When I walked into Lady Louisa's, I knew the food would have to be mighty good to overcome the deficiencies of ambiance. It's mostly a carry-out place — cold enough to keep your coat on — and the cooks and servers work behind Plexiglas.
If you eat in, your order is served exactly the same way as for take-home — boxed in Styrofoam with plasticware. Studying the portrait of the dignified old lady, owner Rudy Hendrix's grandmother, who looks down on it all, I suspected she wouldn't have approved of the inhospitality implied by an armed security guard.
But the neighborhood demands it, according to Hendrix (brother of Freman).
Thank goodness the Southern comfort food is worth it, and the service is unusually welcoming, smiling and patient. Hendrix often emerges from the back to chat with customers. My second visit, the ride home felt stretched to eternity by the mix of sublime smells that escaped the Styrofoam.
Lady Louisa's tagline is "Slow Cooked Ribs and Comfort Food." It's interesting that just about nothing Americans call comfort food requires much chewing, though we've all had teeth from a very young age. We want our nostalgia soft, apparently, and that's what Hendrix's four cooks offer up.
In the three months since Lady Louisa's opened, Hendrix has also found that customers want their meat smothered, whether it's pork chops, chicken, meatloaf or catfish. That means slow-cooked in a sauce some would call gravy (not my definition) with onions.
(I wondered where the term "smothered" came from and found a demonstration of the technique on the Web. Chef Karl James of Creolesoul says his mama told him the other way to smother a pork chop was to put a little pillow over its face. Perhaps that's why James sniffs alarmingly throughout the video.)
Hendrix found customers weren't ordering his brisket or pulled pork — are some Detroiters so removed from their roots in North Carolina? — so those dishes have been off the menu, at least temporarily (call to find out their status). There was no chicken and dumplings when I visited, either; it would have been interesting to see how this favorite survived an institutional setting.
All meats, even turkey, are smoked before cooking. I went for oxtails, ribs and grilled chicken, the latter an ill-advised last-minute nod to fat-avoidance. (Eating Southern food should be in for a penny, in for a pound; go for the fried.) The oxtails were sublime through long braising in their own drippings, so fatty and luscious. There's not much meat, of course, in a cow's tail, especially at $14.95, but this "everything but the moo" cut is worth it.
I found ribs and chicken more ordinary: perfectly fine, sweetish sauce on the ribs, appropriately tender, what you want ribs to be but not to be elevated to the rib pantheon. (Of course, I admit I was gobbling fast after that tantalizing car ride home.)
I wasn't stirred by the jambalaya, which is better when the sausage, shellfish and chicken are cooked in with the rice, rather than served as a sauce over plain white rice, the shortcut way.
Though Hendrix says his customers are raving about catfish smothered with shrimp étouffée, what impressed me most at Lady Louisa's, besides the oxtail, were the sides.
Green beans are cooked with lots of ham and potatoes, their essence distilled by hours on the stove. Collards hold their shape but are appropriately drenched in pot liquor. Macaroni and cheese is both creamy and sharp, using four cheeses that Hendrix won't reveal. Fried cabbage is sweet and buttery. Cornbread dressing is the soft and homogeneous kind — no fancy ingredients, just slightly grainy-textured and peppery — again, comfort food. Black-eyed peas are strong-flavored and mushy.
The sides list is long: barbecued beans, barbecued spaghetti (!), cole slaw, yams, French fries, lima beans, okra and tomatoes, potato salad, red beans and rice, shrimp étouffée. Some items aren't available every day.
Of desserts, I recommend bread pudding, rich, moist and warm, served with a rum sauce. In "mystery pecan pie," cream cheese replaces some of the usual Karo syrup, for an entirely different texture but appealing taste. Peach cobbler is the super-soft, nutmeg-flavored kind; I like my cobblers to have discernible fruit and cobbler layers, but that's not the style Southern cooks have brought to Detroit. Banana pudding is that old vanilla-wafer favorite, definitely good for a memory trip. Hendrix recommends lemon chess pie, a traditional recipe similar to lemon meringue, but sweeter and without the meringue.
I've now paid Lady Louisa's food an ultimate compliment: a stab at replication. I went out and bought oxtails the next day, and bread pudding with rum graced my Thanksgiving table.
Lady Louisa's is open seven days. Perhaps grandma would approve of the fact that you can learn about unadvertised specials via text.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.