"It stands for love, mankind and Earth," says 27-year-old Benjamin, who opened the restaurant in November. "Sweet" evokes the idea of kindness and love, "Pie" symbolizes the Earth. And "Potatoe" -- with the "e" added to spell "toe" at the end -- represents man.
A gutsy addition, too, considering that the cafe is hardly large enough to squeeze in any extra letters. Essentially a lunch counter, Sweet Potatoe Pie might seat eight on a quiet night, and that's with folks getting friendly.
Luckily, Benjamin has created a cozy -- if slightly cramped -- space on Glenwood, occupying the back half of a building better known for its two hair salons in front. What it lacks in square footage, it makes up for in hospitality and flavorful food. With bright yellow walls, lime green trim and liberal use of multicolored murals, the cafe feels more like a daycare than a dinner destination.
On a recent Friday night, the cafe's daycare feel was reinforced by the half dozen kids camped out at its counter -- children of salon clients waiting for mom's perm to set. Despite the crowd, my friend and I claimed a spot at the counter, giving us a partial view of the kitchen and clear sight of the curiously placed television.
The menu puts a healthy spin on the traditional meat-and-two routine, with a sides list that reads like a roundup of your mama's favorites (collard greens, green beans, cream corn, potato salad). There's no red meat in sight and, according to Benjamin, all the vegetables are cooked apart from the meat dishes and prepared with only natural herbs and spices - you'll find no ham bone in these green beans, but you won't miss it.
The list of $7 entrees includes boneless fried chicken breast, grilled rainbow trout or tofu, each with two sides, bread and a beverage. The boneless chicken shows up again as a sandwich combo ($5, with fries and a drink), with other sandwich options being chicken salad, fish, grilled turkey or a veggie burger.
The cafe scored early marks by passing my Sweet Tea Test -- any place peddling so-called "Southern" fare better have tasty, homemade sweet tea to back it up.
We started our meal with the veggie spring rolls, which arrived hot and greasy and in three uneven sizes. Irregular construction aside, the little oily logs were tasty starters, stuffed with tofu, carrot, garlic, cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms and peppers.
I opted for the night's special salmon croquettes (recommended as a sandwich, but I wanted patties). The croquettes were spicier than expected, flavored with one of Benjamin's secret flavorings, but still a treat. Some overcooked corn and boring, almost tasteless lump of mac and cheese ("As if there's any other kind," my friend said) made my meal not quite the soul food symphony I'd hoped for, sending me to sample shamelessly from my companion's plate.
Luckily, his dinner was faultless. The tender chicken breast -- marinated overnight in another secret sauce Benjamin refuses to discuss -- made any previous discomfort over our cramped quarters or caterwauling neighbors disappear.
In fact, simple dishes like this make Sweet Potatoe Pie Cafe a lure for repeat business. Though not in pie form, the side of cubed sweet potatoes was absolutely worth reordering. They weren't syrupy or decadent, but had just a hint of tart sweetness. Equally impressive was the pancake-style cornbread. With a melt-in-your-mouth fluffiness and heavy dose of salt, it's some of the best I've ever had outside of mom's kitchen.
Due to its limited seating area and propensity for warm bodies who are not about to leave, Sweet Potatoe Pie Cafe is probably best suited as a destination for lunchtime or dinner takeout. Warmer weather will help the seating situation due to the addition of outdoor tables and even a dog-resting area, Benjamin says. She also plans to unveil a springtime menu this month, adding tuna, turkey and more salad dishes to existing offerings. Some prices will go up, but everything on the menu will remain below $8. And, of course, the extra "e" will still be free of charge.
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