Sunday, June 24, 2012

Friday Night Bites: Soul Food at the Elks Lodge

Looking for something to do this weekend? Friday Night Bites has you covered.

A couple Sundays ago while munching on a sweet cream biscuit from Zingerman's Bakehouse, I was going through the never-ending pile of mail at our house and decided to flip through the Ann Arbor Observer. I came across an article about a night of soul food and jazz at the James L. Crawford Elk Lodge on the northside of town. Fried chicken, catfish, smoked ribs, po' boys, awesome patio, live jazz - how had I not heard of this place? There were a few moments where I was convinced that I was reading a travel article about some place in Nashville to put on my bucket list or an Ann Arbor institution that is no longer around. I needed to investigate further.

a picture I took or one I dug up from the Bentley Historical Library?

The Elks Lodge barely exists online - its Yelp page only has a couple reviews and they all seem to be hipsters talking about dance parties in the basement rec room. I was confused - soul food, live jazz, dance parties, skinny jeans, hipsters arguing if this place is over or not? Finally, I came across an Ann article that clarified the situation - from time to time, the Elks Lodge has opened up its rec room and hosted parties with local DJs. Turns out the Elks (or Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World) is a historically black charitable organization with a diverse membership and, now, an awesome kitchen that is open to the public Thursday through Saturday nights.

Set off of Main Street to the north of downtown and tucked into the northern part of the westside neighborhood, the Elks Pratt Lodge feels a world away from Main St. Ann Arbor. With its huge patio and expansive front yard, it would not be out of place if it were sitting atop a perch overlooking the Mississippi in Memphis.

From the second you pull up the hill into the parking lot, you realize you are in for a different type of dining experience. There is no hostess, no servers, no waiters. There is a small kitchen with a couple chefs cooking up soul food - you're in someone's house and they're having you over for dinner. Not sure exactly what to do, I sort of hung out by the kitchen window before one of the guys there handed me the menu, told me to grab a seat, and someone would be around to get our order. While we waited, I ventured around to the back of the house where I had heard there was a bar downstairs. Do not be scared away by the sign that says only members are permitted inside - head down the stairs and sign-in at the guestbook and head to the bar. The basement bar is straight out of what I imagine the 50s and 60s were like. I'm not going to spend too much time on it because I can't do it justice, you'll just have to go check it out yourself.

I returned with a couple of $2 PBRs - no craft beer or ginger beer/basil-infused/housemade bitters inventive cocktails here, just straightforward mixed drinks, cheap beer, and presumably cheap wine (I saw a box of Franzia behind the bar). No complaints from me though -with a menu of pit-smoked spare ribs, buttermilk fried chicken, and southern fried catfish, an ice cold PBR hits the right spot.

Point of order here: the kitchen operates as a separate entity from the bar - both are cash only. The kitchen is a creation of a couple of chefs that have bounced around a couple of AA spots like Eve, Frita Batidos and The Gandy Dancer. Don't let any pre-conceived notions about any of those places get in the way of heading to the Elks Lodge as soon as possible. I confirmed with the chef running the kitchen at the time that everything was made from scratch (except the french fries, which you have no business ordering anyway). With a small kitchen and everything cooked to order, there will be a wait for your food - ours took about 45 minutes. Just know that going in and prepare for it - head downstairs and enjoy some live jazz or grab some drinks and hang out on the patio upstairs and enjoy the smells while you wait. It will be worth it.

Yes, that is one of the best pieces of fried chicken I've ever had in case you were wondering.

There's no way around it, the buttermilk fried chicken is outstanding. Perfectly crispy and crunchy and somehow not overly greasy. The cornbread topped with honey butter was an excellent accompaniment, the muffin was light and cakey and the honey butter was insanely addicting. The mac'n'cheese got a quick trip under the broiler prior to being served that gave the top layer of cheese just the right amount of crispy texture - too often do barbecue or soul food places try to take the easy way out and serve a soupy stove-top version of mac'n'cheese that doesn't have the crispy cheesy top. The roasted beets were there so I could say I was being healthy.

For round 2, we went with the crispy catfish and black-eyed peas. The catfish seemed to be dipped in light cornmeal batter, not the straight dredge in cornmeal & flour that I think of when I think of fried catfish - but that's just a matter of preference. The catfish was excellent as well, the batter was thin and crispy and the thin catfish filets inside were soft and flakey. The black-eyed peas were solid, but seemed to be hit with a lot of cumin, which is just one of those spices for me where if there is a decent amount of it, it's all I can taste.

The only letdown of the night was that I did not get a chance to try the made-to-order chocolate chip walnut cookies. The pro-tip is to order the cookies when you place your food order, so they will be ready to come out warm and gooey when you finish eating.

As I left the Elks Lodge, the only thing I could think of was - how can I join?

Elks Neighborhood Kitchen
220 Sunset Rd.
Ann Arbor, MI
Thursday-Saturday ~6pm to ~10pm

Elks of Ann Arbor


  1. cornmeal & flower?

    1. oops, good catch! That's why we don't rely on spellcheck, kids.