I’ve been trying to visit Shirley Mae’s Café for a while now. The fried chicken from this legendary soul food purveyor is routinely ranked as one of the top in the nation. But I’m mostly over in Louisville for work, and since Shirley Mae’s is only open Thursday-Sunday, our schedules have never quite jived for me to sample the comfort cooking from this notable establishment.
Finally I made a commitment to venture over for a Friday lunch. Located in Louisville’s historic Smoketown neighborhood, Shirley Mae’s can be found inside a clay-brick building that dates to 1880 on the corner of S. Clay & Lampton Streets.
Nestled in the heart of the oldest African-American community in Louisville, this former residence housed a grocery store beginning in 1910, before it became the J & H Food Bar in 1946. This remained one of the premier bars for minorities in Louisville, attracting celebrities and sports figures like Redd Foxx, Della Reese, Quincy Jones, Cassius Clay and Joe Louis, until its conversion to Shirley Mae’s Café in 1988.
The smell of pork ribs on the sidewalk grill may be the first thing to grab your attention. It’s fired up rain or shine to slow-cook slabs over a hickory soaked flame.
Inside is more functional than fancy. This is a down home kind of place, and has that lived in look with its mismatched tables, chairs, and booths. Cookbooks and magazines sit behind the bar, with framed photographs of famous guests like Morgan Freeman and Whoopi Goldberg hanging above, while University of Louisville memorabilia is tucked about throughout.
It’s no museum but does reflect the passage of time and has a history to it. It has a soul. Don’t worry about pretense, none is required. This simply is the genuine article. Shirley Mae Beard, along with Chef Theresa, her daughter, prep and craft every menu item fresh from scratch each day their doors are open.
“I don’t like anything artificial. The way I cook takes some time, but cooking is a waste of time if you don’t do it right,” said Shirley Mae.
My buddy Thomas and I took seats at the time-worn bar. I was afraid we might be limited to sweet tea and soft drinks, but no ma’am. Continuing its roots as a bar, Shirley Mae’s is full service. Domestic beers are $2 and imports are $3, including Bourbon Barrel Stout, a local favorite.
There’s wine and wine coolers. Take your pick of liquor for mixed drinks: lower shelf is $5 and premium is $7. I love that Shirley Mae’s offers Kool-Aid, grape or cherry, which is perfect to mix with the available Moonshine.
I went with a chilled Colt 45, channeling the Billy Dee Williams/Lando Calrissian flavor, as I looked over the menu.
These are true Southern classics: Fried Chicken Wings; Fried Fish; Meatloaf; Smothered Pork Chops; Ham Hock; Pig Foot (or Trotters); Barbecued Spare Ribs; and Shirley Mae’s one of a kind Chitterlings.
Only available on Sunday is the Chick’n & Dress’n Special (Baked Chick’n and Cornbread Dress’n for $13). There’s also a “Blue Sunday” Happy Hour, 8PM-11PM.
What you seriously don’t want to miss out on is the Hot Water Cornbread. That stuff is dope! The best move is to embrace the Lunch Special – choose a meat, two sides, and two pieces of Hot Water Cornbread for $10. It’s available ’til 3:30.
I ordered the giant Fried Chicken Wings (comes with four full wings), Fresh Turnip Greens (pork), and Real Potato Salad. It was all sick good. The wings were seasoned, moist, and pan-fried to a golden crispy perfection; the greens were cooked down with just the right tartness to be offset by the pork juices; and the potato salad was creamy and robust (which isn’t easy to find in these parts). I was so pleased I ordered another round of the wings and Hot Water Cornbread to-go.
Drop by this quaint restaurant on South Clay Street and sample any of Ms. Beard’s heavenly creations. Do save room for her jaw dropping blackberry cobbler, and share a conversation with the warm folks who put in the time and work to make Shirley Mae’s Café a living piece of history.
SHIRLEY MAE’S CAFÉ | 802 S. Clay Street | Louisville, KY | 502.589.5295
Hours: Thursday-Saturday 11AM – 9PM; Sunday 11AM – 11PM | CASH ONLY