When I was growing up, eating out meant a trip to Shoney's Big Boy, and then only when the family was on vacation.
My generation eats out. We are, sorry to say, the generation that has made cheap fast food an American tradition. We work all the time and cook occasionally. Mid-priced and expensive dining options are abundant, and many of us take advantage of them too regularly. My grandfather would roll over in his grave at the thought of plopping down twenty bucks for a cider-brined, center-cut pork chop with a blackberry reduction sauce, or an $8 glass of wine.
I eat out far too frequently, and often find just middling satisfaction. While an entre in a "good" restaurant might be a standout, the side dishes generally disappoint. I curse whoever thought of the vegetable medley, a blob of mixed veggies, the flavor steamed out of them.
Sometimes, I just want a simple meal that, in another lifetime, might have been served at home: meatloaf, fried chicken, a piece of cornbread, some distinguishable vegetables, a piece of pie. To that end, since I no longer live in the South and can't eat regularly at the family-owned meat-and-three joints that feed the hungry throngs in most Southern cities, I'm always on the lookout for a soul-food restaurant, a creature as exotic in Colorado Springs as, say, an Armenian eatery.
Soul-food joints come and go around here. But recently, I've become aware of two that look as if they're here to stay.
Down south in the Mission Trace Shopping Center, It's All Good Soul Food Restaurant is attracting throngs on all-you-can-eat-catfish day (Friday) and on other days, too. In a strip-mall site that formerly housed a Mexican restaurant, IAG dishes up bushel baskets of ribs, fish and chicken, and gallons of collards and turnip greens, mac and cheese, potato salad and baked beans.
Daily specials include chicken and dumplings ($9.95) on Tuesday and chicken and dressing ($9.95) on weekends, with smothered pork chops and barbecue pork shoulder in between.
My jumbo rib/barbecue chicken combo plate ($14.95) fed me for two days. The chicken appeared to have been fried first, to crisp the skin and seal the juices, then smothered with a pungent barbecue sauce and baked. The white meat was moist and good, but the ribs won the day. Smoky, meaty, pink to the bone and thick with sauce, they were hefty and mean. The baked macaroni-and-cheese side was creamy and tangy with cheddar, the turnip greens cooked tender but bland. Splashes of vinegar and hot sauce worked wonders.
Gracing the counter were three irresistible freshly made cakes. I opted for the 7-Up cake, an airy yellow Bundt cake with a buttery glaze of crushed pineapple and shredded coconut so soft and sweet, it could have come from my mother's kitchen.
Downtown, at the south end of the venerable Prime Time Tavern, Merl's Soul Food Restaurant is dishing up home-style cooking 98 hours a week count 'em. Breakfast five days a week, after-hours catfish baskets two nights a week, lunch and dinner every day.
You can get your cornmeal-battered, fried catfish three different ways here: whole, filleted or in nuggets. Whiting's on the menu too, as are steaks, pork chops and wings.
Because they had a good selection, I opted for a vegetable plate of dirty rice, greens, green beans and mac and cheese. (Other options include fried okra, cabbage, potato salad, broccoli and cheese, and red beans and rice.) All I can say is, "Vegetable medley, be gone."
The greens were cooked tender, smoky and salted just right; the dirty rice warm and redolent of the Cajun trinity; the mac and cheese hearty enough to order as an entre. (The green beans were canned, but well-seasoned.) A tall red velvet cake sat under a glass dome next to the enormous poinsettia on the counter, but I resisted, opting instead for an extra corn muffin brown and crisp on the bottom, finely textured and sweet inside.
Both restaurants are happy to prepare your order to go. Both are happy to feed you when you don't want to cook for yourself, when you need a simple stick-to-your-ribs fix, or maybe when you're feeling a little homesick.
It's All Good Soul Food Restaurant
3117 S. Academy Blvd. (in the Mission Trace Shopping Center), 390-1403
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon to 9 p.m.; every first and third Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
Delivery with orders of $25 or more; 10 percent military discount.
Merl's Soul Food Restaurant
200 Pueblo Ave., 635-7856
Hours: Monday, 3 p.m. to midnight; Tuesday-Thursday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 a.m. (Saturday); Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. (Sunday)