as okra stew, soft and robust with corn and spicy tomatoes. The okra also goes very well with collard greens, which are rigorously (and properly) boiled to the point of being puréed, salty and with just the slightest tickle of vinegar.
Mac 'n' cheese is the kind you remember, not the kind you've grown accustomed to. These noodles seem almost more buttery than cheesy, with no crust of baked cheese on top. This is stovetop mac, stirred slowly with heavy cream. Corn cakes arrive hot from the griddle--irregularly shaped, a bit thicker than a pancake, lightly browned, and wonderfully salty-sweet. They could be dessert, but then how would you fit in peach cobbler?