Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sweet Soul Food at Alfreda's Cafeteria

The scene

I felt like I had stepped onto the set of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown. The interior of Alfreda's is unself-conscious retro kitsch. The walls are part brick and part faux old-English style wood paneling, all painted a deep rust red. The booths are mismatched colors, some bright orange, some a pastel peach. The room looked like it had been decorated, poorly, in the early 1970s, and left alone ever since.

The customers at Alfreda's are almost all African American men. Despite the women behind the counter, it is the sort of place like Texas Cafeteria or Christian's Tailgate that oozes something manly. Maybe it's the garishly clashing interior decor.

Catfish and a quest for neck bone

I first heard about Alfreda's when a co-worker gave me a bite of fried catfish that he brought back for me. This was one of the best pieces of catfish I had tried in years. The fish did not have a muddy or corn-fed flavor. The cornmeal crust was thin, golden, and crunchy. From the takeout menu, I noticed that Alfreda's only has catfish on Fridays. Most entrees are specials that change with each day of the week.

Also on the menu, I noticed that one Tuesday special is callled "neck bone." I have never tried even heard of that dish. I'm not even sure what kind of animal the neck bone comes from. But I knew I wanted to try it.

Slow cooked ox tails; slow cooked sides

Unfortunately, on this Tuesday, Alfreda's was out of neck bone. Instead, they had smothered steak, ham hocks, baked fish, chitterlings, smothered chicken, and ox tails. I ordered ox tails. Ox tails are the tail of a beef animal. They are usually braised. My relatively small serving of ox tails had been slow cooked in a light stew with a few potatoes. When cooked correctly, as Alfreda's had cooked them, they taste like a really good pot roast.

My side vegetables were also tasty. I had sweet potatoes that seemed to have been turned into a puree, not by a food processor, but by cooking them for as long as the ox tails. Of course, these East Texas-style potatoes had been sweetened with some extra sugar and had an orange sheen, like you only see on cafeteria sweet potatoes.

Green beans seemed to be cooked in a Louisiana style, with a little pork fat. They taste very similar to the beans at Zydeco Diner downtown.

Perhaps the most unusual vegetable side was the red beans. They looked just like the Cajun variety of red beans, but the cook had added something sweet. The very idea of sweet red beans sounds a bit heretical -- sort of like the sweet corn bread you get in New England -- but I liked the taste.

Alfreda's had a fantastic-looking peach cobbler, but I thought better of eating more food.

The regulars

The ladies behind the counter seemed to know everyone. "Hey Al, what can I get for to you today?" "Good to see you James -- You want chicken today?" But when it was my turn, I was greeted only with, "Uh huh?"

I didn't feel like they minded seeing a stranger walk in. It just wasn't the sort of thing that happened very often at Alfreda's.

Of course, if an East Texas / Louisiana-style soul food joint like Alfreda's was in my neighborhood, I would be one of the regulars too.


issa said...

My family tends to cook a lot of neck bones (usually beef) in soups and such. The meat can be very tender and fall off the bone. I used to think it was an asian thing, but then again my parents grew up in Mississippi, so they cook a lot of soul food as well.

anonymouseater said...

Hi Issa. I did a little research on this. The African American Registry says that neck bones are a common item in soul food. I also found some sites indicating that neckbones are used in Phillipino cuisine. My guess is that neck bones are eaten most of the parts of the world where people wisely and efficiently use all edible parts of the animal.

Cecil said...

Where is Alfreda's?

issa said...

hey Anonymouseater!

i found this recipe for pork neck bone and lotus root soup for you. This is one way we make it.

Cipher said...

Sweetened red beans are a big taste in a lot of Asian cuisines, I've had Thai and Japanese versions. Red bean ice cream is really good, it has a sort of flowery taste to it.

anonymouseater said...

Issa -- Thanks for the link to the recipe! That looks great. I love cooking Chinese food, and I will have to try it.

Cecil -- Alfreda's is on Almeda Street, just north of the Calumet exit off of 288.

Cipher -- I love Japanese red bean ice cream. But is that the same kind of bean that you get in Southern red beans? I never knew what kind of bean the ice cream was made from.

Sammy B. said...

If my dad had his way, we would eat at Alfreda's at least once a week. Great review.

Cipher said...

On Wikipedia I found that the Asian dishes are made from azuki beans:


Tiggs said...

i am just back from japan and had a starbucks azuki frap there-- yum!