Soul food is born out of poverty, Southern and rural — food that is local, cheap, and easy to grow or forage. A good cook takes these foods that no one would want and adds love, turning castoffs into a feast. With our economy crumbling, that might be the appeal of soul food in 2008.
While hog mauls and chitterlings aren’t on the menu, Mama Lee’s Soul Food is worthy of its name. The menu is a recitation of the classics of modern soul food: Meatloaf, fried catfish, pork chops, chicken, brisket, and ham. You order one or two servings of meat, which come with two vegetables and a corn muffin. The desserts are the only menu item that changes daily. Unfortunately, they are hit and miss. It is a moot point, though, since after finishing a meat plate, you shouldn’t have any room for dessert. This is likely why most of the sweets are already packed up to go next to the cash register.
The fried chicken is fantastic. Mama Lee’s is homemade, without the inch-thick layer of manufactured crust one usually finds at a chicken chain. The skin is crisp, surprisingly light, and flecked with pepper and spices. The meat, your choice of white or dark, is not only juicy, but flavorful.
The pork chop is lightly coated and fried, sealing in the juices of the thin-cut, bone-in chop. The cut is lean, but leaves a picture-perfect ring of fat around the meat, which is trimmed of all gristle. That bone proves useful as a handle to get at every last tender bite.
The sides at Mama Lee’s almost outshine the meat. The mac and cheese is not baked to a mush; the springy noodles are bound by a creamy and mild sauce and dotted with bits of melted cheese. The collard greens diverge from the classic soul-food treatment, in which the greens are stewed with pork for a long period of time until they are closer to a porridge than a vegetable. At Mama Lee’s, each leaf is discernable and retains a bit of crispness. Bits of bacon lend a pork flavor, adding a hint of smoke and sweet to the slight bitterness of the collards. The remarkable stewed okra has not a hint of what okra haters call “slime.” Their preparation makes okra more like a green bean, accented by sweet tomatoes and spicy cubes of sausage.
Mama Lee, the mother of co-owner Ken Lee, is the inspiration for the restaurant. She still lives in Beaumont where Ken and his business partner Peedy Harris met when they were 8 years old. The childhood friends joined the military, serving separate duties. They met up again while stationed in England, where the idea for Mama Lee’s was born. By chance, both ended up in San Antonio, and when Ken retired, he enlisted Peedy to partner up. Mama Lee’s opened its doors in January 2007, and has done well enough to warrant a second location on the Northeast side.
You can add the original Mama Lee’s Soul Food to the confounding list of good restaurants tucked into nondescript strip malls. The original Mama Lee’s is in the back of a mall two blocks inside 410, so only a small sign on the strip mall’s marquee can be seen from the street. The decor is simple, but clean and cheery, a nice change from places that mistake “down home” with dirty and run down.
Mama Lee’s fits an economy that calls for oilcloth table covers rather than white linen. Out go the vertical sculptures of food, in comes a sectioned plate filled with simple, wholesome fare. This is the sort of food that helped folks ride out the last depression and may well feed us, and keep us smiling, through another.
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