Kirk's Soul Kitchen in Aurora lacks the homey charm of Cora Faye's or the Welton Street Cafe, but the setting isn't quite modern enough to give it hipster appeal. Instead, its appearance falls somewhere between a divey joint of the kind so prevalent in Aurora (and not at all indicative of the quality of food that can be found) and a newish diner that could easily be mistaken for a marijuana dispensary from the outside. Still, one look at the menu, displayed on a high-definition screen above the order counter, and you'll know you're in for some old-fashioned cooking.
Kirk's opened in 2012 on East Colfax Avenue — so far east that farmland isn't too much farther down the road, but close enough to the Anschutz Medical Center to benefit from the added population in the area. The exterior of Kirk's looks like just about anything other than a soul-food kitchen: a drive-through bank branch, a dentist's office, the remnants of a gas station after all the pumps have been removed. Inside, only a soda fountain and the smell of food distinguish the dining room from the lobby of a Grease Monkey or the waiting room at a car dealership. A few stains on the ceiling tiles mark previous roof leaks, and handwritten signs tell a story of past customer transgressions: Keep your grubby hands off the glass divider that separates the customers from the prep table; yes, food is really cooked here so you're going to have to wait more than a few minutes.
The menu lists all the meat options first, followed by all the sides, then divides everything into price categories by the type of protein you want and the number of sides. It's a little confusing, but combo plates basically come in one- or two-side configurations with fried chicken or meatloaf on the cheapest end, swai (Vietnamese catfish) or pork chops next, and tilapia, catfish and fried shrimp hitting the high end of the price scale. There are also a few a la carte options — Captain Kirk's seafood gumbo, shrimp etoufee — that aren't offered as a combo meal.
So you pick what you want, shout your order across the glass divider (don't get your fingerprints all over it!) and then sit down to wait while it's cooked. Not all of the sides are always available: The okra with shrimp is only made on Fridays, and the kitchen may be out of others (temporarily or for the day). When your order is ready, you step back up and pay and grab your food. The employees behind the counter are all friendly and don't mind if you take a little extra time deciding on your meal, and they somehow remember which food goes with which faces, even though they don't assign numbers or take names.
I had a one-side combo of fried catfish and candied yams, which came with a cube of cornbread. I wanted the okra, but when I was told it was a Friday-only special, I panicked and ordered those yams — a rookie mistake, considering that I knew I would also be ordering a slice of sweet-potato pie.
Conclusion? Kirk's seems a little pricey for what you get. A modest but nicely breaded and fried catfish fillet, a small scoop of candied yams, a piece of cornbread and a slice of pie came in at more than $16 with tax. It was good, filling food and plenty for one person, but sides are often the best part of a Southern plate, and a two-side combo would have been a couple of bucks more. For a similar price, the same kind of food can be found at full-service restaurants around town, where they'll keep your glass of Mr. Pibb filled and even bring you a pat of butter for your bread.
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It's not often that price is the sticking point at the hole-in-the-wall eateries of Aurora, Federal Boulevard and other suburban strip malls. in fact, it's often just the opposite. Some Mexican, Vietnamese or Thai restaurants are almost insanely cheap for the amount and quality of food received. Granted, not every option at Kirk's is disproportionately priced. The menu is intriguing enough that a slight adjustment of expectations might be enough to make for a more pleasant experience. I could have had a large bowl of gumbo and a side of cornbread for under $10, or meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy for a similar price — and that pie was definitely worth every penny — so a return trip might be in order, only with an eye for value instead of catfish.