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Home Sweet Margie's


Wednesday night. Three workdays down, two more to go. It's getting late, it's been a long day and the idea of cooking dinner just seems like too much to bear.

That's when Margie's Kitchen calls, and it rarely disappoints. A sweet little soul food restaurant in west Long Beach, it is a spot of gentle refuge.

If, as Robert Frost wrote, "Home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in," Margie's is where they take you in and feed you fried chicken. And short ribs. And braised oxtails. And collard greens and black-eyed peas.

Just off the 710 Freeway in a reviving strip mall (there's a good Filipino fish shop next door and a decent panaderia nearby), Margie's comes on a little flashy at first. But the pink Formica and lavender booths can't hide a heart that is pure corn bread gold.

When it comes to Southern cooking, it's barbecue and fried stuff most people think about. But there is a third, often forgotten, culinary cousin: the meat-and-three. Although Margie's serves fried chicken and catfish as well as barbecue, the real story is elsewhere.

A place like Margie's specializes in long-braised meats: oxtails that fall apart under the fork, short ribs that melt in your mouth, smothered chicken and chops that come blanketed in a thick clove-and-black-pepper-scented gravy.

Even the vegetables (which come three to a meal, hence the name) are long-cooked. Okra and corn are stewed soft with tomatoes. Candied yams are nearly caramelized. Macaroni and cheese (considered a vegetable in the South) is tangy with Cheddar. Collard greens and cabbage are sweet and limp, perfect for a dash of chile-spiked vinegar. There are frequently other greens as well, and when they sell turnips, they're quite rightly advertised as coming "with their bottoms."

In fact, you could quite easily make a meal out of the vegetables alone--not at all a bad alternative considering the size of the portions and their heft. This is the opposite of lean cuisine. Plates come piled high with food, and the caloric intake is never mentioned.

Margie's does offer "light" vegetables--collard greens and cabbage cooked with turkey, rather than ham hock--although it is clear that their hearts are not in it. On the menu, the light vegetables are bracketed by the phrase "On Trial." (Actually, they are not bad at all.)

But all is not perfect at Margie's, as at any home. The barbecue is strictly for non-'cue lovers: The sauce is a bit too sweet, the ribs are undercooked and there's not much smoke. You get the feeling they're offered simply as a formality. Also, occasionally the chicken tastes as if it has been fried earlier and reheated, the meat hard and dry.

Usually, though, the fried food is exemplary. The chicken is pan-fried without a batter, the peppery golden skin providing all the crackle that's necessary. The catfish has that muddy funkiness that will be familiar to anyone raised in the South. That's how catfish tasted before they were farmed. Liver and onions can be surprising (how many times have you had liver batter-fried?), but it's actually quite good--kind of a country blues rendition of the fried sweetbreads at Spago.

When it's all over, get the sweet potato pie, a spicy wedge that is so dense it borders on fudge. Then load up the leftovers and head out into the night, reassured that there are, after all, only two more days to go and that, if necessary, you can always come back again.



Margie's Kitchen, 1320 W. Willow St., Long Beach; (310) 426-8689. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Cash only. No alcohol. Takeout. Dinner for two, food only $15-$20.


Fried chicken, short ribs, black-eyed peas, sweet potato pie.

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