A Little Bit of Soul

Along the retail gallery of 79th Street there is a newly opened refuge from the buzz of consumerism and construction workers. Luversia’s Soul Food Restaurant offers an array of Southern classics without the need for fanciful fixings. In true Southern tradition, the proof is in the pudding–or in this case, the cabbage.

I visited Luversia’s with a friend on a quiet Sunday morning, in the eerie time when most everybody is confined to church. A neon-lit “OPEN” sign flashed entry for an empty Luversia’s and a hanging storefront sign read: “Luversia’s Family Restaurant: A place you can call home.” After a few knocks, Anthony Cherry, co-owner and chef, decked in a chef’s double breasted white jacket and slack hat, opened the door.

Manned by Anthony and his brother Michael, Luversia’s is named after their late mother, Luversia Faye-Cherry, who died in 2007. Though the restaurant is scarcely a month old, it has big shoes to fill: Izola’s served up classic soul food for seventy-one years in the same storefront. It was where Chathamites could meet for a bite late into the night. On the weekends, it operated around the clock.

When Izola White, their aunt, left the diner business in 2011 after what she attributes to mismanagement during her extended hospital stay, the brothers decided to take over the space and contribute their own slice of culinary tradition to the community. “A lot of people met us with high expectations,” says Deaje Martin, operations manager at Luversia’s. “Izola was a pillar to the community, and I’m pleased to say so far, so good…a lot of past patrons and aldermen have come by.”

“The only complaint we’ve gotten is that we aren’t open late enough,” Martin adds.

The narrow interior was a blast of diner decor. A bar and barstools took up half of the seating, while retro booths lined the other side of the restaurant. The kitchen occupied the back, visible through the thin crevices where prepared food would be served up. “Django Unchained” played on a suspended flat-screen TV. An artifact from Izola’s hangs on the wall, a framed poster reading: “If your wife is a bum cook, don’t get an attitude. Eat at Izola’s.”

The three-page menu contained fewer items than most, though it was still filled with staples like fried chicken and pork chops, as well as classic country side dishes, such as macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and okra. My friend ordered the Chicken and Waffles, substituted with pancakes due a broken waffle maker, and I ordered Izola’s Ole-Skool Burger, a tribute to the restaurant’s ancestor.

“Do you have cabbage?” I asked, referring to a dish that has already gained fame across the South Side. Cherry smiled and nodded in full agreement.

After some time watching the plot progress in “Django Unchained,” we were served. The fried chicken wings, five large, browned hunks, sat next to a portion of roughly scrambled eggs and a plate of golden pancakes. The Izola’s Ole-Skool Burger arrived open-faced on mahogany toasted buns with melted American cheese atop a wedge of ground beef, covered with winding strips of thin bacon. Hulking yellow steak fries were piled on the side. The cabbage came steeped in what seemed like a pork broth; a large chunk of ham stood like a monolith in the middle of the bowl.

What I expected and what I tasted were two different things. It doesn’t take a gastronomist to tease out the flavors of core ingredients. It does, however, take a skillful hand to imbue dishes with the comfort of a home-cooked meal outside of the home.

The fried chicken, my friend reported, was phenomenal. “I could taste the chicken’s dying squawks in the batter–all I want is more.” The burger, seemingly a classic take on the bacon and cheese sandwich, was able to highlight every ingredient in one bite. The onions, lettuce, and tomatoes tasted of concentrated freshness as the creamy cheese accentuated the savory beef. The slight hint of the sour dairy prepped for the strenuous meat flavor of the patty so that everything orbited in balance. The salted smoke of the bacon landed a final punch on the taste buds.

The care with which the cabbage was cooked was evident before it even entered my mouth. The broth smelled sweetly of steeped cabbage, and the pork emanated an aura of fattiness. The boiled cabbage retained a bite, and the pork fell apart with even a slight nudge. Cherry was able to tempt the natural sweetness of the cabbage to mingle with the soft woodiness of the ham. The balance between the two offered a contradictory understated richness. The cabbage was tastefully light–no heavy residue from the ham. I even slurped down some of the broth.

This is the beauty of Luversia’s. First impressions–and former glories–don’t apply here, because the food itself speaks enough to the South’s soulful traditions.

Luversia’s Soul Food Diner, 522 E. 79th St. (773)994-3123. Monday-Friday, 8am-8pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-11pm. facebook.com/luversiassoulfoodrestaurant