Restaurant Review

Soul food spot keeps its recipes secret but not its flavors

CorrespondentJune 21, 2012 

  • More information EJ’s Soul Food 140 E. Chatham St., Cary 919-481-94411 www.ejsoulfood.com Cuisine: Southern Rating: *** Prices: $ Atmosphere: Spartan but cheery Noise level: low to moderate Service: friendly Recommended: crab cakes, fried pork chop, fried okra, mac-and-cheese, pinto beans Open: Tuesday-Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 12-9 p.m., Sunday 12-5 p.m. Reservations: accepted Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; limited vegetarian selection; parking on street in lot behind the building. The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair. The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

The eponymous owner of EJ’s Soul Food will readily tell you that the J stands for Jones. But she’s coy about the E. She never cared for her first name, and has for most of her adult life gone by EJ.

Until a few months ago, that life was lived in Maryland. Born in Baltimore, EJ learned to cook at an early age. “I was raised by my grandma,” she says, “who cooked everything from scratch. I was the oldest of eight children, so you know who spent the most time in the kitchen with her.”

EJ continued to cook the way her grandmother taught her over the next several decades for her family. She catered a bit out of her home, too, but much of her energy was devoted to the private school and day care center she and her husband, Daniel, owned in Montgomery County, Maryland.

The couple retired to the Triangle last December. “Retirement lasted about a week and a half,” says EJ, who now refers to her status as “retiring” (though the word by no means describes her personality). “I wanted to keep busy, and a little restaurant where I could serve the food I’ve been cooking all my life just seemed natural.”

The energetic entrepreneur lost no time in bringing her plan to fruition. She opened EJ’s Soul Food in March in downtown Cary. Daniel Jones (who has been EJ’s partner in life and business for so long that he goes by DJ) helps in the kitchen, while their daughter Stacie manages the dining room.

EJ is justifiably proud of her Maryland-style crab cakes and will point out that they contain no filler. Granted, the crabmeat is back fin and not the pricier jumbo lump that you’ll find in upscale restaurants. But EJ’s crab cakes are well worth the $11.95 tab for an entree order, which delivers two ample spheres of Old Bay-seasoned crabmeat encased in crisp, golden brown breading.

That price includes, as it does with all entrees, your choice of bread (skip the biscuit, which tends to be dense, and go for the cornbread) and two sides. Fried okra, lightly dusted in cornmeal, is a must. Cheesy, gooey mac-and-cheese is another winning option, as are classic slow-cooked string beans and, when they’re available, scratch-cooked pinto beans.

EJ breaks from Southern tradition in opting not to use pork as a seasoning in her vegetable sides, though you’d hardly notice its absence in their down-home flavor. She does admit to using a touch of sugar in the collard greens, crediting one of her cooks for the recipe. “We went toe-to-toe with our collards, and hers won,” she explains.

For the most part, though, EJ is as tight-lipped about her recipes as she is about her first name. Ask her how she gets that sandy-crisp exterior on the best-selling fried pork chop, and she’ll tell you, “I don’t use breading or batter, but I’m not saying anything more.”

Same goes for her fried chicken, which evidently owes its crispness to nothing more than a well-seasoned skin. The result is a bit greasier than some, but the flesh underneath is moist and flavorful - even if you order white meat, which here translates to breast and wing in a single piece.

How does EJ’s meat loaf get that toothsome texture and rich, beefy flavor? “I don’t use any filler,” is all the explanation you’ll get.

Rounding out the entree list are soul food classics barbecued pork spare ribs, liver and gravy, and chitterlings. Fried fish (typically cod, whiting or the under-appreciated croaker) is also usually available. The seafood platter pairs the fish of the day with fried shrimp or oysters and one of those signature crab cakes.

Portions are without exception generous, and prices are a bargain. Those with lighter appetites can score a sandwich (pork chop, chicken or fish) for a downright steal at $3.99.

The sweet potato pie I was craving last time I ate at EJ’s wasn’t available, but banana pudding provided ample consolation. Other sweet-tooth temptations include apple pie and a homespun chocolate cake.

Service is as friendly and casual as you’d expect in a family-run restaurant, though EJ’s does have its quirks. There’s a charge for soda refills (but not for iced tea), and the kitchen closes 45 minutes before the posted closing time – which, true to Southern diner tradition, is earlier than in most restaurants.

Decor is cheery but Spartan, with makeshift card tables and chairs in the dining room and service on Styrofoam plates reflecting the restaurant’s shoestring startup budget. “I’m hoping to fix up the place if we get enough customers coming in,” EJ says.

In the meantime, a few quirks and a modest decor shouldn’t deter those customers from a warm welcome and an honest home-cooked meal.

Come to think of it, I’m content just thinking that the E in EJ’s Soul Food stands for “easy to like.”

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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