Santa Clara spot boasts Southern food that is “soul good”
THE SANTA CLARA
January 26, 2017
Out West, far removed from the deep-fried haven known as the South, soul food restaurants are like a good man—hard to find. So when your eyes catch sight of an illuminated, colorfully-lettered sign advertising food that is “soul good,” you’ve got to seize the opportunity.
Located on Coleman Avenue, Lillie Mae’s House of Soul Food has been delighting customers with its fine Southern cooking since 2010. Owner, operator and executive chef Rhonda Manning named the restaurant after her grandmother—Lillie Mae Gaulden—who worked as a chef in Oklahoma for over 30 years, cooking for everyone from schoolchildren to prison inmates to her own family. Today, Manning and the rest of her family carry on the culinary legacy, serving up comfort food to a wide-ranging clientele.
As I entered the oak wood-paneled eatery on a rain-soaked Saturday night, I felt as if I was entering two different worlds. On the one hand, the black and white photographs of family members and smell of fried chicken made me feel as if I was entering someone’s house. But at the same time, the neon beer signs and shadowy lighting gave the restaurant a dive bar vibe.
Observing the diverse populous standing in the long line and sitting at the packed tables it became clear—Lillie Mae’s is both. Part family-friendly eatery, part dive bar. People of all ages, races, shapes and hunger-levels are welcome.
I did my best to sample as much of the extensive menu as possible. Customers will find the best value is one of the twelve dinner combos, which are served with cornbread or hush puppies and two sides of one’s choosing. Each dinner combo serves up two meat options. Of the two dinner combos I ordered, I indulged in brisket, fried catfish, BBQ chicken and pork ribs.
The brisket is unlike any I’ve ever had. Smoked for five hours in the outdoor smoker, the brisket is not served in long slices like at most BBQ restaurants. Instead, Lillie Mae’s chops up their brisket and tosses it with sauce—similar to how one would serve pulled pork. The change of pace is welcome, as the the fatty bits, tender bits and burnt bits of the brisket compliment each other in perfect harmony.
The cornmeal-battered catfish is equally delicious, albeit with a slight muddy flavor. Some may be turned off by this, but most experienced catfish-eaters know to expect it and just as well know to toss on loads of hot sauce for optimal enjoyment.
The BBQ chicken and pork ribs are both slathered in Lillie Mae’s house-made BBQ sauce. The sweet sauce fully and deeply penetrates the meat, yielding a flavor that somewhat echoes teriyaki, but is wholly original and rooted in Oklahoma barbeque tradition.
As for the sides, I got my paws on their famous mac and cheese—as gooey and unctuous as any I’ve ever tried. I also sampled the collard greens, which combined a vinegary heat and a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The baked beans were on the sweet (as opposed to spicy) side, and had a strong tomato flavor—perfect for dipping cornbread and hush puppies.
Both of the aforementioned starches are noteworthy. The moist cornbread features actual kernels of corn throughout, which explode when bitten into—making each bite a delicious surprise.
Hush puppies, for those unfamiliar, are essentially the savory counterpart to a donut hole, and are a staple of Southern cooking. Lillie Mae’s does them right, as they are perhaps the most addicting item on the menu.
As far as drinks go, Lillie Mae’s may be the only joint in California that has Kool-Aid on tap—as authentic Southern as you can get. Though it was tempting, I chose instead to have the sweet tea, which was … wait for it … served in a mason jar. Again, authentic Southern. Beautiful.
Unfortunately, I was unable to sample the two desserts—peach cobbler and sweet potato pie—as they had sold out. But, if availability is any indication of greatness (and I believe it is in this case), you can bet that both are pretty darn great.
Finally, and best of all, I tasted Lillie Mae’s chicken and waffles. Served with hot maple syrup and whipped butter, the classic comfort dish is the pinnacle of stick-to-your-ribs food. The waffle was well-seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg, pairing perfectly with the textbook fried chicken. As far as food that’s good for your soul, you can’t do much better.
The same could be said for all of the food at Lillie Mae’s. Food made from the soul, for the soul. In terms of satisfaction—both bodily and spiritually—the wooden joint on the corner of Coleman and Brokaw stands alone.
Contact Jimmy Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.