By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
The tablecloths at Cora Faye's Cafe— heavy, almost like oilcloth but patterned with flowers — are a little sticky. And so is the air. It's close and warm in the cluttered front dining room, the atmosphere rich with smells that are both food smells and the smells of people on a hot afternoon. Damp cologne and scorching cornmeal, fryer oil, gravy and panting breath. The atmosphere is so thick that closing my eyes and gulping air feels like eating a meal, my every inhalation infused with the ghosts of pork chops, the spirits of catfish hitting the pan, the memories of bodies passing through the door.
In heat like this, everything seems to have a smell. Looking at a pitcher of iced tea sweating on top of a cold case, I think I can smell the beads of condensation that slide down its sides — an odor like blue ice, Freon and diamonds. And every time the front door opens, a bell tinkles and the stew grows thicker, adding a shot of furnace heat, car exhaust, voices passing on Colorado Boulevard.
"I remember..." I start to say to Laura, then lose my train of thought. I wish I had a hat — a fat man's white borsalino — with which to fan myself. I wish I were dressed in seersucker and linen. I wish that along with ozone and the hot blacktop outside, I could smell the honey sweetness of bougainvillea flowers and jasmine, that there was an ocean nearby. Laura sips her Coke from the can with the lethargy of a hothouse flower gone to seed. She is wilting. Even her blinking is slow.
2861 Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80207
Region: East Denver
Fried shrimp: $9.95
Pork chops and gravy: $10.45
Fried chicken: $6.95
Slice of cake: $3
I remember a place like Cora Faye's in Memphis, where a traveling buddy and I stopped for cheeseburgers and icebox pie, both of us sagging over a rickety picnic table, our thin Yankee blood just giving out in the heat. I remember eating pork chops and frogs' legs at a place like Cora Faye's in Little Rock, on a Sunday afternoon when the whole city smelled like baking river mud and sweat, drinking cold beers like water at a corner table under the spinning fans, unable to get drunk no matter how hard I tried and finally having to get up and go outside to piss. When I stepped out the door into the heat, all the beers quickly piled up, leaving me suddenly and slobberingly hammered, barely able to walk. I remember dozens of places like Cora Faye's across the Southern latitudes of this country, but what I remember most about all of them is the heat, always the heat. It's not the food that links these places together in my dim, jumbled recollections, just the sensation of being cooked myself.
Cora Faye's has been open since November in this corner space pressed right up against the sidewalk on Colorado. There are flowers in the window boxes out front, sheer curtains, a sign offering the comforts of "home cook'n" and "soul food" — which was code for "comfort food" long before the term was invented, before "comfort food" was co-opted by restaurants serving up-from-frozen chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes out of a box.
But soul food is more than that, too. Not just comfort, but a highly specific, regional comfort. Priscilla Smith was a baker once, a caterer — she did scratch pies and cakes, big trays of food for family, friends and paying customers. Though she'd never owned a restaurant before, her family had: a burger joint in Alabama called Henry Burgers. It was a neighborhood place in a small town, but folks would come from out of state just to eat there. When Smith got it in her head to open Cora Faye's, she took some of the recipes her mother and father had used — ones they'd gotten from their parents, who'd gotten them from their parents. Some of those recipes date as far back as the 1700s.
"Brought to you by generations of Southern inspiration and love" is what it says on the menu — which is code, too, for sweet tea, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried pork chops and macaroni and cheese done not always well, but always right.
Service here is not fast. Nothing here is fast. After I ask twice, the waiter comes by with yellow plastic cups of cold water and red Kool-Aid. I peek my head around the corner and into Cora Faye's other dining area, called "Grandma's dining room" and decorated accordingly. It seems cooler in there, the walls a gentle seafoam green, lace on and under everything. The main room where I am sitting is darker, almost deliberately rattletrap, with old-timey signs on the walls, pictures of African-American cowboys, samplers of varying sizes. It looks like a sitting room hastily set for guests who are perpetually late, and I stare longingly at the table near the register where the cakes are kept, tempted to skip supper entirely, to go right for dessert. There is a half a caramel cake bleeding melted sugar under its glass dome, a chocolate cake so dark it seems to shimmer, a red-velvet cake almost sluttish in its garish, spongy colors.