Coleman's Soul Food
When I was a young man of nineteen, maybe twenty, I spent three weeks living in a motel in Detroit. The particulars of how I found myself in such a sorry state — staying in a room where, on my first night, I found a dead rat under the bed so old I'd originally thought it was a rotting banana; which looked out on a popular stroll densely populated by working girls; which smelled so powerfully of curry and head-shop incense that I started smoking cigars in the room to make it smell better — are unimportant here. What's important is what I remember of the food.
My first attempt at finding barbecue was a disaster, and my first attempt at finding fried chicken a delight, even if the place I found was boarded up on the outside and inside and appeared to be seriously fire-damaged.
I spent many nights hanging out at an all-night diner on Telegraph Road, eating skillet breakfasts at two in the morning and getting advice on the finer points of making one's living as a car thief. I got mugged there, losing about fifty bucks and part of a tooth, and then, a night later, ended up eating fried chicken and drinking coffee with one of the guys who'd mugged me — a college student who rolled tourists and business travelers for pocket money. He didn't give me back my fifty, but he did buy dinner, which was nice of him. I spent other nights in a video-game arcade playing Mortal Kombat (which should tell you how long ago this was) for money against guys too young to be hustling pool; the dirty-water hot-dog cart parked out front provided all the sustenance I needed while being schooled by vicious, foul-mouthed twelve-year-olds.
And though I know my recollections are tainted by the neighborhood I was living in and the kinds of places I was frequenting, what I remember most about Detroit was that every other restaurant seemed to be a soul-food restaurant of some sort — either a chicken shack or a rib joint, a fast-and-cheap street-corner dive or some half-creepy neighborhood hole-in-the-wall famous for nothing but its collard greens, whiskey shots and chicken. Detroit is a great city for soul food, a kind of fine-mesh screen made for catching northeast and south-coast food traditions and capturing them before they head too far west; a snare for poor folk looking for poor-folk party food. As far as I know (and I do know some...), Detroit has no particular food to call its own — no hometown specialty, no beloved regional cuisine. What it does have is everyone else's favorite food, all the dishes you want when you're stuck there and dreaming of home.
Henry Coleman, owner and head cook at the new Coleman's Soul Food, knows from Detroit soul food, Detroit comfort food, Detroit's streetside, slapdash, eat-while-walking cuisine. He's a veteran lunchwagon cook from the city, a guy who knows his way around a vat of potato salad, a crock of greens and pork chops done in the pan. From behind the rail of his kitchen at Coleman's, he knocks up specials (roasted barbecued chicken breast with greens and rice and gravy on my most recent visit), bakes the cornbread, slow-cooks his brisket and hot links.
The menus at Coleman's (there are several) can be confusing. There's one hung outside, in the window, which lists dinners and sandwiches, offers cheeseburgers and a variety of sides. There's another, much shorter one, laminated in greasy plastic and set on each table that lists just five plates and a couple of sides. There's yet another hung over the kitchen pass — larger and somewhat more detailed — that lists more sides, more possible plates, rib and hot-link sandwiches; beside it is a chalkboard where Henry writes up his special of the day.
And then there's the true menu, which exists only in the head of his niece, Tyawne Williams, who waits on all the tables and watches the front of the house. She'll tell you that Henry has black-eyed peas cooking in the back even if black-eyed peas are listed nowhere else. She'll tell you that the regular chicken dinner comes fried, not baked, and that it's made for them of big appetite. She'll tell you when the cornbread's good and when it's a little burned around the edges, that Henry damn sure can make those pork chops smothered (provided you're willing to wait to have them done right), that the place doesn't take credit cards or anything else — it's cash on the barrelhead or you're walkin' — and what kind of tea they've got brewing behind the bar.
Without Tyawne as your guide, ordering a meal at Coleman's can be a haphazard affair. And if there's something you've got your heart set on and don't see on the menu, just ask her. Who knows? You might get lucky.
