There are times when life seems like one vast and inescapable Joel's Deli. At such moments, Doctor Cook prescribes a dose of El Nedo, a comfortingly frumpy Third Ward soul-food spot that's very much its own idiosyncratic self.
The food here is nothing earthshaking, but the plate lunches are good and cheap ($3.80 for a onemeat-three-vegetables plate), and they seem to have been produced by a human hand rather than some computerized marketing machine. How long has it been since you've dined in a Caesar-salad-free zone? How long since a jukebox hasn't bored you to tears? And how long since you've sat in the friendly embrace of a lumpy booth, in a room possessed of few right angles, with many faded Christmas decorations twinkling in the grotto-like midday dusk? Welcome to the world of El Nedo, where creeping homogenization has failed to gain a toehold.
It is a world ruled by a folksy proprietress named Maxine and orchestrated by a courtly, quiet gent who will take your order and, when you name only two vegetables -- thinking surely that's all you're entitled to at this price -- urge you on to your rightful third.
El Nedo's inhabitants are a middle-aged-to-elderly crew of neighborhood regulars who make the place ("the old folks' home," Maxine calls it jokingly) a sort of ongoing social and benevolent club. They ease in for lunch and gossip, duck in for take-out, while away the hours with a strawberry soda or a beer or set-ups fortified by a brown-bagged bottle. There is a TV set in the corner, of course, but the sound is often turned down (even during the O.J. hearings) in favor of the stirring R&B jukebox.
On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, El Nedo's Southern-fried, diner-style menu expands into plate-lunch territory. You can see what's on tap without ever going inside: once you turn south off Elgin onto Ennis, out toward TSU, watch for the blackboard menu posted outside El Nedo's corner digs.
If you're lucky, you can have an off-season Thanksgiving of roasted turkey breast, spicy cornbread dressing and cranberry jelly. Plus well-stewed green beans with new potatoes, that time-honored rural combination. Plus yams that are a bit more watery than they might be but still manage to do the job. Not to mention a very Southern, very simmered affair of okra, corn and tomatoes. The bone-deep feel of a neighborhood institution is part of the seasoning.
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Note to Vernon Maxwell: now that Shell has kicked you out of the house, you can get those pre-game pork chop sandwiches right here at El Nedo. Just $3.25! Note to R&B hounds: on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. there's a neighborhood social with live music featuring Eugene Moody.
-- Alison Cook
El Nedo Cafe, 3401 Ennis, 528-3524.
soul-food plate lunch, Tuesday-Thursday, $3.80.