Taking a Shine to Joe's
It wasn't too long ago that a nutritional study revealed that, in spite of poverty and limited access to wide-spectrum food markets, African-Americans living in the rural South of the early '60s enjoyed a remarkably nutritious diet, one based largely on homegrown produce. So call Joe's Shine Parlor, a venerable two-table pool hall a short distance southeast of downtown, a health food cafe. The shine chairs may have fallen victim to an era in which prestige footwear is a pair of hundred-dollar sneakers, but sitting in the room they once occupied is a steam table that, weekdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., is loaded with an invigorating array of fresh, exquisitely prepared Southern-style vegetables and entrees. Joe's Shine Parlor, in fact, passed the ultimate soul food test with flying colors when a friend of strong prejudices toward certain vegetables -- a public-school legume among them -- tasted the lima beans and pronounced them delicious. When a person of such biases enjoys the lima beans, and even orders the stewed okra without prodding, it's safe to assume you are in the presence of culinary magic.
It's a magic steeped in tradition. When Joe Colbert and his family began cooking the dishes that so clearly reflect their Louisiana heritage in this unassuming cinder block building about six months ago, they rescued a long-vacant piece of Houston history. Back when the Eldorado and the Ebony and a host of other clubs made up an entertainment district that rivaled Beale Street, 2408 Dowling was the Senate Grill, and a night on Dowling was incomplete without stopping by the Senate for a bite to eat. Today, the intricate tile floor is cracked and missing squares here and there, but in a city that considers any building more than 20 years old to be bulldozer fodder, there's something comforting about eating in a structure with a past, even if it does show the ravages of time.
There's also a comfort in finding a cheeseburger that hasn't the slightest flavor of franchise to it, a burger that's old-fashioned to a fault. The burgers, greasy proof that there's no substitute for a grill that has seen decades of hard use, are only the beginning of the Colbert family's rigidly traditional approach to cooking. While the short orders have much to recommend them, they're overshadowed by the plate lunches that wait on the steam table. To alert passersby to the current entrees, there's a Texas-size sidewalk menu right over the front door that changes daily.
Traditional Southern cooking has distinct beliefs about when vegetables are considered to be thoroughly cooked, and Joe's Shine Parlor's offerings are the product of those beliefs; they make no concession to arguments about the appeal of crisp, almost raw vegetables. Daughter Melba Colbert, who presides over the kitchen while her parents staff the dining room and bar, is given the responsibility of upholding Joe's soul food standards. On her stove, cabbage, corn and okra are expected to exhibit a certain degree of crispiness, but the greens and legumes are finished only when cooked to a degree that some might incorrectly term overdone. And not to be ignored is the understanding that pork is a proper seasoning. Melba Colbert's turnip greens display a salt-pork orthodoxy that transforms the vegetables into the stuff of legend. Another side that benefits from a judicious application of pork is the stewed okra and tomatoes, whose flavor owes much to a surfeit of bacon strips.
A vegetable plate can be had at Joe's, and cheaply -- a la carte vegetable dishes are priced at 70 cents a serving, with cornbread furnished as a bonus -- but while a plate of okra, cabbage, navy beans and sweet potatoes was pronounced by a friend to be a delightful lunch, ordering a plate of side dishes raised eyebrows among Joe's staff. In truth, it seems a shame to pass over the meat dishes that are the central focus of a true soul food plate lunch. Although there are places that take exorbitant advantage of soul food cachet, Joe's takes a reasonable approach: A meat dish, three vegetables and cornbread are invariably $5.50. This pricing is made possible in part by keeping to the soul food tradition of featuring inexpensive cuts such as hamburger and round steak alongside more exotic (to much of the mainstream, at least) fare such as oxtails and chitlins.
A note for those for whom chitlins are a fond childhood memory, Joe's are fresh, tender, delicious and offered at least once a week. And though the menu changes regularly, one fairly consistent entree is generically referred to as "steak." The soul food definition of steak is, of course, not fillet or strip -- and it's never grilled. A soul food steak is any good chunk of unground beef that happened to be on sale, marinated and simmered until it's as tender as any prime cut. Round steak is most common, although a recent visit suggested that Joe Colbert had found a good deal on inch-thick beef roasts and passed the savings on to his customer in the form of slabs of basted and baked, no-knife-needed beef that were even more prodigious than usual.
The meat in the steam table's steak tray swims in a bath of fragrant broth that cries out to be spooned over a mound of steamed rice; add to this whichever side orders seem most appealing at the moment and a slab of the inevitable cornbread, and you have a lunch that's hard to surpass. The serving of steak itself is measured by the tong, not the ounce -- two straining loads of the tongs is normal, and the overall result is a towering lunch that leads to complaints of not living in a culture that understands the importance of the siesta.
Equally delicious, and equally soporific, is Joe's meat loaf. In lieu of the now common bread-crumb extender, Joe's relies on the southeast Texas tradition of a meat loaf formed and firmed by rice. Joe's meat loaf indicates, as do many of the side dishes, that while the cook's favorite seasoning may be cured pork, she also has a considerable fondness for black pepper. This moist, tangy, tomato-sauce-glazed meat loaf is, like the rest of Joe's menu, the stuff of near-forgotten memories from a time when microwave ovens were more common in science fiction than they were in homes.
Consider it food as regression therapy: meat loaf that was obviously crafted by someone who long ago committed her recipe to memory, green beans and chunks of potato cooked with both salt pork and a generous shake of the pepper can, cornbread not marred in the slightest by a light crust on the bottom. When a companion, after a few nibbles of his cornbread, holds it by the crust over his black-eyed peas and gently crumbles the bread into them in a ritual remembered from childhood, it becomes obvious that these sort of memories are as widespread as they are cherished. An opportunity to relive those memories in a comfortable old room nearby the modern glass canyons of downtown is more than just therapy; it's the stuff that a whole new nostalgia is made of.
Joe's Shine Parlor, 2408 Dowling, 659-9167.
Joe's Shine Parlor:
cheeseburger, $2.50; vegetables, 70 cents apiece; plate lunch of meat, three vegetables and cornbread, $5.50.
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