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Friday, December 27, 2013

Soul Proprietor

From the Vault Dept.: An Albany Times-Union article from 1996 suggested that a stretch of that city’s Central Avenue might see an economic revival thanks to the efflorescence of minority-owned businesses there. Two of them – a hair salon and a restaurant – were owned by Rev. Marjorie Sims and her husband, David. I reviewed the restaurant in 1997 and found it exceedingly congenial – with terrific chitlins – but it soon fell victim to the area’s changing fortunes.


YOUR SOUL IS UNDER CONSIDERATION HERE in a couple of ways. Food, sure. But the menu promises dinner and a prayer, and Reverend Sims, the chef, will happily help supply whatever aspect of your being needs nourishment.

When she’s off the premises, which isn’t terribly often, she’s preaching. That’s the calling  she followed in South Carolina, where she left behind her home and heart when she came north a year and a half ago to care for her ailing father.

A year ago, she and her husband, David, opened the restaurant on Central Ave., a little west of downtown. It was named Julia’s after her 85-year-old mother, now widowed and living in Troy. “We have to be here for her,” says Rev. Sims. “She doesn’t want to move south.”

So she divides her time among her mother, the various churches where she preaches and her restaurant, and you’ll find the restaurant about the friendliest place you’ve ever dined in. I stopped in late one recent afternoon for an early dinner, my loyal friend Dorothy in tow. And I started right out in putting her off guard by ordering chitterlings as an appetizer.

It’s usually pronounced “chitlins,” and you don’t find it up north too often. You’ll find it in France, as the basis for andouille sausage – and it’s suggested that andouille comes from the Latin inductibilis, which describes something drawn over something else – in this case, pig’s intestines drawn over . . . well, more pig’s intestines.

“That’s the most expensive meat I buy here,” says Rev. Sims. Her supplier provides 10-pound buckets, but once they’re cleaned – “and that takes me all day” – only about three pounds are left. Then they’re simmered for a few hours in a light seasoning, and make their own tasty stock.

How tasty is it? What I’ve sampled before, at a downstate joint, didn’t hold a candle to the Julia’s preparation (I should add here that, despite the honor of the restaurant’s name, Rev. Sims didn’t learn to cook from her mother. She credits a great cross-section of influences.) Obviously, you have to enjoy eating sausage. This happens to be an uncased version.

Our portion arrived with an escort by both the chef and her husband, curious to see how the two of us would deal with what can be a daunting dish to a white-bread northerner. It was served with a side of hot sauce, and was good with and without the sauce, although Dorothy lost some of her momentum after a couple of helpings.

Pork products are used throughout the menu offerings, but everything is cooked to order so any anti-pork preference can be accommodated. I went the all-pork route, however, and asked for pork chops, smothered. Which means covered in pork gravy, and smothered is a good word for the result. It’s a thick, clingy sauce and it complements the meat – simply prepared – very well.

Dorothy is that increasingly rare find, a liver fan, whose entrée of liver and onions featured large slices of the meat, cooked to her specification (medium, which, in my opinion, means overcooked). Good stuff, though, and enough for her to take home for another meal.

That’s also because we also had side dishes – two apiece – and thus enjoyed such traditional fare as candied yams (very candied) and greens, which in this case included some collard greens, but can include all manner of leaf – wild or cultivated. A little vinegar helped set off the naturally bitter flavor. The green beans we tasted were bland and watery, the cornbread dressing sweet and buttery. And slices of fresh hot cornbread arrived, too.

Other menu items include steak and meat loaf, several styles of chicken, pigs feet, a selection of fish that includes salmon croquettes and, when we there, barbecued pork ribs. Most entrées are priced below $10.

Then there’s desserts. Dorothy tried to talk me into getting the banana pudding so she’d be able to taste both that and the sweet potato pie she planned to order, but I’d hit my limit. David told his wife about our dilemma; she sent out Dorothy’s pie with a small side dish of pudding to taste. Rich and sweet, both of the desserts.

Soul food restaurants have been arriving in the area lately, ranging from take-out only to menus with only a few southern items listed. Julia’s is the real thing, whether you dine as we did in one of the booths across from the bar area or in the larger back room, all lovingly restored by the Simses. It’s also a place to keep in mind for meetings, and Rev. Sims told us that her catering business has been increasingly lately as more and more customers discover her place.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip, sodas and dessert, was $37.

Julia’s Soul Food, 353 Central Ave., Albany. Serving lunch Tue-Sat 1-3, dinner Tue-Thu 3-9, Fri-Sat 3-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 24 April 1997

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