Thanks to Nathan's chow alert, Y and I descended upon Mike's Soul Food just a few days after it re-opened for business in its original location on July 25th. See below for location and hours. Since I haven't lived in SC that long, I don't know too much history behind this place or why Mike went on hiatus in the first place. What I do know is that it first opened around 2001, replacing a beloved joint called Manoff's. I have no idea how long Mike's thrived, but from the crowd and rhythm I witnessed when we stopped in for dinner, Mike's has been sorely missed and welcomed back with a great big Southern hug, as much as that can happen in a place like Santa Cruz.
I must preface my report by saying that my tummy wasn't at its best when we entered Mike's, probably due to eating too much homemade gelato in the late afternoon. :-) Nevertheless, I was eager to check the place out. We didn't order as much food as we normally would have when trying a new place, and I picked at the food more than consumed. I did want to share some initial impressions and info, and we plan to return very soon for a proper soul experience.
First off, the space is just great for this kind of food. Not kitschy or themey at all, but naturally steeped w/ history, unpretentious charm, and many years of grease. There's a counter where you order, pay, and pick up your food. The bright yellow menu is displayed on a big board. There was one spunky African-American man (who I'm assuming is Mike) who was manning the fryers and cooking each dish to order. Since he was the only one cooking during dinnertime, it was a little slow but worth it for freshly-fried food.
We were really excited to see fried catfish on the menu since it's not common in SC and we haven't had a good rendition since we lived in Missouri many years ago, but our glee was quickly dashed when we learned that they had run out for the day. :-( We were there in the last hour before they closed at 8pm though. The cashier told us that Mike gets 200 lbs. of catfish everyday and that they had a crazy lunch rush that wiped them out. A very tangible indicator that they're off to a fine restart. They do have a very good lunch deal that includes a choice of most of their mains w/ either coleslaw, potato salad, or fries for $4.75. Three catfish pieces come w/ the lunch special which is offered from 11:30-2:30.
Mike's regular menu has a number of combos, plates, sandwiches, and sides. Mains include your usual suspects like fried chicken, pork ribs, hot links, meatloaf, and the popular catfish. Sides are also familiar fare. Two desserts are available...peach cobbler and sweet potato pie. Family packs and catering are also available. Plates and combos range from $9-13.50 and come w/ choice of 2 sides. Sandwiches are around $7 and a la carte sides are around $4. The sides alone strike me as incredibly expensive, like $3.25 for a pint of white rice or $4 for green beans. Fountain soda is also ridiculously priced at $2.25 for a medium-sized cup.
We wanted to order a combo to share since I wasn't that hungry and settled on Mike's Combo #1 for $11.25. This was one fried chicken breast, one BBQ pork rib, and a choice of two sides; we chose macaroni and cheese and fried okra since Y is addicted to okra. We normally like some dark meat, but went w/ the chicken breast which was large and fresh. It wasn't prepared that well though, as the coating had fallen off in certain places and it had too much greasiness for my taste. The coating could have used more seasoning too. The pork rib was succulent but kind of fatty for me, and the sauce was fine but not very distinctive. The mac and cheese was alright, but the pasta was flabby and it was skimpy on creamy goodness. The okra was not good at all, singed too much and its vegetable essence desiccated. A service related quibble is that the cashier charged us around $4 extra for a side that was never ordered and didn't catch it herself even though we only ordered one item.
Well, you'd think I might not return after this initial impression, but I actually am looking forward to giving Mike's another chance. I need to try that catfish, and it's the only real soul food place I know of in SC County. I think it actually has some potential if we order the right combination of items, and a late lunch is probably the best time to go. In particular, I want to try the catfish, yams, collard greens, cornbread, and tri-tip sandwich. We also saw someone get a plate w/ 6 ultra-crispy chicken wings that looked much better than the breast that we got. As someone who's quickly becoming a farmer's market and organic food snob, I also appreciate that all of the meat is free-range and all of the veggies are fresh and organic. Ah, soul food Santa Cruz style...
Mike's Soul Food
139 Water St.
Santa Cruz, CA
Hours: M-Th 11:30-8; Fri-Sat 11:30-9
Visa & MC accepted