Before we get to matters at hand, just remember that soul food should stick to your ribs, fill you up. More than that, it's supposed to feed you in places that you didn't even know were hungry. This isn't necessarily about high cuisine, but about sitting down, digging in, losing your troubles for as long as it takes to mop the gravy up off the plate.
The Sweet Potato Pie Lady has room to seat about six before things get out of hand. She doesn't take checks and she doesn't honor debit cards, so please bring cash. You order your food, pay for it, and then the real fun begins as you grab a seat or lean against the wall and watch your food be prepared by a one-woman show. This is really more a story than a place to dine. You feel like you've just stepped into a novel where you aren't certain what the plot line is going to be, but all the colorful characters are there waiting for you anyway.
You really can't miss on the menu because there isn't much to order. You can order ribs: St. Louis and spare ribs ($7.50) or country spareribs and baby backs ($9.50). Then there is fried or BBQ chicken ($6.50). Every dish comes with a choice of two sides: mashed potatoes and gravy, greens cooked to order, creamy potato salad, corn, green beans or black-eyed peas. This is real food that is meant to fill you up, and it does the trick.
The Sweet Potato Pie Lady takes off Sundays and Mondays, so you'll have to get your lazy self on over there on the weekdays. And you might want to call ahead if you have a serious jones for ribs, because, as the Sweet Potato Pie Lady says, "When they gets goin', they go!" But take heart; she makes specials for every day of the week. Tuesday is for meat loaf. Wednesday brings chicken and dumplings. Thursday is pork chop day and Friday is for roast or ham. Saturdays are important and they are reserved for chitterlings, slaw, greens and yams.
Save room for dessert because the Sweet Potato Pie Lady makes tea cakes to order. You have to get there early, pay for them, then come back when they're done. These are a mysterious family recipe that we're just dying to try, but we haven't hit the timing on it yet. She assures us that they're worth coming back for.
Of course the sweet potato pie is a must try. It'll cost you $2.50 a slice or $7.50 for the whole pie. While we sat there we watched two or three pies get wrapped up and whisked out the door. We had our own slice and we found it to be creamy with the right amount of aromatics in it. We have yet to try the apple cobbler, which is $2.50 a serving or $15.25 for the whole shebang. The menu tells us that the cobbler is made from "Granny green apples and a few red ones and spices and dairy products to make you slap." We don't know what that means but we love it anyway.
You want to say that everything is good, but that would be a stretch. It is safe to say that everything is comforting. This is a no-frills, straightforward, sit down shut up and eat kind of food that everyone should try at least once. After all, soul food is a legitimate footnote in American culinary history, and this is the way it should be served up: sassy and on the spot.
The fried tomatoes and fried okra are sliced while you sit, then tossed into a vat of snapping hot oil. I'd like to say that they are fried until greaseless, but they're not. That's not the point. This is greasy grease and meant to be that way.
If catfish is your litmus test of good Southern eats, then you won't be disappointed. The Sweet Potato Pie Lady truly understands the inner nature of catfish. The filets are fried in a tight cornmeal crust to keep the flesh succulent and release a wash of fresh water with every bite. Catfish may be bottom feeders but here they are elevated to a different stratum on the food chain.
That's what the Sweet Potato Pie Lady is there to do.
Asked where she learned to cook, she nods at Granny sleeping by the front door.
"Oh," we say, "she looks so sweet."
"Hmm. Mmm. That's the only time she's sweet. When she's sleeping."
Yep, this is home cooking at its most unapologetic and unembarrassed best. While you're eating, The Sweet Potato Pie Lady will keep her eye on you. If you put your fork down, she just might ask you why.
"Somethin' ain't right?"
"No, it's fine."
She keeps wiping the counter, but she'll ask once more, "You sure?"
"Uh-huh." Just the way she says it, with her back turned, is just nervy enough to drive you to pick up your fork and keep piling it in, more mashed potatoes, fried chicken, greens, sweet ribs, fried okra. You'll work up a sweat trying to keep up, and you'll be glad you did.
Then she's back to being busy again. And the Sweet Potato Pie Lady moves as it pleases her because she can only do one thing at a time, one order at a time, so get over yourself and your impatience. If you're there to eat, plan on spending some time or phone your order in ahead of time.
We don't want the Sweet Potato Pie Lady to change a thing. We hope she gets lots of business so she can buy a La-Z-Boy to stick by the front door so Granny can keep up with her napping while she keeps an eye on the business as it unfolds. Because even Granny knows that the thing about soul food cooking is that it don't mean nothing if it don't have soul. And to have soul you gotta have a story, or at the very least a little bit of personality. The Sweet Potato Pie Lady has it all going on. And if you don't, then don't bother going. Those of you that do, you might want to call her first. No use crowding the place up and blowing all her circuits at once.
Wait your turn. Be polite. Don't forget the tea cakes. If she's awake, chat Granny up nice like and mind your manners. If she's sleeping, make sure you come on in quietly, and mind you don't make a draft by the door.
Sweet Potato Pie Lady. 4444 E. Grant Road, Suite 101. 323-0433. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. No liquor license. Cash. Menu items: $1-$8.50.