Southern Cafe, Damn Was That Good...

Southern Cafe, small but big flavors!

...was that the best meal I ever ate in Lakewood?

Let me digress for a moment. It was Friday evening and I was driving with Deb looking for a place to get dinner. We were driving past the Phantasy Theater, and then saw Southern Cafe, so we decided to stop.

The small restaurant was about half filled, and everyone seemed to be enjoying the night. It has a funky but comfortable feeling. One of the servers welcomed us in and handed us menus. The large menu had mainstays of Southern Cuisine, and mainstays of Soul Food. Red and Purple Kool-Aid, Chicken and Waffles, Poor Boys, Pork Chops, Greens, Grits, Catfish, and Peach Cobbler.

I said to the server, “What is the best thing on the menu?” Her answer was, “People rave about the catfish!” I mentioned I am not a fan of catfish and she said, “Neither am I but I liked it!” OK what about the sides? “Try the greens!” I did, though I’m not a fan, and cream corn. Deb wanted an appetizer and ordered up the Grits and Shrimp. Again, I am not a fan of grits. This would be interesting.

While the room filled up with diners,  I noticed something really cool, and fun. There were no table boundries! Everyone was talking to other tables, even sharing tastes and jokes! Seriously, people moving chairs, getting up, crossing the room and sitting and talking. It was like a big family dinner.
As dinners started rolling out of the kitchen, we all got sorted out and back to who we came with, and in front of me was a plate of Shrimp and Grits.  OK I will be honest, rarely do I like most Grits. So I grab a fork, and a shrimp, and some grits and put it in my mouth. I was not expecting much. I certainly wasn’t expecting the flavor explosion that hit my tongue. The Grits were perfect, as described in “My Cousin Vinny,” and the dish was nuts it was so good. I’ve been back twice getting this for lunch! Damn is it good.

My catfish came with sides that were huge. A big bowl of cream corn, and a big bowl of greens, and catfish. To be honest, I was looking down, once again hoping for the best, thinking, “I should have just gotten the chicken, it looked great.” Then I took a bite of catfish, and thought, this is what they are talking about. All those people raving about catfish, I got it! This was delicious.

Their cream corn is not your momma’s cream corn! Spicy, with more than corn, each spoonful was just an explosion of mellow spices and flavor and the sweet milk from corn. Delicious. Which left the greens. Now if you are from the north or are white, greens are a tough one, literally. I was always told an acquired taste. While forced to eat dandelion greens as a child, once I was paying the bills I moved to the sweeter spinach, or the total WASP baby spinich. That is because I never had Chef Tony’s greens, or food for that matter. After paying the bill, driving home I was thinking, “I just had the best meal ever in Lakewood, and I ordered nothing I liked!” WTF?

I stopped back a couple days later to talk with the owner, and pick up some Shrimp and Grits, and then it all came together. This was not some start-up restaurant, Chef Tony Fortner is a culinary rock star in Cleveland. Being head chef at Stone  Town Soul Food on Prospect gave him national attention  for the food, then for being fenced out of the RNC Convention, and then for food when they all came over to check it out.
When you meet the rock stars of cooking they often have similar stories, and Tony is not that different. Growing up the youngest of seven kids, he found out early on, that if he helped mom he could taste the food and get more to eat! By the age of 13 he was cooking a majority of Thanksgiving Dinner, and had absorbed all of Mom’s secrets, especially the secret of loving what you cook.

Then it was off to the Navy where he was cooking for 5,000 midshipmen at a time. So he learned restaurant work, management, scaling recipes, and pleasing hungry enlisted soldiers and eventually officers.

From there it was to massive restaurants, Landerhaven, Canterbury Golf Course, etc. Then he started his first place, Zanzibar on Shaker Square, and then Stone Town.

When I asked, “Why Lakewood?” Tony smiled and said, “There was a calling, so many people were begging us to come West. Brothers that were desperate for the comfort food we grew up with, and so many that loved the foods of the South gave us the idea. We love Lakewood, and are glad we made the move.”

Just then Tony’s wife and kids came in. She smiled, and the young boys went straight to the kitchen grabbing chicken! He has plans to double the size of the restaurant which is good, because it is about to get real busy. I am so glad his family brought their great comfort food to Lakewood.
But why believe me, check it out for yourself. You will not be sorry.

11817 Detroit Ave Lakewood, Ohio 44107 (216) 801-4535

Jim O'Bryan

Publisher, Lakewood Observer, Inc.

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Volume 12, Issue 19, Posted 5:42 PM, 09.13.2016