Hidden Jewel: Southern comfort for Northeast Portland.
In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it storefront in Northeast Portland's Woodlawn neighborhood hides a new place for real Southern comfort food, from cornmeal-crusted catfish to collard greens.
Freshly painted and open just six months, Izogie's Fine Dining is warm and welcoming, mostly due to the personalities of its owners, Sandra and the Rev. James Booker, and its Arkansas-born chef, Jewel Thomas—the former chef and co-owner of Portland's late, much-loved Doris' Cafe. Your server may be the reverend himself, or Sandra's polite daughter Izogie (pronounced "Ee-zo-geh"), after whom the restaurant is named.
Thomas' catfish ($11.95) alone could be the basis of a business: crunchy cornmeal coating envelops a tender, generous portion of the super-moist, sweet fish. The chef attributes the clean taste and non-greasy texture to the vegetarian diet the fish are fed at farms in the Southern U.S. President Clinton sought out Thomas' breaded fish years ago at Doris' Cafe, a visit Thomas clearly relishes. "Clinton called it the best catfish he's had outside of the South," he proudly recalls.
Clinton liked Thomas' fried okra, too, and it's easy to taste why. Dusted in a powder made from dried okra, the mild-flavored, pentagonal slices are delivered piping hot, and the crust practically pops when you bite into it.
A seafood stew called the Sandra Lee ($12.60) is packed with shell-on shrimp, crab, crawfish and bone-in chicken, held together with a thick, heavily seasoned tomato broth. Sandra's recipe is reminiscent of the French soupe de poisson —layers of rich ocean flavors taste like they've been muddled in a glass and concentrated. How'd she do it? My guess is those shrimp shells.
The fried chicken ($10.95) isn't fancy, just seasoned simply and dusted with a light dredge of all-purpose flour, resulting in an almost lacquer-thin, crackling-crisp crust. Bite through the decadent, salty skin to get at the juicy, perfectly cooked meat.
Choosing the two sides that often come with your entree can be the ultimate challenge. You cannot pass on the greens: either collards or mustard. They're both tender and smoky, and there's never enough. Or try the pimiento-studded corn and okra, a savory, rich combo that's actually vegetarian.
There are a few items on the menu to avoid. Unlike the savory lunch and dinner dishes, not all the desserts ($3.60-$4) are housemade—the cheesecake comes from Sysco—so be sure to ask which of the sweets are created on site. A recent peach cobbler was delicious: a huge bowl of sticky-sweet fruit topped with a doughy, biscuitlike layer. Banana pudding was the classic Southern version: vanilla wafers layered with fresh fruit and creamy vanilla—true Americana in a bowl.
During three visits, the sweet-potato pie was never available, and while I never left feeling unsatisfied, I did feel denied of such a Southern staple. A few other items on the menu were often unavailable, but the specials board always lists more options, from chitlins to a turkey dinner.
The dining room is spare and casual, a curious blend of upscale and down. Tables are covered with white linen, then draped in clear plastic. Drinks come in Mason jars, yet sit next to maroon cloth napkins. It feels comfortable nonetheless, due in large part to consistently friendly service.
Don't come to Izogie's if you're in a rush. The pace is slower here; people come in off the street to visit and linger, and the kitchen timing appears to be driven by the food itself—most of it delivered hot and straight from the stovetop—rather than getting diners in and out. The Bookers have owned other neighborhood restaurants over the years—two attached to their Northeast Portland church, another torn down for development—so that's just the way Sandra wants it to be, a gathering place for her community.
One complaint: A doorbell beeps loudly when the front door opens, and can be quite jarring. During a recent lunch visit, an overhead smoke detector chirped at regular two-minute intervals as well, forming a double assault on the eardrums.
With food this great, who wants even a single distraction?