Foodie Travels: Shirley Mae’s Café, Louisville, Ky.

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Along a wall of bright blue bricks a beautiful mural reads, “Smoketown to me was a melting pot. Everybody knew everybody.”

The sentiment rests just a few blocks from Shirley Mae’s Café in the Smoketown neighborhood of Kentucky’s most populated city of Louisville, and the words and images perfectly describe the experience of eating at the nearby restaurant.

We felt like family members stopping in for a meal when we visited Shirley Mae’s for the first time. The conversations we had with the restaurant family gave us the feeling we were related to our hosts. A baseball game on TV told us we were definitely in Louisville, home of the famed “Slugger” baseball factory. And the food, well, that was what we came for, and that’s what made it feel most like we were having a familiar meal at grandma’s house.

Everything you eat at Shirley Mae’s will wow you. I guarantee you that. And I can also promise you that everything will be fresh when it hits your table. During our visit, one Shirley Mae’s family member told another to take a side dish serving back to the kitchen and replace it because it had been sitting too long.

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Both of our entrees—fried chicken wings and fried fish filets—were seasoned to perfection. (And those are just two options on a long list of main courses.) The chicken was juicy inside, cooked just right for chicken, and it had a delightful crunch on the outside. The fish had more of a cornmeal crust that sang a song inside your mouth with each bite.

While we’re talking about cornmeal, you won’t believe how good the hot-water cornbread is. One Shirley Mae’s family member told us the cornbread was “poor folks food.” Well, eating poor never tasted so good. The bread came out wrapped in tinfoil and nestled inside a small cup. It was solid with a bite of crunch on the outside, and it was soft and warm on the inside. We couldn’t eat it all, so we took it with us on the road. Wouldn’t you know, it reheated beautifully in just a basic microwave and didn’t get the least bit dry for the following three days.

Our side dishes were just as tasty. The macaroni and cheese lived up to its name: cheesy! And it was so creamy, too. My yams registered perfectly on the sweet scale, not tasting too much like a plain, soft-baked sweet potato and not seasoning too close to being sweet candy or pie.

Perhaps the best side of all, and the most-talked-about meal item we enjoyed: Molly’s pinto beans (with slaw, of course). She savored their seasoning and could tell they had been cooking a long time. Molly loves pinto beans, and I dare say these were her all-time favorite beans.

We washed down our meal with sweet tea and grape Kool-Aid (All the best soul food restaurants serve it, we now understand. Just read here and here.)

After paying for our food, we enjoyed a few nice conversations with Shirley Mae’s family members. We learned about their lives, and they learned about ours. Our connection felt just like a Sunday afternoon front-porch talk with relatives.

And that’s why the Smoketown mural caught my attention so much. “Everybody knew everybody.” That’s how it felt at the restaurant that serves homecooked favorites with unbelievable flavor. Eating a meal at Shirley Mae’s is a beautiful combination of savoring delicious made-to-order food while also discovering your family in this world is bigger than you realized. In this melting pot, you don’t have to share blood and a tree to be family. All you have to share is food and your heart.

Shirley Mae’s Café: 802 S. Clay St., Louisville, Ky.

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Foodie Travels: Prince’s Hot Chicken, Nashville, Tenn.

When a food dish has a city in its name, it seems perfect for a diner to try that dish for the first time in its namesake city. That’s exactly how we experienced Nashville Hot Chicken.

History tells us the story that Nashvillian Thorton Prince was what you would call a ladies man. Well, one night he came home from a night out on the town with the scent and lipstick of a woman on him. That didn’t make his significant other too happy, so she concocted a spicy chicken to punish him. Her plan, as the story goes, backfired, and Prince used the recipe to open a restaurant and serve up the hot chicken to others. Prince’s Hot Chicken was born.

img_1018Nearly a century later, the people of Nashville continue to eat up the hot chicken, and “Nashville Hot Chicken” is served far and wide, heralding the city’s name.

There are many options for sampling hot chicken in Nashville, Tenn. Most local restaurants offer a variation of the dish on their menu. But after researching the city’s foodie spots, I decided we should try the place credited with starting the hot chicken craze.

