White-trash chic

Behind a low-rent facade dwells a Blue Soul of great eats

It's been the observation of those who keep an eye on society--philosophers, professors, and people who watch a lot of television--that America's domestic ideals have changed. Some say, deteriorated. It's true that, when I was a kid, the Nelsons (Ozzie), the Reeds (Donna), and the Cleavers (the Beave) were the American ideal of family. Father knew best, Mother wore pearls. This American family lived in a clean (vacuumed daily) suburban house, ate nutritious breakfasts and hot lunches, and bowed their heads for a blessing before eating their well-balanced dinner together every night.

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.

When I finally arrived, we loaded our trays with marmalade-roasted chicken, root-beer ribs, and stuffed pork chops, along with mashed potatoes, slaw, and green beans. Not to mention corn bread, biscuits, and honey butter. (There is some lighter stuff on the menu, but if you've got a Southern theme going, you better expect a real noontime dinner.) A serving of pork chops meant two, each pocket of meat packed to overflow with crumbly corn bread stuffing, then smothered with tomatoes, peppers, and onions and cooked till tender. And a quarter of a chicken was glazed with tart marmalade and baked, somehow keeping the light meat moist. Nine inches of ribs were sticky with boiled-down root beer (soft drinks being a regular white-trash cooking ingredient, as anyone knows who has tasted a ham basted with Coca Cola or a Seven-Up cake), but they hadn't been cooked long enough. The meat was still tough and stringy--too much a chewing effort for porch food. The biscuits were great: short and tall, if you know what I mean. (If you don't, they were flaky, but risen high.) Peach cobbler was served in a plastic cafeteria bowl filled to the brim, with the peach slices cooked dark and bits of crispy pecan and buttery crust submerged in the syrupy juices.

We sat on the deck (in this context, I really should call it a porch), which had been built by lining up old wood doors on their sides and shoring them up with 2x4s. Right now, the Blue Soul's porch is more authentic than some can stand. I like the Southern languor of sitting outside in the shade:The hundred-degree heat melts you into a relaxing, motion-saving stillness. But for those who can't take it, or who have to wear ties to work, the Cafe offers seating inside the club, in the room with the velvet paintings.

Blue Soul Cafe, 1906 McKinney, 969-5414. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; breakfast buffet Thursday-Saturday, midnight-4 a.m.

Blue Soul Cafe:
Abita Root Beer Ribs $7.50
Fried Catfish Po' Boy $5.95
Pork and Apple Meat Loaf $5.50
Marmalade Chicken $6.25

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