Side order of soul

There are many definitions of what constitutes comfort food. After all, the foodstuffs that comfort someone raised in the Midwest are probably far different from what comforts a Bay Area native. But you certainly can generalize to some degree. Comfort food tends to be the food you ate as a child. That doesn’t mean it has to be bland, of course, but it must be sustaining in some manner. Even sushi can be comfort food. Often enough, though, the foods we associate with comfort tend to be hearty foods that fill our bellies and our souls.

Soul food, or Southern cooking, is for many the epitome of comfort dining. Now, there are a lot of attempts out there—some good but some definitely wrong-headed—to bring soul food into the new millennium by making it healthier. But classic soul food is full of salt and fat, both essential ingredients for comfort. Unless you live in the South, it can be hard to find honest practitioners of the art. But there’s a gem right here in Sacramento, tucked away in a dingy storefront at the west end of Broadway.

Some sections of Broadway, such as the triangle anchored by Tower Theatre and Tower Café, Starbucks and Tower Records, are trendy. The end where Sim’s is located isn’t one of them. But don’t let the unprepossessing surroundings scare you away; the service is friendly, and the food is great. Be warned, however: You’ll have to check your cholesterol concerns at the door.

Sim’s Diner consists of a handful of tables and a few booths crammed into a very small space. On a recent, unseasonably warm day, the interior was more than a little stuffy, even with the door open. On a hot day, it would be best to order your food to go. The ambience is funky but clean, with much artwork depicting historical figures, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and religious scenes tacked to the walls. The service is extremely casual, with an extended family helping out wherever needed.

At Sim’s, you can order your dinner à la carte, which comes with three sides and cornbread. Or, you can opt for the all-you-can-eat buffet ($7.49), which generally has several meat choices and at least a half-dozen sides. Vegetarians are definitely not even considered here. You can choose from a dozen entrees, including such familiar items as pork chops, ribs and fried chicken, or you can be more adventurous and try pig’s feet, neck bones, or chitterlings and hogmogs. (Both of the latter dishes are a creative adaptation of pig innards.)

A kids’ menu consists of hot dogs, hamburgers etc., which come with french fries for $2.50. Those with lighter appetites can order from the lunch menu, on which selections include hot links and a catfish sandwich.

Entrees run between $7 and $10, but the portions are gargantuan. Your meat choice comes in a small basket, and the sides come heaped on a huge platter. The glory of a soul-food restaurant is in its side dishes, and Sim’s Diner does not disappoint. They include black-eyed peas, coleslaw, fried okra, mashed potatoes with gravy, greens, macaroni and cheese, and yams, among others. If three sides are not enough, you can order additional ones for $1.25-$2.25.

We tried five of the sides. Only the corn was average. The mashed potatoes were some of the best I’ve ever tried—smooth and rich and generously covered with tasty, peppery gravy. The black-eyed peas were tender and well flavored with pieces of ham. Ham also made an appearance in the greens, the strong flavor of which was perfectly set off with a sprinkling of hot peppers and vinegar. And the fried okra avoided the sliminess that can plague that vegetable; the cornmeal-breaded pieces were so addictively crunchy that I ate the entire serving like popcorn. The cornbread, too, was excellent, a perfect counterpoint to the beans and greens.

Unfortunately, the meat dishes sampled did not reach the same high levels. The barbecued ribs ($9.50) were tasty but were gristly, odd cuts of meat—more stringy than meaty. And the pork chops ($8) were just shy of being too dry, although a topping of onions braised to the point of caramelization helped redeem them.

In this town, we can get spoiled with the plethora of Asian, nouvelle California and fusion food. Every now and then, especially on a cold rainy day, you need something that’s going to stick to your ribs until nightfall. And when that time comes, you can’t do much better than the down-home cooking at Sim’s.