by Elissa Karg
Do you ever think of stopping at the little neighborhood restaurants that you pass in your daily travels? That’s how we happened upon Irene’s Southern Cookin’. “Hey, didn’t that used to be a Beans and Cornbread?” I asked as we whizzed by. Then we circled back around.
There’s a friendly atmosphere in the little dining room, which is tiled in red and white. Check out the collection of Motown album covers on the walls — from the Jackson 5 to Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross and the Supremes. Folks ordering take-out gather at the front of the restaurant, chatting, laughing, even dancing. Those who stay for dinner are looked after by servers Tashara Smith and Taffy Brown, daughter and niece of owner Ron Smith. We were hungry when we walked in, and glad we didn’t have to wait long for a big square of crumbly cornbread, warm and sweet.
Ron Smith does most of the cooking himself, and his specialty is ribs. Slathered with a spicy-sweet barbecue sauce, a generous half-slab is $10 and comes with two sides. Smith distinguishes between soul food and his own “down-home cooking” (there are no ham hocks or chitterlings in the latter). He grew up in Arkansas, lived for a while in Texas, then moved to Michigan to help his sister open Back in the Day, a take-out place on Eight Mile in Ferndale. Opened in December 2002, Smith named Irene’s after his late mother.
Other entrées include chicken (fried, smothered or barbecued), pork chops (also fried, smothered or barbecued), country-fried steak, catfish or perch, wing-dings, shrimp and meat loaf. For a very reasonable price, you get two sides and about twice what you might consider eating at home — two pork chops, two thick slices of meat loaf, two fried steaks. I especially liked the meat loaf.
For me, sides are the heart of soul food. Most of the regulars are available here: yams, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, macaroni and cheese, corn, rice, collard greens, mashed potatoes, green beans, potato salad, coleslaw and fried okra. I love collard greens, especially when I don’t have to cook them, but I couldn’t eat them at Irene’s — too salty. Same with the green beans. The yams succumbed to that other vice — too much sugar. The macaroni and cheese is sunny yellow, with plenty of cheddar. The potato salad is also yellow, this time from mustard. The green beans are cooked tender, if you like them that way, or overcooked if you don’t.
The couple sitting behind us was enjoying a first dinner at Irene’s. It compared favorably to a place they liked in West Bloomfield, “and this is just around the corner,” he said. His companion was excited when Tashara listed Kool-Aid as one of the drinks. “Really?” she said, and ordered it. Neither could finish, and leftovers were squirreled away in take-out boxes. “We’ll be back,” they said as they paid the bill.
Almost every item on the menu is available fried: the chicken, pork chops, steak, catfish, perch, wing-dings, shrimp. Only the ribs and meat loaf escape a dunk in boiling oil. If you prefer to skip the gravy, be sure you mention it when ordering. Even the meat loaf and country steak were smothered.
Also worth a splurge (calorie-wise, the price is only $2.50) are home-baked layer cakes — lemon, red velvet, chocolate — the kind of thing Mom might have served after Sunday dinner. Red velvet is yummy. We tried the peach cobbler; it’s cute, served in a little brown bean pot, but so sweet it made my teeth ache.
After we had eaten at Irene’s twice, the co-diner declared, “All the virtues and vices of Southern cooking.” The virtues? Hearty food for hard-working people. The vices: salt, sugar and the deep-fat fryer.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.