310 Valley Hi Dr., Ste. 305
(210) 675-6262 (675-MAMA)
6060 Montgomery Dr., Ste. 101
THE SKINNY: “Easy does it” makes for surprising quality all around.
BEST BETS: Catfish, fried chicken, collard greens, meatloaf
HOURS: Valley Hi: 11am-2pm and 4pm-7pm Mon-Fri, 12-3pm Sun. Montgomery: 11am-7pm Sat, Noon-4pm Sun
PRICES: One meat and two sides: $7.95
Two meats and two sides: $9.95
Mama Lee’s Soul Food is justly known for its fried chicken. Crispy and moist, some consider it the best in the city, and it very well may be. On a recent visit, the chicken lived up to the word of mouth. This we knew going in: There had to be something else on the menu worth talking about.
Décor shouldn’t figure into it. When you’re so close to Lackland AFB, you don’t need to dress up the place to look like homestyle champ Aunt Kizzie’s Back Porch in Marina Del Rey. Our servicemembers aren’t bothered by spare walls, so we get them here. A sense of cleanliness is more than enough if you’re looking for excitement on the plate.
The catfish delivers, which came as a big surprise. Tremendously tender, the breading on the catfish is something that stopped my date — one the harsher reviewers of Southern food I’ve encountered — in her tracks. She was about to order the requisite tartar sauce and lemon for seasoning. So many restaurants overfry their catfish that it’s a reflexive impulse, but one taste of Mama Lee’s seasoned breading was enough to change our approach. If this seasoning were available in stores, it’d never stay on the shelf.
Similarly, as anyone who has prepared them will affirm, it is amazingly easy to overcook collard greens and okra to a slimy consistency. In fact, so many restaurants do that some people think that’s how they’re supposed to taste. No wonder more people don’t like collard greens. Mama Lee’s changes that — their greens were perfectly cooked, if a bit under-seasoned. And not only was the okra firm, but the sausage and spices are patient enough to sneak up on you instead of immediately slapping you on the tongue.
If you choose the meatloaf you’ll find a well-seasoned dish, but if you want to push it to the next level, order it with the smothered pork chop and dip the tomato-sauce-covered loaf in the gravy by the mouthful. It augments both dishes in an unexpected way.
Another tip: If you want the meatloaf, order it early. While we were able to snag a plate, they were out by 12:15 p.m. I caught a few patrons looking sadly at our plates.
As for the sides, the cornbread muffins exemplify the difference between bland and subtle, and are consequently so popular that the restaurant asks you to pay extra for your second one (an astonishing 50-cents extra). The mac and cheese is strictly soul-food style: no fancy Food Network sauce, no smoky change-ups, no flecks of basil. And it’s not overcooked. In fact, everything about Mama Lee’s says “not overdone,” a rarity in restaurants several times the price. Everything seems to be prepared with ease.
Just remember that family restaurants aren’t where you turn for corporate-styled consistency. On the day we visited, the mashed potatoes were watery and thin, which is easy to write off as an aberration. They’d gotten so many tough things right that they couldn’t possibly get something so simple wrong on a regular basis. It’s something we expected they’d have corrected by the evening shift.
Peedy Harris and Ken Lee, two childhood friends from Beaumont (remember those walls? Yep. Retired Air Force, both of ’em.), started the restaurant to rave reviews a few years ago [See “Fried Pork Chops for the Soul,” October 15, 2008]. As Harris assures us, Lee was always the cook, and Harris the business mastermind. Since opening, the restaurant has not only thrived, but also opened a second location near I-35 and Walzem.
For all our gastronomic joy, we were in the “businessman’s” establishment on Valley Hi. Imagine what the one run by the “real” cook is like.
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