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My South Carolina friend calls the food at Levi’s Port Cafe barbecue. My friend from around here calls it soul food. Chef and manager Johnny Kersey calls it “just good, down-home cooking,” down home in this case being Cary, N.C., where, under his mother’s tutelage, Kersey learned to cook “any kind of food I wanted.”
Kersey opened the 8th Street SE restaurant, a cousin of Levi’s Barbecue in Oxon Hill, about a year ago. Back then, the clientele was mostly workers from the nearby Navy Yard, coming in for their North Carolina–style pork barbecue—crumbly-looking, incredibly moist, and dappled with crushed red pepper—along with string beans, or, if it was one of those special Thursdays, for homemade-chili dogs. In the wake of recent economic developments further up Barracks Row—and a mention in the Sept. 19 Newsweek praising the restaurant’s macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler—there has been an increasing trickle of neighborhood residents coming under the I-395 overpass to Levi’s. These upscale Capitol Hill types might not think much of the converted row house, the vacuum left out to sniff up the odd corn bread crumb, or the TV suspended over the buffet from which Levi’s staff dishes out the Southern specialities, but love of soul food cuts across all demographics. According to Kersey, a visitor to his place might sit at a white-tableclothed, red-silk-carnationed table next to a laborer, a Supreme Court justice, or TV star Raven-Symone, whose autographed picture proclaims undying love for his cooking.
What there is to love starts with the barbecue—in addition to the sauceless pork, there’s a chopped-chicken version, orangy and hotter, like the pork served Atkins-style right on the plate—and proceeds right through its traditional sides. The creamy cole slaw has a pleasantly oniony bite (Kersey keeps his family recipes closely to the vest, but he swears there is no actual onion); fine-textured yellow corn bread is homemade and not overly sweet (though otherwise unremarkable); large torn collard greens, fresh and earthy-tasting, arrive unsoggy even after their sojourn on the buffet—they give the teeth a little something to do. And here, Kersey turns his back on old Cary and nods toward present-day Washington: None of his vegetable dishes contain meat. So no hocks in the collards, but the pork is not missed. Barbecued beef tips are caramelized and chewy beneath a dark, sweet sauce, and the lightly seasoned fried chicken is exceptional—pleasantly salty, crisp, and moist.
Despite the Port Cafe’s nautical décor—an anchor hangs overhead, and black-and-white harbor scenes line the walls—seafood doesn’t fare as well. The buffet, on which most of the sides and a variety of chicken wings hold their own, is not kind to fried whiting, which becomes dry and chewy if left too long. Two beautiful, plump catfish fillets, although fried to order and improved by a baptism of hot sauce, are, on occasion, unduly fishy-smelling. If you’re ready to surrender to the pleasures of the fryer, you might be better off ordering a big bowl of hush puppies, the interiors savory and doughy, the outsides looking and tasting almost like doughnut holes.
There are aspects of the Southern cuisine (sweet tea, for example) that those of us born too far north can’t appreciate properly. Likewise, when it comes to mac and cheese, we’re all shaped, probably in ways we don’t even understand, by whatever glooped off our mother’s big serving spoon. In the convenience-centric Midwest of my youth, Creamette elbows were segregated from a béchamel sauce—fired up with Velveeta!—until just before serving, because the moment they were joined, the chewiness clock started ticking. Mac and cheese the Southern way, the Baptist Church way—the Levi’s way—is the baked variety, cooked in a big metal tray just as my Southern friends remember from school lunches, topped with a final topcoat of cheese to crust up under the broiler. This is mac and cheese that loves the buffet, that’s happy to wait an hour while you discuss the menu—what do we fancy smothered in gravy today, chicken or a pork chop?—and will still be soft and luscious.
A certain kind of person, and I am one, will have noticed a home-baked cake, encased in glass, standing sentinel near the cash register, from the moment she entered the room. It might be the lemon, the girly-pink strawberry, or the butter pound cake, so rich you could rub it on your morning toast. Dense and pillowy, it shears off cleanly at the pressure of the fork. That peach cobbler that so dazzled Newsweek is cloying and soft, the fruit, crust, and syrup melding together. I care for neither bananas nor pudding, yet I swoon at Kersey’s banana pudding, which is like an English trifle, cinamonny and cakey, the moist ingredients easing it all gently downward.
As my South Carolina friend cut into an elegant slab of red-velvet cake on a recent visit, he recounted a personal crisis he suffered as a youth, when the Food and Drug Administration banned Red Dye No. 2. It looked as if there might be no more preternaturally crimson desserts weighing down his mother’s Sunday table—until Red Dye No. 40 leapt into the breach. He pronounced Levi’s cake almost as good as his mother’s.
Then Kersey, appearing out of nowhere, smiled with satisfaction and said, “When somebody says, ‘My mother would approve,’ I know I’ve done it right.”
Levi’s Port Cafe, 1102 8th St. SE (202) 547-6500.—Janet Hopf
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