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Cora Faye’s Cafe

The South rises again.

When I ate here two days ago, I'd ordered the fried chicken and potato salad, butterflied shrimp battered in cornmeal and fried hard. I don't like shrimp battered in cornmeal (or anything battered in cornmeal, really), although I recognized that these shrimp would've been right at home on a table 2,000 miles to the south and east of Denver, where milled, dry corn is available in abundance and "shrumps" once thrived in such profusion that you could catch them in your hat. But I loved that chicken the way anyone who cares a whit about food must love nearly any iteration of fried chicken — Kansas City-style pan-fried, Southern deep-fried, crackle-battered mid-Atlantic fence-sitting chicken, and anything in between. Fried chicken is one of the neatest tricks of kitchen transposition, of taking an animal and turning it into food. There's nothing hidden in a fried chicken leg; you know exactly where it came from, what it was not too long ago. Eating it, therefore, is a little like a communion — recognizing that on a farm somewhere, a chicken died just for you. And at Cora Faye's, every order is presented like you were the lucky one who got to the buffet table first, picked the best, biggest leg (drumstick and thigh, expertly trimmed) right off the top of the pile, and retreated to eat your prize before any of your relations could complain. Crisp skin, a little pepper, the difference between tender white meat and blood-dark flesh near the bone; the leg was excellent in its simplicity. I also loved Cora Faye's potato salad, because I dearly love any potato salad done in the Southern Baptist church-picnic tradition — which is to say, with pickle relish, mustard seed, boiled egg, stiff, starchy potatoes and no celery, suspended in the sort of thin, creamy mayonnaise that, after being left in the sun for a couple of hours, will just about kill anyone not acclimated to its lukewarm consumption.

For another classic side, the kitchen makes powerfully cheesy mac-and-cheese, casserole style, in big pans, held in a warmer and served by the spoonful. The french fries are disappointing, going limp and greasy almost instantly; the cornbread is dry, burned around the edges. But the greens — I figure they must've been cooked about a week to make them so soft and melting, with just a bitter whisper of pork fat and verdant leafiness on the tongue. They need salt, but salt I can add on my own. There are also whiting fillets, pork chops over rice smothered in gravy, hot-link sandwiches and, for the health-conscious, "plain lettuce salad" — which lives up to its billing.

On this hot, damp Saturday, though, I want something different. I want oxtails — a rarity on restaurant menus here, an acquired taste, like trotters, like snails. American soul food and classical French cuisine have much in common. Ingredients, preparations, a duality of influence (the French influenced Caribbean cuisine, and Caribbean cuisine, in turn, formed part of the basis of American soul food) — there are many interconnecting paths, but the biggest and most noticeable is thrift born of poverty, the notion of nose-to-tail eating. The French eat frogs because frogs are available, protein that's easy enough to catch (all you need is a sharpened stick and good reflexes) and requires only some basic cooking know-how to make palatable. Similarly, frogs are everywhere in the South and are no more wily than French frogs. Pigs' feet and chitlins, chicken necks (which are served at Cora Faye's, just not on the days I've been there) and foie gras? All come from the same impulse toward frugality and conservation — a goose is delicious, but its liver is junk until stuffed and fattened and seared and served with a little sour-cherry reduction.

Priscilla Smith relied on old family recipes to open Cora Faye's Cafe.
Mark Manger
Priscilla Smith relied on old family recipes to open Cora Faye's Cafe.

Location Info

Map

Cora Faye's Cafe

2861 Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80207

Category: Restaurant > Soul Food

Region: East Denver

Details

2861 Colorado Boulevard
303-333-5551
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. -9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, noon-7 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

Fried shrimp: $9.95
Pork chops and gravy: $10.45
Fried chicken: $6.95
Oxtails: $11.95
Slice of cake: $3

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An oxtail is exactly what its name implies: the tail of a cow — the last thing anyone in their right mind would want to eat — made edible (and occasionally delicious) through skill, long practice and stark necessity. When the plate comes to my table, the steam of it is slightly sour, meaty in a dank sort of way. Served over rice with just a little pit of pan juice, the meat is ugly as anything — chopped at the joints between tailbones, each lump looking like a skeletal fist wrapped in a rind of white fat. And yet the meat is delicious, with a texture like fatty stew beef and a flavor that is strong and dark and powerful like beef heart or beef shank. I dig in with a fork and, when that doesn't work, pick up each gnarled knuckle one at a time, stripping away the meat with my teeth.

And for a minute, I forget the heat, the damp, still air. I forget Memphis and Little Rock. I forget everything except the achingly sweet rush of sweet tea over my teeth and my hungering for a slice of caramel cake before I leave. For a minute, I am happy — comforted in body and soul by the echoes of Burgundy and Dixie that have brought a place like Cora Faye's to my Western home.

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