East 12th Kafe
Soul and a smile at 12th and Springdale
Reviewed by Mick Vann, Fri., April 5, 2013
East 12th Kafe4140 E. 12th, 926-4140
Sun.-Thu., 8am-6pm; Fri.-Sat., 8am-8pm
For Austinites of a certain age, the mouthwatering, cholesterol-clogging platter of meat-and-two comfort food, also known as "soul food," is close to being just a fond memory. I still remember exact details about meals at the Southern Dinette on East 11th, or at Virginia's on South First. Walking down the serving line at Dot's on Orchid Lane or sliding into a booth at Brooks Tavern on Sixth always got the salivary glands pumping. A plate lunch at Arkie's on Cesar Chavez, Flo's on Chestnut, Gene's, or the Victory Grill on East 11th was sure to please and leave you needing a nap before resuming work.
We still have Southern comfort food institutions like Galloway's, Hoover's, Threadgill's, and Nubian Queen Lola's, but at the Dinette you always knew that Mrs. Owens would hustle you into a seat while shooing the hookers from Shorty's Fruit Stand out of the way, and that Jimmy would pop out of the kitchen to tell you a joke. Even with the verbal abuse you took at Virginia's, you still felt a little honored that she took the time to yell at you. Dot always had a big smile when she saw you with your tray, and the head waitress at Brooks was the queen of good-natured ribbing. You got stuffed and got a little love at the same time.
East 12th Kafe, at the northwest corner of East 12th & Springdale, captures a chunk of that old feeling, and the food is reminiscent as well. That location is the past home of Sallie's, a diamond in the rough in its day – funky as hell inside, but fantastic food with a great vibe. A series of folks has taken over the old Sallie's and completely cleaned, polished, and upgraded the joint; it is spotless and slick as a whistle these days. I say a series of folks because Coretha and her sister Tonia are no longer there, nor is Susie Clark (aka "Sugar"). But not to worry: Rebecca, who has been back in the kitchen from the start, is still there, popping into the dining room to make eye contact, smile, and ask you how everything is. She's joined by Janeé, Megan, and Tony. (Yep, this is a first-name kind of place, and that's part of its charm.)
The menu is small, but it packs a wallop. I opted for the fantastic fried catfish (jumbo order, five pieces for $11.79), done with a spicy, golden-brown, crispy crust, and so hot and steaming it took 10 minutes to cool down enough to eat it; it was delicious with the tartar sauce. I paired mine with some of the gooey mac & cheese and rich black eyed peas with hog jowl. I had to try some of the gumbo, and they gave me a taste: It was a rich and spicy chicken, sausage, and shrimp version. I liked it, but when I make it, I add more dark roux.
We also ordered the grilled tilapia ($8.99) and paired it with some dynamite collard greens and the sweet potato fries (crinkle cut, and not bad). I don't consider a frozen french fry the devil like many folks do; I've had more bad "fresh" french fries than should be allowed by law. The cornbread muffins are done in a sweet style, and the dinner rolls are yeasty (but frozen). The next table loved their pork chops and chicken-fried chicken, and a towering cheeseburger made its way across the dining room, almost forcing me to go over and ask for a taste. A fellow diner's slice of buttermilk chess pie looked amazing, and his facial expressions said likewise (plus, the coffee is organic). Our peach cobbler was the stuff of dreams, and one that would have made Jimmy Owens proud. Great folks, good food; go there.