Prince’s offers a lengthy scale of “hot” options for its chicken. You can start with mild and increase many sweat-inducing levels beyond. Not connoisseurs of spicy food, Molly and I tested out the mild chicken tenders on our visit. It was a wise choice, as the so-called “mild” still seared a few tastebuds while popping a few beads of sweat on our skin.

Despite our struggles with the heat, the chicken was delicious, perfectly tender and juicy on the inside, crunchy and sauced to perfection on the outside. And we enjoyed the presentation of the tenders per the custom of Nashville Hot Chicken – on top of white bread and topped with pickles.

In addition to our chicken, we enjoyed a side of fries (recommended to help curb the heat sensation) and a cup of baked beans, some of the best beans we’ve eaten anywhere due to their sweet and smoky mix.

Nashville natives are the experts, but we suggest you start with mild to test the spiciness first, and we suggest you steer away from carbonated beverages with your hot chicken. Molly loves Coke, but we opted for sweet tea at Prince’s.

It’s too bad Thorton Prince is known for his unfaithfulness, but Nashville and foodies everywhere have him to thank for the legendary flavor of his hot chicken.

 

Prince’s Hot Chicken

123 Ewing Drive #3 or 5814 Nolensville Road Suite 110, Nashville, Tenn.

Princeshotchicken.com

Crispy Down-Home Fried Chicken

When Matthew said he wanted to make fried chicken inspired by Winston-Salem restaurant Sweet Potatoes‘ original recipe, my head starting filling with my own visions of what fried chicken means for a southern kitchen. My mom never made fried chicken, at least not the kind that actually comes with a bone inside it. So my frame of reference for fried chicken was limited to fast-food experiences (Bojangles, KFC, Popeye’s) and what I read in books. Yes, books. In my imagination, fried chicken is the kind Minny Jackson teaches Celia Foote how to make in “The Help” – the kind soaked overnight in buttermilk, seasoned with simple ingredients, then fried in a huge vat full of Crisco, which, as Minny points out, is just as vital for a southern cook as our mayonnaise.

Sweet Potatoes’ recipe follows much the same pattern. We used chicken legs and soaked them for at least 6 hours in the buttermilk mixture. Then, we “dredged” the chicken in a flour mixture and popped it in the pan, which was full of hot oil. When our chicken was finally done frying (we used a meat thermometer to be sure), we sure did enjoy it with our homemade biscuits, seasoned green beans, and a sweet potato hash Matthew came up with on the spur of the moment. It was a feast worthy of any southern kitchen, and it certainly lived up to the best of my imagination.

Here’s the recipe we used, which we tweaked for our own tastes. Feel free to change as needed, add your own sides, and enjoy!

Ingredients:

1 1/2 lbs. chicken

Oil for frying

(Buttermilk mixture)

1/2 quart buttermilk

1 tbsp. salt

1/2 tsp. garlic salt

1/2 tsp. thyme

1/2 tbsp. pepper

 

(Flour mixture)

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 tbsp. cornstarch

Directions:

1. Combine buttermilk, salt, garlic, thyme and pepper. Add the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

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2. Heat the oil (about 1 inch deep) on medium-high in a large cast-iron pan.

3. Combine flour and cornstarch in a bowl. (The original recipe called for adding a tablespoon of chicken or seafood seasoning to the flour mixture. We didn’t, so it’s optional.)

4. Dredge the chicken in the flour+cornstarch mixture and coat it thoroughly.

5. Add the chicken to the pan and brown on one side for 10 minutes.

6. Turn the chicken over and keep frying until it is done, turning when necessary. Chicken is done when a thermometer (in the thickest part) reads 165 degrees.

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7. Remove from the pan and place the chicken on a plate covered with paper towels or another material for removing some of the grease. Serve and enjoy!

