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Soul food in Las Vegas: An appreciation of the most comforting cuisine

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Fried chicken at M&M is love.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Over some 20 years of trying to eat at every restaurant in the Las Vegas Valley, discovering and sharing many magnificent meals in these pages and countless conversations, there are only a few experiences I’ve kept for my own. I haven’t written or talked about them because they belong to me, the emotional eater, not the hopefully helpful food-writer guy. They are just part of my regular life.

Breakfast at M&M Soul Food Cafe tops that short list. My plate is catfish and eggs, and I have a routine. First, I order the scrambled eggs with cheese, because at what other restaurant do you order scrambled eggs and the server always asks if you want cheese? Then, before the food comes, I’ll unscrew the cap on the bottle of hot sauce, because I’m going to need more than a few drops at a time to balance the salty, crunchy cornmeal coating on my catfish. And when it does arrive, I start with the biscuit, smearing on butter and grape jelly and eating half before I even think about forking that fish.

The M&M on West Charleston feels like home to me, but when I eat at the newer restaurant on Las Vegas Boulevard for the first time—it opened two years ago—it feels the same way. The staff’s smiles are sincere. My fellow diners are always laughing, sometimes singing. This is the rare restaurant that plays my music; on this visit, it’s Dru Hill, Ne-Yo, Whitney Houston, Jhene Aiko, Sade. Where else can I have fried catfish for breakfast with a side of Sade?

The happiest people are at M&M Soul Food Cafe, including owner Tim Gee (in the back).

“We put you in the comfort zone,” M&M owner Tim Gee says. “After this, you just want to relax, kick back, do nothing. You might want to go back home and go to sleep.” For the record, he thinks I should order breakfast with grits instead of potatoes. Next time, maybe. “We want you to come down and feel at home, that’s what we try to push more than anything. It’s the way the girls speak to you when you come in. I tell them, treat ’em like they’re your cousins. Come on in, mama’s cooking some food.”

This is my Vegas soul food experience, but not mine alone. M&M has been one of my city’s most popular restaurants for 15 years now, even if food-writer guys like me haven’t written or talked about it much. These restaurants exist to make you feel like you’re eating home cooking, at home, with the people you know and love. It’s sorta the opposite of the way we typically think of dining out, which is more unfamiliar and formal. And yet this type of restaurant might be the most powerful, the most emotional and the most satisfying.

*****

This week brings the conclusion of the 14th season of Top Chef, still one of the most popular TV cooking competitions. Though the finale was filmed in Guadalajara, the bulk of the season was shot in one of America’s hottest food cities: Charleston, South Carolina. The contestants there received an education on American Southern cuisine and its history while cooking for prominent regional chefs like Sean Brock, Robert Stehling, John Currence and BJ Dennis.

In one January episode, the challenge was to create a dish paying homage to Edna Lewis, a task that prompted many viewers and some contestants to ask, “Who’s that?” Though not a household name, the Virginia-born Lewis is known as the Julia Child of the South and remains a prominent influence on modern Southern cooking, through her work in restaurants and as the author of several books on the topic (which received a healthy sales bump after Top Chef). She was an ambassador of this cuisine, often referred to as soul food or Southern food, originally created and cooked by African slaves. Lewis died in 2006 at age 89.

“She was one of my favorite chefs of all time,” says Cory Harwell, who grew up in Georgia and Florida and now lives in Las Vegas. No one was better at reinterpreting classic comfort food dishes for modern diners than Harwell’s partner, the late chef Kerry Simon. Their Downtown restaurant, Carson Kitchen, is a prime example of how Southern cooking permeates every kind of restaurant today.

“One of our most significant dishes is the fried chicken skins,” Harwell says. “The origin is me getting my hand slapped when I was 6 or 7, sneaking into the kitchen when my grandmother was frying chicken to rip the skin off the breast and eat it by itself. I grew up with a grandmother who had a Folgers can of bacon fat on the stovetop at all times. There was nothing cooked in that woman’s house that didn’t have bacon grease. It was the spoonful of love, she called it. Otherwise, those green beans weren’t done.”

Despite his background, Harwell says he couldn’t embrace his own Southern roots until later in his hospitality career. “I was a little lost, because I ran away from the South as soon as I could. I thought I had to make pretty food and restaurants that were colorful and gorgeous, and I wasn’t putting the soul and character and opinion on the plate. It was Kerry [who] said, ‘Make me something you grew up with,’ and it was fried chicken and mashed potatoes, the most down-to-earth-meal, and he absolutely loved it. It changed the way I perceived what I needed to do food-wise.”

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For a young city still blooming in the desert, Las Vegas has some deep soul-food roots. M&M, an LA staple for more than 40 years, opened at Jones and Harmon in 2002 before moving to its Charleston and Valley View location.

“[With] this food and these restaurants, there’s more demand than supply,” Gee says. “You can’t find people to cook like this much anymore. We just want to keep it alive. ... It’s part of my culture, and I promised the founders of M&M, who came from Mississippi, that I would make this the biggest of the big in this industry.”

Chitterlings at Ella Em's.

At the new restaurant, just steps from the Las Vegas Strip, M&M serves up its beloved fried chicken, shrimp and grits, collard greens, black-eyed peas, my catfish and even chitterlings—or pig’s small intestines, a rare presence in any restaurant—to people from all over the world.

