By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
Prime time is a different neighborhood now: Roseanne feeds her family peanut butter and Fritos sandwiches, Homer is way dumber than Bart, and, well, I have enough suburban St. Augustine stuck on the shoes of my soul that I don't even like to think about the Bundys.
Blue collar is cool: If it's true on TV, it must be so in real life. So I guess the number of restaurants that now self-consciously model themselves after truck stops and whose art directors have adopted the shanty as a style of decorating and replaced Syrie Maugham with Elvis Presley as an arbiter of taste is not surprising. These places hang hubcaps instead of artwork, and misspell their menus on purpose; they skew their plank staircases and script their waiters with cute Southern phrases so they'll sound as friendly as the Olympics Committee. And they are mostly awful, not for being tacky, but for aiming at it, for the high cost calculations clearly involved in trying to seem low-rent.
The Velvet E, a nightclub on McKinney, is squarely in the middle of this Naugahyde trend. It's not named after Elvis Presley, its lawyers would no doubt like me to clarify, since his estate is entangled in a lawsuit with the VE's sister establishment that dared to name itself the Velvet Elvis. But it is decorated with bead curtains, flocked wallpaper, and lots of velvet paintings. And for several months, we've been watching as a shanty was tacked onto the west side of the VE, a structure that seemed to go up plank by plank, with no particular plan or vision. The result is Blue Soul Cafe, and it actually did grow that way. The resulting building is not much more than a deck wrapped around a cafeteria line that the proprietors refer to rather stuffily as a "buffet." But I think Blue Soul is one of the best-looking restaurants in town.
I like the food, too, mostly. Todd and Kellie Stevens, who run the place for the VE, toured the South in preparation for opening Blue Soul, driving across Louisiana all the way to Alabama, and eating all along the way. Originally, they had in mind an after-hours beignet bar; what they ended up serving is soul food with a twist. The chefs play with the menu: There's always chicken, catfish, and red beans, but the rest of the fare changes daily, ranging for inspiration throughout the South, just like the Stevenses did. You might eat Cajun-Creole gumbo one week, chicken and dumplings the next.
During one visit, I tried the pork and apple meat loaf, two inches thick and crumbling, the loose-packed slice of cooked pork debris and apples topped with a horseradish glaze, not at all like anyone's mama ever made, but then, maybe Mama could pick up an idea or two here. My choice of vegetables was soft-cooked cubes of candied sweet potatoes and fresh spinach, wilted and dressed with onions, bacon, and a touch of...balsamic vinegar? Like I said. My friend had the catfish po' boy, two tongue-shaped, crisp-coated fillets overlapped on a browned French loaf, dressed with mayonnaise, lettuce, and sliced tomato. Iced tea comes sweetened or not; dessert was peach cobbler or not.
The porch tables were hammered together in the same necessity-born style as the roof, but they were stained with bright Caribbean colors--yellow, blue, turquoise. And a fabulous folk-art mural, the adventures of "Blue Soul Man," was painted on the outside wall by a Houston painter named Bailey. (The whole place is filled with outsider art, most of it by Bailey or a painter called Woodie, and I've been told it's for sale if you ask often enough.)
There are plans to close in the porch with removable windows to make it more comfortable in more unpredictable weather and to allow it to be air-conditioned in the predictable heat next summer. And the Blue Soul Cafe, now open only for lunch, will probably open for dinner, too, sometime in the next few months. Right now, if you're out late, you can breakfast there after midnight.
There aren't any waiters, exactly, but there are a number of helpers dressed in denim overalls. They roam around when they're not serving food or working the cash register, filling tea glasses and making small talk. One came by while I was eating and told me to go on and take my shoes off if I wanted to; another brought my friends some iced tea to sip while they were waiting out front for me to meet them.