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Matthew’s take: Just watch chef Stephanie Tyson fry chicken and talk about her method. I believe your mouth will be watering afterward, just like mine was (unless you don’t like chicken altogether). This fried chicken was crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside when we enjoyed it fresh from the pan. When I took a couple of pieces to work for lunch a couple of days later, I was amazed that it was even more flavorful and even better. The buttermilk soak makes all the difference in the flavor. The time you fry and the rotation of the chicken as it cooks inside and fries outside is the key to getting a combination of a nice, golden brown colorful appearance and the delicious taste of meaty chicken on the inside. I would recommend this recipe against any fried chicken prescription out there. Knowing the story of the chef who passed down the recipe certainly makes a difference as well. (And so does the memory of eating in her delightfully Southern, North Carolina restaurant.)

Molly’s take: This chicken, as I said, lived up to my expectations. Soaking it in the buttermilk really makes the meat tender and flavorful. It is perfect when prepared and cooked this way. The frying took longer than I imagined, but I didn’t have enough oil in the pan and my burner was on too low. So that’s why I suggest turning it up to medium-high heat and frying in at least an inch of oil. Once it was done, it was delicious! Crispy outer covering with a tender, juicy inside. We can’t wait to try it again!

 

Foodie Travels: Sweet Potatoes, Winston-Salem, N.C.

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When a line forms at a restaurant’s doors before it opens, that’s a good sign. When an artist asks if he can photograph your food for a series he’s doing for the restaurant’s wall decor, that’s another good sign. When your waitress advises you how you can work the menu to get the best sampling to please your tastebuds, that’s ultimately a good sign.

Prior to a recent quick weekend trip to Winston-Salem, N.C., Molly discovered this restaurant with a food name and a tempting menu full of Southern delights. Let me be the one to tell you that everything we read and saw and dreamed of in regards to this place came true. Sweet Potatoes is the stuff of legend in this northwestern corner of North Carolina’s Triad region, about two hours from Charlotte. The first indicator of that fame? The place was full within 15 minutes of opening when we experienced our first brunch during our recent visit.

After being the first ones through the door, we were seated by the corner window with the accompaniment of a pleasing playlist of jazz flowing through the air. Sweet Potatoes has a story behind its name, and the food by that same name is the inspiration behind many of the dishes on the menu. Following a very hospitable consultation with our suggestive but not insistent menu expert (waitress), Molly and I both settled on sweet potato-inclusive main courses. She had the “Un-French” Toast with a sweet potato base and a delicious strawberry sauce, and I had the Chicken and Sweet Potato Pancakes, a glorious local take on the Southern favorite, Chicken and Waffles.

That left us wondering about several other almost-chosen menu items, including a Three-Cheese Macaroni and Country Ham Souffle. No problem. Our waitress suggested the modestly priced savory dish as an appetizer to share, and that’s just what we did. The creaminess of the macaroni and cheese was boosted by the high-flavor taste of the ham, and it was one of the most tasty opening dishes I’ve experienced in all my foodie travels. And it was just enough to be an opening course.

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On to the main dishes. Molly’s “Un-French” Toast had a deep sweet potato flavor and gooey interior, countered by a slightly crispy outer crust, and supplemented by a surprisingly but perfectly paired taste of strawberries and their juices.

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My pancakes were light, fluffy and had the spice and sweet of a piece of sweet potato pie, while the fried chicken tenders (read more about the chef’s delicious chicken coating here) had the best seasoning taste I believe either of us have ever had in a fried piece of chicken.

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Along with the delicious Southern culinary experience, there’s an artsy feel on all sides and senses at Sweet Potatoes. Combined with the jazz, your eyes get a sample of local art and photos from the nearby performing arts scene. Both are ideal fits for a restaurant that sits in the heart of Winston-Salem’s Trade Street art district.

During our brunch, a number of folks continued to wait outside, hoping for a seat. Some ultimately went elsewhere, while others stayed put, obviously knowing the delayed entry would be worth the wait. I was quite possibly as excited about trying this restaurant as any I’ve ever scouted online. And it was every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

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A few final tips for your visit: Arrive early. Arrive hungry. Put down your phone while you’re there. This is one of those places that every one of your senses must experience in full effect.

 

Sweet Potatoes

529 North Trade Street, Winston-Salem, N.C.

sweetpotatoes.ws