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Cheap Eats

Soul food served with a lot of heart

Email|Print| Text size + By Devra First
October 12, 2006

You might think hot sauce is just hot sauce, but people can be picky about their condiments. One person might favor a cayenne variety, another one made from habaneros. On the off chance that a connoisseur should turn up, Coast Cafe provides enough kinds to line the counter that runs along one side of the restaurant.

In fact, Coast Cafe provides customers with many more bottles of hot sauce than it does chairs. There are only three stools, because the place is tiny. But it also has a big, generous heart; thus, the plethora of sauce options. The people who run Coast Cafe want you to have exactly what you want, within easy reach.

You can tell this, also, by looking up. Blackboards and signs spell out what is on offer, and it's an offer few could refuse: fried chicken, mac and cheese, meatloaf, ribs, collards, candied yams, and much more. In addition to heart, Coast Cafe has plenty of soul food.

And plenty of regulars who come in and take out. Not much actual eating occurs here, but there's a lot of talking while people wait. It can take 20 minutes to get your food, because the fried stuff is cooked to order. Just about everything is homemade, down to the baked goods. This isn't fast food; it's the kind of slow food that makes waiting a pleasure.

"So what's up, T?" a patron asks one of the men behind the counter in the efficiently snug kitchen. Another man comes in; he and a cook are soon talking about the customer's kids, one in Iraq, one working. "Did you call my sister yet?" the cook asks him. Excuse me, did I take a wrong turn? I thought I was in Cambridge, but the people here are so friendly.

The cooking, too, is a detour. There's catfish, for example, not your standard New England fare. A plate ($11.50) comes with a succulent fillet fried just right, served with two sides. The sweet, caramelized plantains and rice and beans we choose are delicious, but what lifts the dish a cut above is something we don't even usually like: the tartar sauce. It's lemony yellow, thick, tangy, and rich.

But the main reason to keep coming back to Coast Cafe is the fried chicken. On our first visit, the meat in a fried breast plate ($9.25) is a tad on the dry side, the skin veering toward burned. Even so, it's better than most fried chicken you find in these parts. But the next time we try it, in a fried thigh plate ($9.25) and a fried breast sandwich ($5.75), it's perfect. The batter is crunchy and well seasoned, the meat juicy. Dark meat might be the better way to go here.

And then there are the sides ($2.25 each for an 8-ounce serving). Macaroni and cheese is dense and very good, if not the best version ever. Black-eyed peas are cooked to the perfectly melting texture. Collards, made with smoked turkey, win over someone who previously thought he didn't even like collards. Jag -- rice with lima beans -- sounds boring but turns out to be delicious. And candied yams, while insanely sweet, are rich and deeply flavored. If you didn't want chicken, you could happily eat sides alone.

But then you'd be missing out on Grandma's mean meatloaf plate ($9), doused in gravy; you can choose your sides again here, but we don't see how you could pass up the buttery heaps of mashed potatoes. Barbecued beef ribs ($12) are toothsome and tender as can be.

Whatever you order, you'll wind up groaningly full, licking your fingers. "Yummy," says one person at our table. "That food makes me happy," says another.

For dessert, a slice of sweet potato pie ($2.75) is required. It's not the usual version, but lighter and quite elegant. If you order two days in advance, you can get a whole one for $14.

On the walls at Coast Cafe are framed newspaper clippings about the doo-wop band the Sophomores. The lead singer, it turns out, was the father of Coast Cafe's owner. As for his mother, she's the woman who arrives in a spiffy suit, walks into the kitchen, and dons a hairnet so she can help. Even as the restaurant is about to close, people keep arriving, hoping for fried chicken and heaping servings of soul.

A sign on the wall says "God bless this business. May it flourish and feed the multitudes." Looks like that's working out for them.

COAST CAFE

Cuisine: Soul Food

Address: 233 River St., Cambridge

Phone: 617-617-7644

Hours: Tues-Wed 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Thurs-Sat 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sun-Mon.

Prices: $1.50-$12.

May We Suggest: Fried thigh plate, fried catfish plate, Grandma's mean meatloaf plate, mac and cheese, black-eyed peas, collard greens, sweet potato pie.

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