Out in the northwest, a former Burger King has been converted into an updated version of a Vegas soul food institution. Elbert Hicks opened Hicks Bar-B-Q in 1968 on Jackson Avenue in West Las Vegas. The restaurant became known as H&H and moved locations over the years, including to a Martin Luther King Boulevard spot that served as headquarters for black community leaders until it burned down in 2003. H&H returned, however, and expanded further in 2012, when local business partners Toni Terrell and Rochelle Schoener opened a franchise—now the only H&H location—on North Rancho Drive, dubbed H&H Plus 2. The friendly, former fast-food spot is still serving the favorites: barbecue, fried okra, mac and cheese, candied yams and more.

Given its similar Southern roots and widespread popularity, barbecue is a natural partner for soul food, and you can sample both at TC’s Rib Crib, a 12-year-old local joint that has stood at Durango and Twain for the past six years. Sharon and Irving Harrell opened the Crib with Sharon’s father—he’s TC, from Louisiana. The Crib’s original chefs are still the ones preparing its food: ribs, catfish, chicken and waffles, greens, yams, Kool-Aid. Yes, Kool-Aid.

“We were one of the first restaurants to serve Kool-Aid, and people buy it by the gallon,” Sharon says. “I always think to myself, can’t you just make it yourself? But people say it doesn’t taste the same at home.”

Pork chops, oxtails and all the fixins at Ella Em’s.

In addition to its tough-to-find offerings—like beef ribs and deep-fried baby back pork ribs—the TC’s crew prides itself on making everything from scratch. Most great soul food restaurants do, which might explain why there aren’t many more of these establishments around Las Vegas. It’s costly and time-consuming producing food that diners expect to be relatively inexpensive.

“Everything is homemade. We’re peeling yams and potatoes, making our own coleslaw dressing, picking greens. When you make collards you have to take off the stems, so they’re nice and tender, not bitter,” Sharon says. “Over the years, our purveyors tried to get us on premade stuff, to save on labor. Why not get your yams out of a can? No, no, no. We can’t do that. It’s important to us.”

Another challenge: meeting our expectations for traditional Southern fare while tweaking recipes to distinguish your food from the competition. At Gritz Cafe, a 9-year-old stalwart on Stella Lake Street near the corner of Martin Luther King and West Lake Mead, the top-seller is chicken and waffles, but the chicken is extra crispy from a fry in soybean oil, and the seasoning is specially designed to play up the sweet/savory contrast in the dish.

“You could just put syrup on the chicken, and it will still taste really good,” says owner Trina Jiles, a former fire inspector and native Las Vegan whose parents came from Delhi, Louisiana. Of course, you can’t eat at her restaurant without sampling the grits, which are cooked slow, “like you’re supposed to,” she says. “It took a lot to get the consistency we have, going back again and again to make sure the grits are perfect every single time.” She likes hers served with shrimp, bell peppers, onions and mushrooms.

Jiles’ kitchen has been experimenting with nontraditional items to keep things fresh, like frying grits with cheese and jalapeños and serving them in some sort of bar form, but the foundation of Gritz’s food will always its family recipes.

“The mac and cheese is my mom’s, and the collard greens with turkey instead of pork is mom’s, too. The chicken, my brother came up with that recipe,” she says. “Everything I really enjoyed eating and appreciated as a kid is on there ... except the homemade potato salad. I haven’t added that—yet.”

*****

Let’s be clear: The across-the-board influence of soul food is a good thing. You don’t have to go to Ella Em’s way out north on Craig and Revere to find it, but you should, and you should order oxtails or gravy-smothered pork chops. You don’t need to go down south to Soul Food Cafe on Rainbow and Warm Springs to get your fill, but you will, to check out the fried snapper, gumbo and turkey wings.

One of my favorite soul holes-in-the-wall, Sunny’s, doesn’t even consider itself soul food. Owner Anthony Binna used to have two locations connected to convenience stores but now operates a standalone at Lamb and Washington, having adjusted his menu to include Philly cheesesteaks and more seafood.

“When you say soul food, people have expectations of side orders like collard greens, beans and rice or macaroni and cheese,” he says. “We’re dipping into that category a little bit, but not enough to be considered that way. The fish is picking up a lot, and it’s considered Southern, because we fry it in corn meal.”

Delmonico's fried chicken.

One of the all-time great Vegas fried chickens comes from a fine dining steakhouse at Venetian, just a few doors down from Yardbird, a refined Southern kitchen that came to the Strip from Florida and serves excellent chicken, buttermilk biscuits and smoked brisket.

But I’m talking about Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico, where young chickens are marinated in Louisiana hot sauce and buttermilk, dredged in flour and fried juicy and crisp, then served with a corn waffle, sweet and spicy Creole tomato glaze and a warm black-eyed pea salad. “I love it,” chef Ronnie Rainwater says. “We put it on the lunch menu a few years ago, and it’s become really popular. My chefs and I eat it once a week.”

Rainwater grew up in LA with parents from Alabama and spent some time working in Atlanta before coming to Vegas to work for Lagasse, whose cuisine might be the closest thing to soul food on the Strip. Rainwater says the spirit of Southern food and hospitality runs parallel to that of Las Vegas, and he should know—he’s been at Delmonico for nearly 18 years now.

“I think about my grandmother cooking two or three meals a day every day, and that’s something we don’t do anymore. Everything is much quicker,” he says. “Food is a very powerful thing that brings people together, whether it’s families at the holidays or the business travelers we deal with every day. If I make them feel comfortable with the food and the service and the smiles, that’s when they’re going to come back all three days they’re in town.”

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 15 years. He currently covers entertainment, music, nightlife, food ...

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