Downtown Soul Food table
Lucky lunch at the Downtown Soul Food Cafe in Tyler, TX,
featuring black eyed peas, pintos, turnip greens, and hot water bread.
Photo: Bill Bishop

Apprehensive about the new year?

Confidence will cost you just $4.00 and a drive to Tyler, Texas. There in an old brick building, rounded in front like the prow of a ship, Phillip Perkins and company cook like there's no tomorrow. The Downtown Soul Food Cafe is a busy lunch spot and it's open today until 5:30 — gotta be, since the restaurant's menu specializes in New Year's good fortune food: black-eyed peas and greens.

No matter what kind of genius-angel your grandmother was, Phillip's black eyed peas are better than hers. And if any food could, the turnip greens, spiked with a little of pickled pepper sauce, might put a dent in your credit card debt. (Black-eyed peas and greens, of course, are stand-ins for coins and cash, so eat hearty and flourish in 2008.)

A native of Marshall, Texas, Perkins opened the restaurant two years ago, relying on his mother Bobbie's recipes. “This food brings 'em back to the memory of their grandmother's kitchen,” he says. Meatloaf is a popular item and the specialty of brother Fred Perkins, who admittedly “couldn't cook an egg” until he came to work with Phillip. The gang's all here — catfish, chicken spaghetti, potatoes (both mashed and sweet), and right by the cash register peach cobbler and banana pudding topped with vanilla wafers and whipped cream.

Phillip Perkins corn bread

Phillip Perkins prepares to fry his hot water cornbread at the Downtown Soul Food Kitchen
Photo: Bill Bishop

“Cooking is an art,” Perkins says, taking us back to his “studio.” There he demonstrates his version of hot water cornbread, a regional specialty (find several recipes here). Phillip rolls the dough into tube shapes, then deep fries them until they're gold and chewy, especially good for dipping into a bowl of pinto beans.

Currently the restaurant is open for lunch only, though Perkins hopes to extend the hours in 2008. “I want to try to introduce breakfast, the old style sandwich with an egg and fried potatoes,” he says. But it's uncommonly ambitious to be open New Year's Day, isn't it? Guests can dine in, with historic photos of Tyler and a magenta-tinted TV set, or outside on the patio.

Downtown soul food cafe
Downtown Soul Food Cafe in Tyler, Texas Photo: Bill Bishop

Find the Downtown Soul Food Cafe at 403 N. Spring St. in Tyler (903-533-8897). Currently, hours are Monday-Friday 11-5:30, Sundays 12-5:30. This place crosses the line from comfort food to assurance food. The people of Northeast Texas are in luck all year long.

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