J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Soul Food Tour - Shirley Mae's Cafe and Bar

The first stop on my Soul Food Tour was also my most memorable dining experience in Louisville.  It’s not in any fancy top eats list or located in a trendy refurbished space that’s so popular among the foodie crowd.  More than likely, you’ve probably have never heard of it.  But it’s a place well-loved and often praised by locals who know of its secrets.  I’m glad I finally tried it after so many recommendations.

Shirley Mae’s Cafe and Bar (802 S Clay Street, 502-589-5295) is a small family owned and operated eatery in the heart of Smoketown, at the corner of Lampton and Clay, in a neighborhood that’s often associated with crimes, poverty and neglect.  The only other business in the neighborhood is the liquor store across the street. 

My sister was my dinner mate on that drizzly and cool Friday afternoon.  We were a bit apprehensive, as anyone would in a new neighborhood and a new place where new faces are not seen often.  Soulful streams of blues music drifted out from the open door immediately lured and welcome us into its cocoon.  There’s no fancy decoration or wait staff, just a few tables, a bar area and an opened kitchen where you see the cook preparing the food. Knick knacks and mementos cluttered the space, making it less a restaurant and more a place of gathering.  Almost everyone who came in was greeted by name and a bright smile.

We sat down and ordered our food from a small paper menu while most patrons came directly to the small counter by the kitchen to order.  This is what you can expect to see on the menu.

My sister ordered fried chicken with corn and mac and cheese.  I opted for just the fried fish because of a late lunch.  The food took a while to cook since everything is made fresh to order but I was glad for the wait. 

We spent the next 30 minutes or so learning about segregated Louisville from Ms. Dee, the daughter of Shirley Mae and who is also the house DJ.   She told stories of her mom's childhood, her siblings and the business.   Her sister and mom cook in the kitchen, her brother is the waiter and another sister hangs out in the restaurant.  She was warm, charming and had a little bit of a theatrical flair.  The details of our conversation are a bit fuzzy now but it’s hard to forget how welcomed she made us feel.  Having that opportunity to learn from her and to connect to a part of Louisville we don't now much about made the experience memorable for my sister and I.

Ms. Dee's first selfie

We really enjoyed the food when it finally came out.  The fried chicken was crispy and hot, we had to wait a while for it to cool enough to eat.  The corn and mac & cheese were standard of what you would find in any restaurant.   However, the crunchy fried cornbread here was amazing and made me a lifelong fan.  I enjoyed my fried catfish as well; it was crunchy and lightly battered.  Large portions and reasonable prices made this one a keeper.  Our introduction to the food here made us eager to come back again soon.

Here are a few tips and things to know before coming:
  • They are only opened on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
  • Cash only
  • Parking on the streets
  • The neighborhood is a little rough so use common sense.  If you have valuables in your car, pack it away in your trunk before you come. 
  • It's a humble place so don't expect any fancy restaurant amenities. 
  • Here’s an article from WDRB with a little more history on the place. 
It’s not just the food that made this a memorable experience for me, but the friendly people and cozy atmosphere.  It might be rough around the edges, but every underneath shines.