In one of the most ramshackle dining rooms in one of the most rundown buildings in one of the worst neighborhoods in town, you'll find the heart and soul of Denver's restaurant scene.
But Ethel Allen--Miss Ethel to those who've already discovered Ethel's House of Soul--doesn't mind the Five Points location, or the fact that her diner-style counter has a few stools missing seats. "I like it down here," she says. "I've had people offer to put me up somewhere else, but I don't want to go anywhere. People down here are nice to me and we all get along."
People have reason to be nice to Miss Ethel: She cooks up a storm. Her specialty, she says, is "smothered things"--a hallmark of true soul food. Born in Mississippi, Miss Ethel learned her trade at the source and later honed her skills at her mother's soul-food concession stand in Chicago's Altgeld Gardens. At nineteen she moved to Denver and cooked at the Denver Athletic Club for six years before returning to Chicago. But in 1969 Miss Ethel decided Denver was a better place in which to raise her two sons. She opened her House of Soul in 1971.
The restaurant hasn't changed much since then. Miss Ethel does all the kitchen work, from prep to dishwashing--"You could say I'm the everything"--as she flits rapidly back and forth to the accompaniment of the Days of Our Lives theme song emanating from the tiny television propped next to the sink. Her "helper" passes around the hand-written menu listing the day's entrees, a half-dozen offerings that emphasize the four basic soul-food groups: dried beans, cornmeal, greens and pig parts, with the addition of that Southern standby, chicken. Pork chops, pig's feet, smothered chicken and Salisbury steak make frequent appearances on the list. Cornbread is a constant: Steaming squares of it (with raw white onion rings and jalapeno slices piled alongside) are delivered to the table right away, and seconds and even thirds are yours for the asking. The cornbread and three sides are included in the cost of the meal: $7 at lunch or dinner.
The food arrives heaped onto oversized platters; condiments are pretty much limited to a jar of hot, vinegary peppers. But anyone who thinks this food needs embellishment had better think again: Miss Ethel makes sure there's flavor to spare.
The smothered chicken--swimming in a chicken-stock gravy rich from reduction rather than some routine roux--was a fine example of Miss Ethel's skill. Two thighs and a leg had been cooked so long that the bones themselves were probably tender; the skin had been left on the bird, but the stewing had rendered it greaseless and melted it right into the meat. We'd ordered it with a side of Miss Ethel's trademark "yams"--the butteriest, brown-sugariest we'd ever had the pleasure to eat. Even after pushing ourselves into dangerously full territory, we asked for still more cornbread with which to sop up the last of the juice from our plates.
(A brief aside: As a farmer who's particularly interested in unusual vegetable varieties, I have yet to see a real yam in this country. I couldn't even locate the seeds when I wanted to grow yams in Florida, just about the only state in which you could. The tubers that supermarkets mistakenly label "yams" are actually dark-orange, moist-centered sweet potatoes; yams are the roots of a completely different plant genus. You'll know if you eat a true yam: It contains so much starch you could iron your shirts stiff merely by belching on them.)
The other sides were simple dishes that served to balance the heaviness of the meat. The rice, cooked in milk, had the consistency of rice pudding but with only a hint of sugar. The greens--collard and spinach on one visit--had been sauteed in pork fat with several hefty pieces of ham and onions, and then liberally laced with minced jalapeno. They provided the perfect counterpoint for an order of pig's feet, one of the ultimate face foods. Miss Ethel's were greasy, fatty, cooked to near-disintegration--in a word, great. Our side of black-eyed peas was almost redundant, since the beans had been cooked with ham hocks and pig fat until they were as soft as room-temperature butter.
Once we'd digested that heavenly meal, we hurried back for more. This time we tried chicken with dumplings and Salisbury steak, as well as another round of smothered chicken, made even better by the addition of diced onions to the gravy. Miss Ethel's dumplings, doughy but light, floated on top of that same delicious gravy and various chicken parts. The Salisbury steak (named for the doctor/dietician who invented the seasoned lean-beef patty in the 1800s because he thought it would be easier to digest than a regular steak) looked like a big beef pillow, all juicy, tender meat inside a chewy outer crust softened by beef gravy heavy on the onions and jalapenos.
All three of us asked for the yams, of course, as well as rice and pinto beans. With the dumpling entree, Miss Ethel added the rice to the bowl and left the spicy beans on their own. The rice that accompanied the steak, however, was covered with the beans, making for a somewhat soupy combination.
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After all of this food--washed down by 50-cent cans of soda--we could never have fit in dessert. Still, we were disappointed to learn that it's available only on Sundays, especially since dessert is homemade peach cobbler for just $2. With prices so low, it's not surprising that Miss Ethel has trouble staying open. "It's been tough trying to keep the place going," she admits. "I've often had several jobs on the side to keep it. I'm hoping that the light rail will help. I'm determined to hang in there, though."
Easy access to Ethel's could be the best reason for RTD to hurry up and complete the light-rail system. In the meantime, though, even out-of-towners somehow find their way there. One day I stopped in and encountered two gentlemen from Chicago groaning their way from a table littered with the remains of a serious feast. One introduced himself as the founder of The Gang, a Chicago-based national club of black men who ski in cowboy hats; the pair had been skiing in Winter Park and had driven to Denver in search of soul food. Fate--and some knowledgeable folks--had sent them to Miss Ethel.
"I get people from all over," she says. "I enjoy what I do, and I like the people. No one around here cares if you're black or white or whatever, especially in my restaurant. Everyone is welcome, and I've never had any problem with discrimination or any trouble. And I won't stand for any of it, either."
Now sit down and eat.