Review: Eagle's Restaurant Dishes Up Soul Food
2610 16th St. North
By Deborah Lockridge
As a transplant from the almost-Yankee state of Missouri, one thing I've found unique to the South is its "meat-and-three" tradition of your choice of meat and three vegetables (but perhaps "sides" is a better choice, since macaroni and cheese hardly counts as a veggie).
But too often, I find popular meat-and-three spots to be missing something. There's too many things that taste like they came from a can, or they've just been sitting way too long on the steam table till they're just a soggy mass of salt and fat. But a recent visit to Eagle's restaurant in north Birmingham has me thinking that maybe what I'm craving is actually soul food.
Yes, traditional Southern cooking and soul food have a lot in common. You're likely to find many of the same types of selections – greens, beans and peas, sweet potatoes, fried or baked chicken, etc. But it's kind of like the difference between lily-white gospel music and black gospel music – they might be singing the same hymn, but it's going to sound a whole lot different, and in my book, the black gospel version has a lot more life to it.
We learned about Eagle's from a small ad they ran in City Scene for a month or two, advertising soul food, including oxtails and chitterlings. So for the first meal of our downtown weekend, we went there for Friday lunch. It's just south of the ACIPCO plant, in an area that's mostly residential, a poorer section of town that's mostly African-American. (Yes, this is soul food, so if you're Caucasian, there's a good chance you'll be in the minority here.) The nondescript gray building stands alone, near a gas station/car wash. A hand-pained sign on the side of the building advertises Soul Food above a half-wild flower bed lined with old railroad ties. The heavy metal scrollwork screen door catches on the concrete apron in front, standing half-open if you don't make an effort to get it closed.
As soon as we stepped inside, the aromas had us hooked. Immediately on the right was a small steam table, with a woman in white apron and hairnet, sweat beading on her brow, was dishing up orders. The room was long and narrow, with a TV in the back playing the Fox show "Cops." Walls of yellow-painted paneling were accented with old mirrored tiles. A couple of classic video games (Galaga and Ms. Pac-Man) were tucked in at the other end by the door. Black vinyl booths with white piping accompanied wood-grain-laminated tables holding rolls of paper towels and bottles of green hot pepper vinegar.
Evan ordered baked chicken with dressing and collard greens, while I had fried pork chop, pinto beans and candied yams, each served with our choice of rolls or corn muffins (we both chose the corn muffins). By the time we also each ordered a homemade lemonade (we didn't want the caffeine in the sweet tea after sampling Lucy's coffee just a couple hours earlier), the total was about $16 for the two of us.
Evan said the baked chicken was the best he had ever had, very tender and well-seasoned. The dressing was a mixture of white-bread dressing and cornbread dressing, a little too much bread for our tastes, but with a great flavor.
The fried pork chop was well-seasoned and very tender, and amazingly crispy considering it was sitting on a steam table – the chops were placed in the pan on their sides, rather than on top of each other where they could become soggy. We knew the yams were made fresh, not just from the flavor and texture, but also from the large box of sweet potatoes we caught a glimpse of behind the counter. They were flavored with lots of brown sugar and cinnamon. Pinto beans were not too firm, not too mushy, seasoned with animal fat. We could have eaten a panful of corn muffins, tender and flavorful with lots of lard or bacon fat. The greens were good, too.
We cleaned our plates, with lots of "mmmm's" and "Oh, man, this is so gooood!" The liberal use of animal fat, salt and sugar to flavor the food meant it was hardly healthy, but it was delicious and filling.
Our only regret was, we didn't try the oxtails. Next time.
Review posted August 2007.