Cora Faye's Cafe, Denver's most well-known — and arguably best — soul-food eatery, is the last stop in a month of soul food for May's Ethniche series. Cora Faye's opened in 2006 on a run-down stretch of shops on Colorado Boulevard just north of City Park, but the decor and comfortable wear of the place make it feel significantly older, like a quaint cafe that Denver has always relied on for Southern home cooking and a dose of motherly love.
Cora Faye's and owner Priscilla Smith had a moment in the spotlight two years ago when Guy Fieri stopped by to film an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives for the Food Network here — a fact that's not lost, even on a sleepy Tuesday at lunch, among the antique lamps, brocade tablecloths and flea-market knickknacks that fill almost every inch of the place. Although there were only a handful of customers, most of them were tourists who had heard about the cafe on TV and were coming in for the soul-food staples mentioned on Fieri's show (which are highlighted on the menu) — and for a photograph with Smith. Between checking up on tables, refilling drinks, ringing in guest checks and exuding an air of calm and grace, Smith posed for photos and talked about her food and her impression of Fieri.
When I arrived, a couple of satisfied diners were at the front paying their bill and reading a laminated card with a picture of Smith and Fieri. "Here's a fact not many people know," Smith explained to the couple. "He's actually six-foot-four and weighs almost 400 pounds." She points to the photo (in which Fieri is clearly taller than she is) and adds that she's 5' 10" herself.
There's a twinkle in her eye and just the slightest tone of humor in her voice — enough so that you can pick up on what's clearly a tall tale in the Southern tradition being built on slightly less interesting truth. (In case you're wondering, a quick Google search reveals that the food-and-travel show host's height is 5' 10".)
Another couple told Smith that they'd traveled to Denver from Pennsylvania; they were a little unsure whether to order the cornbread or hushpuppies with their lunch plates. She asked them about the last time they ate hushpuppies before offering them a little of both.
For my part, the hushpuppies were an almost automatic order, along with a "soul food egg roll" (copyrighted on the menu). The egg roll comes stuffed with a choice of mac and cheese, cabbage, greens, yams or smothered chicken; I chose mac and cheese for a rich and creamy bite surrounded by crunchy wanton skin — just right with a few drops of Louisiana hot sauce.
An order of chicken and waffles at Cora Faye's comes with a crimson waffle similar in hue to red velvet cake and a choice of a drumstick or wing. The breading on the chicken is thin and peppery, with a light crunch and a little oiliness, but not so much that it distracts from the steaming, juicy chicken beneath. Ramekins of syrup and a golden, butter-flavored liquid allow for dipping or drenching as you prefer. The waffle itself is moist and dense and lightly tinged with winter spices — Smith says nutmeg is one of them (and perhaps the rest are revealed in her cookbook).
Despite the ghost of Guy Fieri still lingering in the room, the rest of the experience — the simple, home-style food, the light banter with customers, the decor that makes the whole place feel like a small-town antique shop — soon pushes the spiky-haired TV star into the background. In the long run, people come for the food and for Smith's offhanded charm.
If you plan on doing the same, there are a couple of things to remember: If you're looking for a deep dive into soul food, go on Wednesday through Saturday, when daily specials include pig feet, pig-ear sandwiches, oxtail, rabbit and smothered neckbones; Cora Faye's is closed on Sundays and Monday and there are no daily specials on Tuesdays. And if you plan on ordering barbecue (which is along the line of sweetish home-kitchen barbecue than smokehouse cuts), call ahead to see what's on offer: Not all barbecue items are always available, but there are usually plenty of pork, fried fish and fried chicken options, along with just about every soul-food side dish you could care to sample.