I was discussing our upcoming Florida vacation with my cousin as we walked into Soul Fish Café in Germantown. Should we cancel, in light of the oil spill? Wait and see? Find a nice lake instead? Pondering these questions, I spied a picture that made me long for Destin waters: A kid showing off his catch after a deep-sea fishing trip, standing in front of a docking sign for Her Majesty, a popular charter boat.
We have a collection of family photos taken over the years at the same dock, some old enough to be in black and white. I was filled with a longing for clear Gulf waters, warm white sand and brilliant sunshine.
Eh, I went with the shrimp po' boy instead.
Soul Fish, the casual and popular Cooper-Young restaurant, opened its second location at the Shops of Forest Hill in Germantown in February. It was a hit with the locals from the start and remains popular, if recent visits are an indication. There's no reason for it to be otherwise. The food quality is consistent (mostly, and I'll come back to that), reasonably priced and generously served.
The shrimp po' boy was full of plump, butterflied, battered and lightly fried shrimp, served with cocktail sauce instead of remoulade (which I liked, though it was possibly a mistake as the server told me she thought it was supposed to contain remoulade). It was impossible to eat as a sandwich, though I can't be accused of not trying. One messy attempt convinced me to pull out the knife and fork, but there's no deduction for a messy sandwich, particularly one that's delicious.
The smoked turkey po' boy, eaten on another visit, was also overstuffed but easier to manage as the turkey wasn't tumbling around like the shrimp. Served with bacon, lettuce and tomato, it was a hearty and satisfying sandwich, though the smoky taste was all but indiscernible. (The smoked half chicken, by the way, is both smoky and tender -- and very good.) But it's the Cuban you want, if you're going for sandwiches at Soul Fish. Tender pork, dressed with mustard and pickle and topped with ham and cheese, is tucked between two pieces of bread and pressed until nearly flat. The Cuban is a mighty tasty sandwich, anyway, and Soul Fish does it proud. Have it with a side order of spicy black beans, topped with chopped onion and pepper.
But Soul Fish is about the fish, right? So let's get to it. The breading on the first order of fried catfish we ordered was so salty that two of us picked at the fish and between us finished one fillet. We'd ordered the could-have-been outstanding fried dill pickles for an appetizer. The first few bites of the super-thin slices were delicious. The batter was crisp, the pickles tangy and not even a bit soggy (as fried pickles can be). But after a few, we both noted how salty they were. Perhaps the fish tasted so salty because we were already sensitive to it, but I believe that someone in the kitchen had a heavy hand with the shaker that day.
We started the next meal with cat bites, the whimsically named appetizer portion of small pieces of fried catfish. These weren't oversalted. They were covered in a crisp, slightly peppery cornmeal crust, and white and clean on the inside. Ditto on the fillets; everything was right about them except the salt level.
Let me stop for a minute and point out that the very day I ate my oversalted fish, someone posted on Whining & Dining that the fish at Soul Fish is usually undersalted. I generally don't report on anyone's experience but my own when I'm reviewing a restaurant, and point this out only to show that seasoning is both subjective and changeable.
The vegetables at Soul Fish are all made in-house with the exception of the French fries and the green tomato salad. The former are reasonably good -- on the thick side but cooked until they're a bit crisp. The latter is a delight, roughly diced pieces of green tomato in a tangy and slightly sweet vinegar dressing. Cole slaw is also good, a fine dice of cabbage full of sliced green onions in a light creamy dressing with a touch of sweetness. I wasn't taken with the Cajun cabbage, which was cooked with smoked sausage and was sweet, while I expected spicy.
Save a little room for desserts when you go to Soul Fish. They're all made by a "woman in Mississippi" and I'm sure glad she's there instead of say, next door to me. My aunt's carrot cake is the best around, but I'd definitely give this one a second-place ribbon. It's moist but not wet (the secret, they say, is that you have to grate your carrots on a box grater, not in the food processor, or they'll make your cake too wet), full of nuts, coconut and the right balance of warm spice that make a good carrot cake. If it's cake you crave, go with carrot.
If you want a piece of pie, you won't go wrong with the caramel pecan. This is mostly an excellent example of a pecan pie, but with one slight twist. The top has a very thin layer of caramelization, which I suppose lends the pie its name. It's not chewy, but more of a thin crust, and it is sinfully good.
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Soul Fish Café
Address: 3160 Village Shops Drive.
Telephone: (901) 755-6988
Hours: Open 11 a.m-10 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. on Sunday.
Reviewer's choices: Cat bites ($7.25) and fried dill pickle appetizers ($4.95, and ask that the kitchen use the salt sparingly); smoked chicken ($9.95); po' boy sandwiches ($8.50 or $9); and the fried catfish with a caveat about oversalting ($10.25 or $12.25 with sides).
Alcohol: Wine and beer.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars