I have to give my father credit for one thing: when he wasn’t on a brutal rampage of terror, abusing his family both physically and mentally, he was a damn good cook.
Growing up in Depression Era rural Oklahoma, as poor Choctaws living in Waurika, he was taught at an early age how to make delicious due with some flour and water, a bit of lard, a basket of greens and yams, and if you’re lucky, some fatback to dump in a pot of beans; it’s a starvation-inspired magic trick that, though he’s long dead, is a constant craving I can still find in the area soul food joints that continue on in that tradition of rustic eats, now, thankfully, more a divine delicacy than a life-or-death situation.
While many of the Metro’s top soul restaurants are scattered up and down historic N.E. 23rd Street, it’s been the relatively recent (family-owned since 2005, as the sign says) Mama E’s down on 3838 Springlake Dr. that has managed to capture most of the Southern fried buzz, both locally and nationally, appearing on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and, more notoriously, Restaurant Impossible.
It’s an eatery that everyone seems to have a strangely divided opinion on, but all I know is that I always find my way back to Mama’s welcoming bosom, taking a two-hour lunch and overdoing it way more than I should at least once a month, picking neck-bone meat out of my teeth as my cardiologist recommends yet another echocardiogram. Old habits don’t die, that’s why they’re old.
For this visit, in the name of proper food journalism, I actually decided to get down on their most famous dish, the Signature Wings and Waffles ($11.95), something that I had always been meaning to take time to try, but, honestly, once you walk into that welcoming house and you see those steam trays full of different varieties of God’s goodness, it’s a three meat plate with no looking back. But, now was as good a time as any to sample what they’re known for, right?
Having become something of a famed novelty, the erotic alliance of a thick made-to-order waffle and a deep fried piece of chicken might seem, at first, an odd couple, but the sugar and the salt, the syrup and the Manteca, beautifully supercollide to form a covalent bond of voracious deliciousness that rightfully earns its legendary status.
Easily on par with the triumphant local likes of Florence’s (1437 N.E. 23rd St.) and This Iz It (2831 N.E. 23rd St.) absolutely perfect takes on this classic meal, Mama E’s wings and waffles are good enough to ask for seconds, with that golden crisped, lightly dusted, heavily buttered discus of earthly delights perfectly portioned with some of the best pan-fried chicken wings in town, just greasy and salty enough to make your haughty pals estimate your worth as they quietly sip their water, with plenty of herbs and seasonings to make their glare worth it.
Remind them only God can judge you.
Now, all that being said and all that out of the way, let’s get down to what is probably my favorite lunch in town, the aforementioned three-meat special ($14.99). Sure, you could get the one meat, you could even get the two meat, but life is a cruel, hard bitch that, at any minute, will rob you of all your days and laugh about it as your body temp drops and you reach for the light, never to return to this plane of existence again. So, you know, you do the three-meat special because it’s that good and you never know when it’s gonna be your last, hoss.
With a wide variety of heart and soul-filled offerings, from gumbo and spaghetti to meat loaf and pig’s feet, this particular afternoon Mama had my three faves keeping warm in those stainless steels rigs: gravy-smothered chicken, fried ribs and, my go-to since when, a liberal dose of fatty neckbones. Throw that down on a plate with a healthy serving of greens, the best mac and cheese I’ve ever had, those ever-so-sweet yams, a slice of heavenly yellow cake and, one of Mama E’s perks, all-you-can-drink Kool-Aid, and, here’s a meal that overrides any original nostalgia, forever becoming its own damn thing.
Good food’ll do that to you.
My father lived to about 80. Even after multiple heart attacks and bypasses, he still ate Southern food and soul food when everyone from his wife to his doctor told him not to, a hearty middle-finger to anyone who dared tried to reach out to him.
But, you know, maybe he had something there: blackened pork chops, hamhocks and beans, fried giblets and gizzards, jalapeno cornbread at every meal…that old bastard went out in a two-fisted culinary blaze of glory, the taste of freedom from youthful poverty and hunger forever on his tongue, belly eternally filled on his own terms.
We should all be so lucky, right?
Life is what happens when you’re busy making dinner plans. Follow Louis on Twitter at @LouisFowler.