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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Collard Education

June 01, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

Pot likker is technically what's left over after you spoon out the greens from the greens pot, and Atlanta's famous Mary Mac's Tea Room practically built its reputation on the stuff. I remember Mary Mac's pot likker with corn muffins as the only redeeming thing about a week at the Democratic Convention that gave the world Rob Lowe's sex tapes and the specter of President Dukakis.

The African-American restaurant Potlicker & Cornbread sits in a mini-mall at the top of Azusa, on the road into the Angeles National Forest, in an area without much of an African-American community at all. Potlicker & Cornbread also has a menu completely lacking in pot likker, though what goes by the name "collard greens" here is liquid enough to pass.

Pot likker may not be the greatest single dish of the American South, but when you have a bowl like this in front of you it can seem like it, the pure, vegetable essence of collards stewed down to a mush, cypress-green, murky as a gumbo, better-tasting than anything with this many vitamins has any right to be. Pot likker may be good for you, but this isn't health food or anything--the stuff here seems to be about half ham and fatback by weight. The cornbread here is on the dry side, but crumbled into the greens, it makes a heavenly mush.

Potlicker & Cornbread is not just a Southern restaurant but a Creole Southern restaurant, a little in the tradition of--though not so good as--such New Orleans places as Eddie's and (the former) Chez Helene, a heavy emphasis on the staple dishes of African-American cooking with a highly seasoned twist.

A Creole cook, for example, would hardly think of sending out her version of the classic New Orleans oyster loaf without walking over to the table to point out that the oysters were marinated in a secret blend of tangy spices, that she fried them for less than a minute to preserve their natural brininess, and that the loaf in front of you is none other than the single best version of this sandwich in California today. You may disagree with her your heart of hearts--I remain rather partial to the crunchy-oyster paradigm upheld by the Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans and 5C's locally; also the sandwich here is served on a doughy, unheated roll, and the heavily applied condiments overpower the delicate taste of the oyster--but you have to admit, her way of cooking the oysters does have a point.

Fried chicken, doused with garlic and pepper and a dozen other things, is cooked to order in clean oil, crackly-crusted and moist, definitely deep-fried instead of pan-fried but classic just the same. Fried chicken, collards and cornbread--that's a happy lunch. Fried catfish tends to be the fluffy, rather than the crunchy, kind, with just a faint crunch from highly seasoned crust, and the fish's natural flavor rings through powerfully: catfish-fancier's catfish.

There is barbecue here almost all the time, sometimes plucked from the fumey maw of a barrel cooker in the parking lot, sometimes from back in the kitchen, and the pork ribs and beef ribs and chicken are pretty much what you'd expect from a good church barbecue: tender and deeply smoky, edged with crunchy bits of char, but also a bit flabbier than maybe you'd prefer, and with just a hint of commercial charcoal briquette in the backtaste. If you're heading up into the San Gabriels for a picnic on Crystal Lake, this barbecue might be just what you need.

And yet . . . not everything is perfect in Potlicker-land. The restaurant sells out of food pretty often, for one thing, so you can drive all the way out there from Glendale or something, mouth set on pot likker, only to discover that the kitchen has run out of collards, and there won't be any more for the rest of the afternoon. (I've been here maybe four or five times, and the supply of New Orleans gumbo has perpetually been exhausted. It wouldn't be a bad idea to call first.) Sometimes the service, though gracious, can seem taxed to the limit by a single party of four--this is pretty much a take-out place. But take one bite of the kitchen's peach cobbler, warm, sweet, spiced with more things than appear on a Schillings shelf, and you'll forgive.

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What to Get

Collard greens; fried chicken; peach cobbler.

Where to Go

Potlicker & Cornbread, 190 W. Sierra Madre Ave., Azusa, (818) 812-8680. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Cash only. No credit cards. No alcohol. Lot parking. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only, $14-$18.

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