"Hi, y'all! Come on in!" We hear the friendly voice, see the steam rising from the tempting array of down-home cooking, quickly take in the row of sweet potato pie slices and hunks of bread pudding on the countertop. And then we see LaDonia's smiling face as she beckons us to walk over and take a look.
The scent of the food has already drawn us in, but the kindly approach makes us want to stay.
"What'chall want? We got neckbone today and fried chicken and smothered porkchop with gravy!"
OK, you got my attention. The fresh summer squash with onions, the intense red of the tomatoes with okra and the biggest corn muffins I've ever seen do the rest of the work.
You may balk at the idea of smoked pork neckbone, but when it's done right — slow-cooked for a loooong time, tender, seasoned wisely, as it is here — it's a glorious thing. With one gentle tug the meat pulls right off the bone. And don't forget to suck all those little tasty bits from between the joints.
You may need an extra napkin or two, but you won't forget the flavor and the place that serves it up right. If you have been timid about such meats as neckbone, pig's feet or oxtail, then this little soul food joint is where you need to let your inhibitions free.
It's just a little neighborhood joint with black and white checked linoleum, a big fan in the window, and a long counter with a table or two.
There are grandkid's photos up on the wall behind the register and a couple of awards from grandpa's church for years of service—even a picture of a kitty that one of the grandbabies has made for grandma — and yes, an American flag hanging near the steam table.
Neighborhood Soul Food is that kind of place. Grandma is Ida Gadsen and Grandpa is her husband Willy, at the counter having his lunch, and they know 'bout everybody that comes in, by name.
Orders get served up quick, prices are reasonable, and your plate gets filled up fine with Willy's recipes: fresh vegetables like cabbage, squash, black-eyed peas and really tasty okra 'n' tomatoes are just a few choices.
You get three sides with your meat, and if you wanna throw in a chicken leg, I'd suggest that ($1.50). While I'm partial to a tender, delicately chewy pig's foot or the sweet, juicy meat of oxtail in gravy, well, I just couldn't let the chicken go untasted—it was seasoned well, moist and deliciously crispy, not over-breaded or greasy.
The corn muffin you get with your meal is huge — not some sweet lil' thing in a paper muffin cup — a perfect accompaniment to your meal (don't forget to sop up that gravy!).
When I comment on the size to Ida, she smiles and tells me, "We believe in giving people their money's worth around here."
I heartily concur.
Willy Gadsen has 60 years of food service behind him, and the two of them spent many years cooking up the good stuff for their church, United House of Prayer. Willy retired in 2002, and, I'd imagine, found that staying home was just too dull.
Health problems took him out of the day-to-day routine for a while, so Ida began to come in each morning and supervise — who knows her hubby's recipes better than she does?
After a pretty miraculous recovery that Ida doesn't hesitate to attribute to God's help, you can find them both here most days, greeting customers, wiping the counter, ringing up the tickets and serving some of the best soul food in this city.
Ida Gadsen is also known for her incredible sweet potato pie, velvety banana pudding, peach cobbler and, of course, that Southern favorite: Red Velvet Cake. It is a thing of beauty, with the pure white snowdrift of icing and maroon red interior. You can get it by the slice or order up a whole cake or pie.
The bread pudding is one of my favorites: a big, moist hunk of old-fashioned goodness, with raisins and a slightly sticky sweet top, it makes a wonderful treat with a cuppa joe in the evenings. Like the sweet potato pie, it's great warm or cold, and only rises to the level of the divine when topped off with real whipped cream.
Neighborhood Soul Food also serves up breakfast each morning at 6 a.m., with specials like smother-fried shrimp with gravy, beef sausage, fried fish, salmon patties and thick-cut bacon.
Open every day except Sunday, from 6 a.m.-6 p.m., and they take debit/credit cards as well as cash. Specials change each day, so call and ask what's on the menu.