Is it possible to declare a food trend in the hopes of encouraging one? Restaurateurs, take note: Southern food is on the upswing. Early in December, Purple Plum opened in Oakland's Glenview neighborhood, calling itself a "California Soul Kitchen." Not long after, Café Zula arrives in San Leandro, serving "savory Southern cuisine from the heart of the South." The two restaurants demonstrate to East Bay diners that soul/Southern food belongs on white tablecloths as well as on kitchen tables and linoleum countertops.
After twenty years of part-time catering, Oakland native Leonard Casanares Jr. decided to leave his full-time job in telecommunications to open up Café Zula, which is named after his grandmother. Unlike Purple Plum, which has revamped Southern home cooking according to California rules by lightening and adding Mediterranean notes, Casanares stays true to the tradition. What that means is big, meaty flavors, Georgia-sized portions, overcooked vegetables, and nonstop hospitality. The hosts and servers are as determined as the cooks to make Café Zula a successful neighborhood restaurant. Though formally attired, they take a warm, joking tone with patrons.
The restaurant feels intimate even when jam-packed. The kitchen occupies two-thirds of the width of the back half, so if you're lucky, you can hide out along the one-table-wide corridor that flanks it. Floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains separate the back tables, lending an air of discretion. Larger parties will have to sit in the more open front half, surrounded by cream walls edged in bright copper and paintings by Anthony Scott (the portrait is of Casanares' grandmother), Cedric Smith, and William Tolliver. Vases on the tables hold painted, shellacked stems of cotton.
A half-wall topped by frosted, etched glass forms a shield between the street and the dining room. On a busy night, people waiting for tables sit against the window's street side, so you're greeted by a tightly packed row of black leather jackets, more effective an advertisement than a menu.
A group of my friends and I encountered the wall of jackets when we dropped in one weekend night, figuring since the restaurant had just opened that we could find a table easily. An hour later, we were shown to it. We quickly ordered appetizers and emptied the basket of miniature cornbread muffins that our server brought.
Each of the starters came with its own silver drawn-butter cup. Ranch dressing accompanied the fried zucchini spears enrobed in a translucent, brittle tempura-style coating. We dipped tender, crispy popcorn shrimp, covered in a breadcrumb coating that didn't differ substantially from Mrs. Paul's recipe, in a bright, cayenne-hot remoulade sauce. A roasted red pepper mayonnaise was spooned over two crab cakes, hearty but packed too densely. Balsamic vinaigrette sparked a lively interplay of sweet and tart on the substantial mixed greens salad with an uber-Californian mélange of fuji apple slices, crumbled gorgonzola, and caramelized pecans.
Entrées range from pan-fried catfish to fried chicken to steak with brandy-peppercorn sauce. Seafood gumbo is featured on Fridays and Saturdays, and chitterlings (long-braised pork intestines) are offered Saturdays and Sundays. "They smell awful when they're cooking," said our waitress, "but I grew up with them, so I think they're great."
The generosity extends to the portions. Each entrée arrived on platters normally reserved for Thanksgiving turkey. A garlic-herb "roasted" half-chicken had been braised rather than roasted, and shreds of moist meat, infused to the bone with allium, pulled away with a fork. Roasting had forced most of the cornbread stuffing out of the stuffed pork chop. The cooks had roasted the chop to the point at which people think it should be cooked (medium-well) rather than how it ought to be cooked (a juicy medium), but its meat had good flavor. Crab legs poked out of the aquarium-sized bowl of seafood gumbo with sausage, chicken, potatoes, and tomatoes, dark and deeply spicy.
All entrées come with three sides, chosen from a list of ten or so. I felt the lack of the Californian influence in the candied yams, hyperbolically sugary, and the slices of mushy carrot stewed in a caramel-like barbecue sauce. Lightly sautéed corn crunched sweetly in the mouth, however, and black-eyed peas tasted of mineral and earth. The emerald color of the greens -- mustard greens most evenings -- had deepened into green-gray, but a splash of vinegar masked their bitterness and gave them a needed edge. Mashed potatoes, soft and light, could be eaten alone or piped into a baked potato shell and sent back into the oven with a sprinkle of cheddar.
Desserts also came straight from the canon -- apple pie, ice cream, and, of course, sweet potato pie. The bright orange, mousse-like filling had little spice and no brown sugar, so it tasted like a bowl of whipped sweet potatoes held together by a flaky crust. A tangy bourbon butter sauce surrounded a square of bread pudding that was crusty on top but moist within and studded with swollen raisins.
Wary of crowds, I returned for weekday lunch a couple weeks later. Some of the dishes stayed on the lunchtime menu, at lower prices, and a number of sandwiches were added. On Sundays, Café Zula serves its dinner menu to the after-church crowd from noon to nine.
I spied two bits of clams in my clam chowder (the soup of the day), but they were well outnumbered by the stewed tomatoes that tinted the creamy, savory soup orange. Though the soup had been properly seasoned, the tomatoes' tart, fruity note drowned out its faint whisper of the sea. Spinach salad was sprinkled with gorgonzola, caramelized pecans, and a warm bacon vinaigrette, slightly sweet and meaty with drippings. Like the other salads, it could be ordered in two sizes, both larger than life.
When our entrées arrived on dainty ten-inch oval platters, I sighed with relief. I still couldn't finish my plate, but we left with only one Styrofoam container instead of two. My roommate ordered the quarter-fried chicken. True to form, he was given at least a third of a bird. The crispy, herb-dusted skin flaked away from the flavorful meat, but the chicken was accompanied by several scoops of macaroni and cheese that had dried out in the oven and a pile of broccoli and green beans boiled too long. My platter was piled high with crusty steak fries heaped over a long shrimp poor-boy. A soft white French roll, more authentically New Orleans than French, was spread with Zula's zesty remoulade. It seasoned a school of jumbo prawns, dredged in cornmeal and deep-fried, as well as iceberg lettuce and tomato.
As we ate, the room slowly filled with late lunchers. The crowds testify not only to Café Zula's charms, but to another food trend I hope is picking up steam: Soon I'll stop hearing folks complain there are no good restaurants in San Leandro.
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