Southerners are as blasé about soul food as New Yorkers are about pizza. We like it, we eat it often, but when was the last time you had a plate that actually made you sit up in your seat and say wow? If you can’t recall, you obviously haven’t been to Mae's Soul Food (34 Peachtree St., 404-525-4557). Mae's is a little hard to find. The address says Peachtree Street, but it’s actually around the corner on Walton Street — look for the tiny red and white sign.
As cramped and unadorned as the restaurant is, it’s got personality to spare. Grab a spot in the line, study the cafeteria-style steam trays as quickly as you can, and be ready to shout out your order before your mind is made up. Service is as intense and fast-paced as the NYSE trading floor. The ever-present and incredibly lively "Ms. Mae" (aka Mary McCoy) ensures everything’s running smoothly. After retiring, Ms. Mae opened the restaurant with her savings. Why open a restaurant after retiring? “I just wanted to work for myself and do something that I know how to do and love to do,” she says before pausing and calling out something to her staff about cornbread.
Mae’s opens at 7 a.m. and serves a small menu of inexpensive, homey breakfast standards. No one will judge you for double-parking and running in for a freshly made bacon biscuit on your way to work. The lunch menu changes daily, but there are standards such as fried chicken and smothered pork chops. Just $6.25 buys you an enormous Styrofoam to-go box filled with your choice of meat, two vegetables and a homemade cornbread muffin or dinner roll. Like any good cook who minds familial traditions, Ms. Mae shares little about her recipes and will absolutely not — no matter how many times you ask — tell you what her secret “flavoring” is.
You’d expect the smothered pork chops to be tough after sitting in a steam tray, but the gravy-drenched heap of swine was oh-so-tender. Busy Bee has been the undisputed champ of fried chicken for some time, but Mae’s is a very close second. The “home-style” chicken has a crackly skin with just enough seasoning that somehow permeates the juicy interior even though Ms. Mae does not marinate the bird. Country fried steak is coated in the same seasoning flour as the chicken and pork, before it’s fried and braised in gravy for nearly two hours. If you like Thanksgiving dinner year round, get the roasted turkey legs and crumbly cornbread dressing; it’s a best seller.
Sides vary day to day. Vegetarians should know Ms. Mae does not use meat products in any of her vegetables; $4.25 gets you a choice of three. Purists may balk at the lack of smoked meat in their collards, but these collards converted me from a hater to a believer. The greens are cooked for over three hours, but still have a good amount of bite with not one trace of bitterness. Mac-n-cheese is tangy from the sharp cheddar, which dots each tiny piece of elbow pasta. Deeply orange candied yams hint of vanilla, and the spice lingers on your taste buds just like sweet potato pie.
Speaking of pies, Mae’s has so many desserts your head will spin. All of the cakes — devilishly dark-chocolate-frosted yellow cake, caramel cake and the like — are made by Ms. Mae’s close friend who runs Cakes by Catherine. The rest of the desserts, which include sweet potato pie and seasonal cobblers swimming with fresh fruit, are Ms. Mae’s very own. She scoffs at the idea that you are either a cook or a baker. “There is nothing I can’t cook,” she jokes, but the woman is serious. And who can argue? Each bite is infused with unadulterated love, which, to me, is the reason we call it soul food.