Soul intention

Owners Mitch and Gieshula Moore with a spread of their Southern cooking: fried fish, barbecue ribs, mac & cheese, greens, black-eyed peas, yams, and cornbread muffins.

Owners Mitch and Gieshula Moore with a spread of their Southern cooking: fried fish, barbecue ribs, mac & cheese, greens, black-eyed peas, yams, and cornbread muffins.

Photo/Allison Young

M&M's Southern Café is open Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., and is closed Sunday and Monday.

As a suburban kid growing up in the mountain west, the only time I heard the term “soul food” was from movies and television shows. My notion of “barbecue” was unfortunately confused with what is better termed “grilling.” I probably didn’t get my first taste of true, slow-smoked pork until my 20s, and it was in my 30s that I first tasted collard greens cooked in that down-home, Southern style that stirs the soul. Those life-changing greens were prepared by the same family now serving up love in the form of food at M&M’s Southern Café.

It had been ages since I’d had this sort of grub, which in retrospect is just a damned shame. I knew I’d want to order most of the menu, thus I invited some friends to help share a mess of vittles. First up, a sampler basket that included a decent helping of brisket, pulled pork and four fried chicken wings with a cornbread muffin and side of yams ($13.99). Following was a fried seafood sampler of butterflied shrimp, oysters and catfish, with macaroni and cheese and a couple hushpuppies ($13.99). Next, an alligator basket with two skewers of fried nuggets, hushpuppies and green beans ($9.99). Rounding out the baskets were four fried frog legs with red beans and rice, and hushpuppies ($9.99).

That may sound like plenty of food, but we came hungry. Added to the feast was a 10 piece serving of catfish with coleslaw ($21), a full slab of barbecue spareribs ($21) with a la carte collard greens and fried okra ($4 and $5). The ribs were a favorite, with tons of smoke and an uncomplicated sauce allowing the fabulously succulent meat to take center stage. The pulled pork was similarly on target, and though I can’t say the brisket was perfect, it was still pretty good.

Everything fried—save the reptile and amphibian—was dredged in seasoned corn meal before hitting the fryer. With a practiced chef applying the right temperature and timing, the result is a dry coating which holds up well against the wet abuse of sauces while sealing in the moisture of the meat. This was true with all the fried items ordered. The seafood was excellent, and although tartar and cocktail sauces are available on request, we gobbled it down with liberal use of Louisiana-style hot sauce.

Fried in a flour batter, the alligator and frog bits were also done quite well. The legs were very moist and had that unique hint of “fishiness” that reminds you this ain’t chicken. The only complaint I have with the ’gator is that the basket could have done with one more skewer. They were a little small compared to everything else. The chicken, though, was freakin’ amazing. Super crispy coating, perfectly moist interior. I’ll need a return visit just to order fried chicken because this might be the best in town.

Most of the sides could be meals by themselves: delicious mac and cheese that isn’t dry or gummy, coleslaw that isn’t too sweet or mayo-heavy, green beans slathered in porky goodness, fried okra that actually makes you like okra and ask for more. But save room for dessert because Grandma’s sweet potato pie is something you don’t want to miss ($5). Grandma makes them fresh every day, and though I’m usually not big on sweet potato anything, her pie has convinced me I just hadn’t had the right one until now.

This family business has had a bit of a gypsy journey around town. Beginning in a Reno strip mall, then to one in Sparks. Then to a tiny building further down the road, and finally to a much larger kitchen and dining space with a smoker out back. Here’s hoping they’ve finally found a permanent home.