Two weeks ago Saturday, I was craving fried chicken — all steamy-hot and crackling, with some greens, some beans and a couple shots of whiskey, neat — and was standing in the bathroom slicking back my hair and tucking in my shirt and whining to Laura about how I could almost taste that chicken: the crackle of biting through the skin, the bitterness of gray-green collards wet with pot likker. It was a hot night, and everywhere there was that smell of blacktop steaming after a fitful, momentary rain shower. The last thing I wanted was to sit in a fancy dining room for two hours eating duck, tuna tartare and sour-cherry reduction.
"Shut up," Laura said. "Go eat your duck and be happy."
Which I did. But while I was sitting in that very nice room, being attended to by my very nice server, eating surrounded by very nice people in their very nice polos and very nice shorts, I was secretly dreaming of eating fire-sale chicken in a burned-out storefront in Detroit. I was remembering the smell of baking electronics and cigarette smoke at that Motor City arcade.
On Monday, nothing was going to keep me from Coleman's. But when I got there, the door was locked. So I called from the parking lot, got Henry on the line. "No," he said, "we're closed today. But I'm in the kitchen getting ready for tomorrow lunch. You come back then."
Which I did. And I discovered that Coleman's is just about as far as you can get from the nice room and nice polo-shirt crowd and still be in the same industry. For 37 years, Ethel Allen had held court in this space. For 37 years, people came to Ethel's House of Soul and left an impression on every surface, every stretch of wall. Coleman's looks like it opened in the stripped shell that was left behind when Ethel left the building in January. The hanging chandelier lamps have no shades. A few of the tables are covered — in plastic, with simple rag placemats — but most of them are just bare, like diner tables, patterned in multi-colored swirls. There's no decoration, no attempt at making the place feel homey or welcoming save for a few suffering plants by the windows, the curtains hung over those windows and, behind the long, curving counter that once was the heart of Ethel's, a lonely fish tank occupied by two lethargic fish and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
On Saturday night, I ate surrounded by men in nice polo shirts and shorts. Here, the guy coming through the door in shin-length shorts, asking for fifteen cents to pay for a blunt, was showing a parolee's ankle bracelet. On Saturday night, the conversation around me was all about golfing, about trips to the mountains to go camping, boating, hiking. At Coleman's the following Tuesday, the woman behind me was talking about food — about the chitlins she loves, about growing up in Alabama and the particular sweetness of a kind of soda pop sold only at Winn-Dixie, about how eating the plate of smothered pork chops in front of her, with black-eyed peas and stewed cabbage, is "gonna give me the 'itis. You know the 'itis? When you eat a big meal like this in the middle of the day, then just gotta go and sleep?"
Her voice was husky and sweet, her memories of food and its comforts powerful and beautiful and delivered with the passion of a born eater, an epicure of home cookin'. But then she got a phone call, and her voice went up an octave and a half, became candy-coated and girlish. "Hey, baby...where are you? Right now? I'm eating me some lunch. No, baby, I don't do in-calls no more — only out-calls, $160 per half-hour..." She was a working girl, just like the ones I lived with — lived near — when I was doing my own stretch in Detroit, and came to know and truly like.
The front doors of Coleman's were propped open with broken bits of cement, the air filled with the incessant chatter of a small TV set behind the counter, down at the service end, tuned to yet another Lifetime movie about a girl losing her virginity and suffering the terrible consequences. And, yeah, I loved it. Absolutely. Even before the food began to arrive, I knew it was gonna be good — because working girls know where the good food is. And I was right.
The big platter of fried chicken was exactly what I'd been waiting for. Two legs and a big, plump piece of breast, steaming and juicy beneath its simple crust of flour, pepper, salt and spices. There was a little cup of straight, uncut hot sauce on the side; a big bowl of excellent church-picnic potato salad, heavy on the mustard, with celery and hard-boiled egg; another bowl of soft, sweet, molasses-y baked beans; a big slab of cornbread the size of a piece of birthday cake. All of it was delicious; all of it was perfect. The only thing missing? A couple shots of whiskey to wash it down.
Lucky me, I always carry a half-pint flask of Irish brain medicine. And with it, I doctored the tall, cold fountain Pepsi that Tyawne had brought me, pouring liberally and smiling while the girl behind me got another call, while a couple of takeout orders went out the door and a police siren wailed in the distance — happy to be, once again, exactly where I wanted to be.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.