Southern Fires offers 15 entrees and several side dishes that can be combined to create an entire meal. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)
A concise menu, zeroing in on the skills of the kitchen staff, is the hallmark of a successful restaurant, whether it's a neighborhood diner, a flashy steakhouse, or in this case, a soul food spot.
Proprietor John Thompson of Southern Fires prefers to call his style Southern home cooking. It is pure comfort food, typified by mac and cheese, pork chops and fried chicken, and he has it down pat. After all, he has been serving it in Detroit for nearly 17 years.
The first seven years were at a restaurant called Franklin East in what was then known as the Warehouse District. Since November of 2001, he's been serving said comfort food in the big building on Bellevue Street just off East Jefferson he rescued from the wrecker's ball and christened Southern Fires (not "fries" as some have mistakenly called it).
When he spotted the former manufacturing plant, it was in precarious condition, an abandoned, crumbling derelict with broken windows and dim prospects.
Thompson and his family were among the few who saw the possibilities in the five-story building. It took them a year and a half to reclaim it, doing much of the work themselves.
Now it is an enduring reminder of what imagination and hard work can do, virtually a landmark on the east side of Detroit even though it is on a side street rather than a main thoroughfare. (You can glimpse the colorfully painted building from East Jefferson.) Southern Fires offers one large dining room broken up with wooden room dividers that also serve as booth backs. The arrangement keeps the dimensions from seeming barnlike. Big windows let in natural light and there are small television screens scattered around the room giving just about every table the opportunity to catch the news of the day.
Choosing a dish here doesn't involve scanning a list that goes on and on. There are just 15 entrees, starting with smothered steak, a 12-ounce charbroiled T-bone heaped with fragrant sauteed onions and brown gravy. At $14.95, it is the top-priced item, and one of the most popular.
Another winning dish and one that's as obligatory to the genre as fried chicken is the cornmeal-coated catfish.
The filets are quickly fried so that there is no grease on the golden brown crust. The dish comes in two sizes, as do perch fillets prepared the same way. You also may have the fish broiled, but frying is the Southern way.
With these entrees, as well as the others, including baby back ribs, rib tips and country fried steak, comes a choice of two sides and cornbread.
Soul food sides can make an entire meal, and in fact, four of them may be chosen, along with cornbread, to make a vegetable plate at $9.95. Notable among the sides are the sweet potatoes, tart collard greens — which do require a dash of the hot sauce that is brought to every table — and the excellent mac and cheese, not the creamy kind, but a drier, sturdier variety.
Desserts follow the theme, with peach and apple cobbler, strawberry shortcake made with pound cake and vanilla ice cream and, of course, sweet potato pie.
This is simple, satisfying fare, and the patrons of this big restaurant represent a melting pot of backgrounds, much like the food itself.