I had never stepped foot inside Southern Cafe in Lakewood, but it sure didn't feel that way. As soon as the server dropped off the menus, a powerful feeling of déjà vu washed over me. From the appetizers and mains on down to the sides, every dish on the menu sounded very familiar. In fact, the menu itself looked like something I had seen before, thanks to a distinctive, memorable font. Sure enough, after digging out a copy of my old Stonetown menu, my suspicions were confirmed.
Stonetown, if you recall, was part of the Angie's restaurant group, a homegrown chain of Southern concepts that also included multiple Angie's Soul Cafe locations, Zanzibar Soul Fusion at Shaker Square and Jezebel's Bayou on Larchmere. Jezebel's is no longer around and Stonetown closed shortly after changing hands.
As executive chef of all those restaurants at one time or another, Tony Fortner was the man responsible for coming up with the dishes and recipes. So he comes by the items honestly when trotting them out as his own at Southern Cafe, his first restaurant. Fortner got his start in the restaurant business back in 1979 when he helped open Earth by April in Cleveland Heights. He has since made appearances at Canterbury Golf Club, Johnny's Downtown and Chester's on Noble before landing with Angie's.
If you were to strip away all of the flash — and some of the comfort — from high-concept places like Zanzibar and Stonetown, you'd get Southern Cafe. This 35-seat storefront on Detroit, most recently home to a Saudi Arabian restaurant, is about as informal as a full-service eatery can get. In place of craft beer and boozy Hurricanes, there is lemonade and Kool-Aid, served up in a rainbow of colors and flavors.
Since the dawn of time, Cleveland diners who craved Southern and soul-food classics like chicken and waffles, shrimp and grits and smothered pork chops had to cross the river and head to the east side. Southern Cafe offers all those home-style favorites with none of the commute. Soul Rolls ($8), those hearty Southern-themed egg rolls, come by the pair and are filled with chicken, corn, cheese and toothsome braised greens. Fried green tomatoes ($5) are firm and tart, but the battered shell offers a bit too much resistance for our taste. Get used to the spicy remoulade sauce that comes with the tomatoes and soul rolls because it accompanies a number of menu items, including an appetizer of lightly breaded fried catfish fingers ($6).
Shrimp and grits ($9) is listed under the appetizer section, but it can easily double as a main course. About a half dozen medium shrimp are tossed in a flavorful tomato-based Creole sauce and ladled over a bed of creamy grits. Angie's has always been a pioneer in the fried chicken arts, and Southern comes mighty close. Though the white meat was on the dry side, the dark meat and crispy shell are showstoppers. You can get the crunchy bird as part of a dinner ($9), served with a corn muffin and two sides, or as part of the chicken and waffles ($13.95). That's my preferred route, where the combination of crispy breading, tender meat, sweet butter and "maple syrup," and heaps of hot sauce all melt into the fluffy red velvet waffles. Sides include fried okra, watery grits, mac and cheese, and collards.
For such a small place, Southern Cafe has a surprisingly expansive menu. Entrees range from a seafood pasta with Cajun spice to a half-pound Salisbury steak dinner. In terms of comfort food, it's tough to beat the pork chops ($9), flash fried and smothered in rich brown gravy and onions. If you're hungry, spend the extra four bucks to double the chops, which are pencil-thin. There are sandwiches built around fried catfish, fried perch and fried turkey chops. All are served on thick, buttery Texas toast, which would be fine if the fried filling was crunchy. The perch ($7) wasn't, leaving the whole affair pretty one-dimensional in terms of texture.
There's even a breakfast menu, served Tuesday through Saturday until 11 a.m. Items like sausage gravy, biscuits and eggs, omelets, waffles and pancakes all come with a choice of meats and sides.
Service here is friendly and efficient, though it's been known to grind to a halt during really busy times. I've got zero problems with the super casual, no-frills operation — it's soul food, after all — but it would be nice if the prices were adjusted to reflect that situation. In most instances, the prices match those for identical items at more comfortable, high-rent places like Zanzibar and Stonetown.
Then again, without the temptation of booze, diners can keep tabs low enough to make a tasty habit of the place.
Southern Cafe11817 Detroit Ave., Lakewood 216-801-4535 southerncafeohio.com