Along a wall of bright blue bricks a beautiful mural reads, “Smoketown to me was a melting pot. Everybody knew everybody.”
The sentiment rests just a few blocks from Shirley Mae’s Café in the Smoketown neighborhood of Kentucky’s most populated city of Louisville, and the words and images perfectly describe the experience of eating at the nearby restaurant.
We felt like family members stopping in for a meal when we visited Shirley Mae’s for the first time. The conversations we had with the restaurant family gave us the feeling we were related to our hosts. A baseball game on TV told us we were definitely in Louisville, home of the famed “Slugger” baseball factory. And the food, well, that was what we came for, and that’s what made it feel most like we were having a familiar meal at grandma’s house.
Everything you eat at Shirley Mae’s will wow you. I guarantee you that. And I can also promise you that everything will be fresh when it hits your table. During our visit, one Shirley Mae’s family member told another to take a side dish serving back to the kitchen and replace it because it had been sitting too long.
Both of our entrees—fried chicken wings and fried fish filets—were seasoned to perfection. (And those are just two options on a long list of main courses.) The chicken was juicy inside, cooked just right for chicken, and it had a delightful crunch on the outside. The fish had more of a cornmeal crust that sang a song inside your mouth with each bite.
While we’re talking about cornmeal, you won’t believe how good the hot-water cornbread is. One Shirley Mae’s family member told us the cornbread was “poor folks food.” Well, eating poor never tasted so good. The bread came out wrapped in tinfoil and nestled inside a small cup. It was solid with a bite of crunch on the outside, and it was soft and warm on the inside. We couldn’t eat it all, so we took it with us on the road. Wouldn’t you know, it reheated beautifully in just a basic microwave and didn’t get the least bit dry for the following three days.
Our side dishes were just as tasty. The macaroni and cheese lived up to its name: cheesy! And it was so creamy, too. My yams registered perfectly on the sweet scale, not tasting too much like a plain, soft-baked sweet potato and not seasoning too close to being sweet candy or pie.
Perhaps the best side of all, and the most-talked-about meal item we enjoyed: Molly’s pinto beans (with slaw, of course). She savored their seasoning and could tell they had been cooking a long time. Molly loves pinto beans, and I dare say these were her all-time favorite beans.
We washed down our meal with sweet tea and grape Kool-Aid (All the best soul food restaurants serve it, we now understand. Just read here and here.)
After paying for our food, we enjoyed a few nice conversations with Shirley Mae’s family members. We learned about their lives, and they learned about ours. Our connection felt just like a Sunday afternoon front-porch talk with relatives.
And that’s why the Smoketown mural caught my attention so much. “Everybody knew everybody.” That’s how it felt at the restaurant that serves homecooked favorites with unbelievable flavor. Eating a meal at Shirley Mae’s is a beautiful combination of savoring delicious made-to-order food while also discovering your family in this world is bigger than you realized. In this melting pot, you don’t have to share blood and a tree to be family. All you have to share is food and your heart.
Shirley Mae’s Café: 802 S. Clay St., Louisville, Ky.
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