Akin Alafin, owner of Soul Republic United Restaurants, likes to say that the new Angie's Soul Cafe in Midtown is a homecoming long overdue. It was less than a half-mile away, at the former Carnegie Hotel, that founder Angie Jeter got her professional cooking start, preparing the city's finest soul food for enthusiastic lunchtime crowds. When that hotel closed, Jeter hung out her own shingle, relying on the same treasure trove of Southern recipes that she inherited from her mother.
Step inside the newly unveiled Angie's restaurant on Carnegie, located in the longtime home of Hot Sauce Williams, and you will enjoy staples ripped straight from Jeter's steamy childhood kitchen in Union, South Carolina. The smell of freshly baked cornbread hangs in the air, the cackles of an exuberant dining party bounce around the room, and a friendly cashier beckons for the next person in line.
Unfortunately, that person carried only paper money and was thus prevented from ordering at this cash-free eatery, one that accepts solely credit cards and modern-day equivalents like Apple Pay and Google Wallet. This, despite signs plastered inside and out, countless media mentions, and a sympathetic employee who kindly reminds every other customer about the unconventional practice.
This is an Angie's Soul Cafe for the modern age. While the food is every bit as wholesome, satisfying and comforting as it always has been, nearly every other aspect of the business has changed. A year-long renovation of the moldering structure has resulted in a warm, bright and uncluttered space that stows the ubiquitous steam table neatly out of view. Even dear old Angie has succumbed to the fast-casual tsunami, one that treats both dine-in and carry-out customers alike, right down to the plastic food containers, cutlery and sauce ramekins.
An efficient system moves diners through the ordering and payment process. Those who are camping out receive a table flag to guide food runners. Take-out customers grab a seat at a table or bench and wait for their name to be called. Ticket times at both lunch and dinner topped out at 15 minutes and orders were accurate, complete and packed with care. Dine-in customers have the added benefit of enjoying a cold Corona or Dos Equis ($3.75) on the side.
Angie's is rightly celebrated for its fried chicken, lightly seasoned with a thin, crisp coating. I recently enjoyed a four-piece dark-meat combo with two thighs and two drums ($12.95), but other white, dark and wing combinations are available. A word of caution: Order the dark-meat fried chicken sandwich ($8.50), as I did one day while running errands, and it will arrive with a bone-in thigh and drumstick. This is no driving-around sandwich.
A far better option for one-handed dining is the fried catfish sandwich ($9), a lightly breaded, gently seasoned and freshly fried filet of fish alongside two slices of white bread, thick round of tomato and shredded lettuce. Packets of tartar sauce and hot sauce are tossed in as well.
I've always been deeply enamored of Angie's pork chops ($14.95), a pair of semi-thick bone-in chops that are fried, baked and smothered in sweet onions and thick gravy. As with all entrees, the price includes two sides and a fragrant corn muffin. I have yet to see a crispy french fry at Angie's, but the mac and cheese is thick, creamy and mild, the collard greens are pleasantly meaty, the black-eyed peas earthy and firm-tender, and the steamed rice ideal for sopping up anything saucy.
I'm not sure why it's taken me 20 years to order the baked chicken and dressing dinner but it might be the best thing on the menu. The dark meat version ($12.95) comes with a thigh and drum, both fall-off-the-bone luscious, fine-grained cornbread stuffing, a ladle or two of flavorful poultry gravy and a shot of tart cranberry jelly. Conversely, I'll likely never again order the Western-style ribs ($11.95). It's not the generous portion of bone-in pork that sinks the dish, but rather the thick sweet and sour sauce that clings to every bite.
For dessert there's sweet potato pie, peach cobbler and vanilla caramel layer cake.
It took Alafin months longer than he had anticipated to purchase, renovate and reopen the Carnegie restaurant, which replaces the long-standing shop on St. Clair. But already the destination feels like an enduring fixture in the Midtown landscape, a present-day Carnegie Hotel where the day's most pressing matters are ironed out over a plate of fried chicken and collard greens. And Angie is there, too, if not in the flesh then on the wall, admiring a culinary adventure that has spanned 50 years and 10 blocks.