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Diner's Notebook

It's a happy occasion when a good new soul-food place opens in Houston, where our serious Southern culinary heritage often seems in danger of getting lost. Cora's Kitchen, a cheery buffet-style spot in the middle-class black neighborhood that's sprung up on the western edge of Meyerland, may not dispense the definitive versions of my blue-plate faves, but the overall quality is high -- and boy, is Cora's a deal.

Here, $5.95 buys a muchness of food that can last you all day. Tender smothered pork chops, for instance, with exceedingly well-seasoned and well-simmered cabbage livened by tomato and slab bacon, plus a gentle tinge of red pepper that bespeaks this steam table's Louisiana Creole roots. Two colors of squash seasoned in much the same fashion are freshness personified, and sometimes there's a gratifyingly Cheez-Whizzy broccoli casserole that brings out the shameless recidivist in me. Yams laboring under marshmallows and canned pineapple may be a little too recidivist, though -- and where does that strangely metallic taste come from? Guess I'll have another one of those sweetly agreeable corn muffins. With pats of real butter, thank you very much.

Grayness cannot deter me from a funkily giblet-laced cornbread dressing, very moist and peppery, to go with various forms of chicken or turkey wings. Baked, crisp-skinned chicken is more persuasive than a gravied fricassee that involves much flabby chicken skin and only token celery and onion; still, the fricassee's dark meat soothes and satisfies, even if the white has dried out. Ah, drying out, the perennial steam-table pitfall. I would not touch Cora's congealed, crusty, oven-barbecued brisket with a ten-foot fork, but those dewy-looking oxtails (in a non-sludgy braising liquid, no less) practically scream, "Choose me!"

One Friday I brought a Louisiana boy to Cora's for the promised seafood dishes: gumbo, etouffee, fried catfish. No such luck. The fish guy hadn't shown up. My friend tried to content himself with that Louisiana staple, rice and gravy, but he found the grains of rice too wet and, well, separate; the medium-brown gravy he dismissed as insufficiently endowed with pan scrapings. I was too busy demolishing my pork chop plate to sympathize much. "Have some of this broccoli casserole!" I urged him, with what must have seemed infuriating good cheer.

Cora's does have a way of putting me in a good mood. I love the agreeability of the servers on the U-shaped buffet line, their disinclination to scowl or bark or hurry you along. I admire the solicitous hospitality of the owners. I'm disarmed by details such as the red bell peppers that find their way into numerous dishes and the outsize Mason-jar mugs that hold heroic draughts of iced tea. I find myself waiting for the moment when a cook emerges from the kitchen, bearing freshly baked layer cakes to the front of the line; now that's theater. And that's chocolate cake, too, fudgy and unrepentant -- a guiltier pleasure than the slightly oversweetened sweet potato pie.

Not least of all, I enjoy the idiosyncratic quality of the decor, a hallucinatory dream in pinks and blues, lit by a thicket of modern chandeliers and governed by dueling musical and nautical motifs. On one wall sprawls a highly charged painted mural of a shrimping fleet at sunset; on another, large-scale musical notes romp across the room. A couple of bas-relief sax players preside over the rear. There's probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for the way this place looks, but please forgive me if I don't want to know it. -- Alison Cook

Cora's Kitchen, 9940 Fondren at Braeswood, 981-8155.

Cora's Kitchen:
smothered pork chops with two vegetables and corn muffin, $5.95.

 
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