It took me a while to swing by the Southern Cafe, but I managed to squeeze in a visit last night, and here follows my report. Amazing! It is hard for me to believe that Oakland is home to TWO of the best southern restaurants I have experienced outside of the deep south. Nellie's has nothing on the Southern Cafe, they are both outstanding.
To give each kitchen their proper due respect, I started with the basics; Fried Chicken, Cornbread, Rice and Gravy, Red Beans, Yams, Greens. Simple food, but hard to do right. The chicken at the Southern Cafe is very good, nice spice, crisp and non-greasy, perfectly cooked. It is equal in stature to Nellie's although both restaurants fall short of a truly great pan fried bird. It is hard to quantify where the missing 10% shy of greatness lies, but I would point to a crust that is too perfect, too even, missing the subtle variations that pan fried chicken possesses. A proper cast iron skillet sealed with a domed lid (necessary to maintain moistness) creates a texture and depth of contrast nigh on impossible to recreate in a deep fryer. But these are just quibbles, the chicken at Southern or Nellie's is justly deserving of Bay Area accolades.
The sides. I like the petit, richer, eggier cornbread at Nellie's. The crisper exterior at Nellie's is also a personal preference.
The rice and gravy. I have perfected my own gravy over the years, but I'll be the first to admit that I've been bested. Southern Cafe's gravy is as good as any I've ever eaten. Wonderfully complex, with spicy and smokey balance, shreds of meat, and green peppers cooked to submission. Outstanding in every way, and just a little better than Nellies.
Red beans, Wow! Even in New Orleans have I rarely had better. Just the right amount of smoke, not too salty, complex and creamy. I could have eaten nothing else and would have been happy. Southern Cafe gets the nod.
Yams. My complaint with Nellie's was with the yams. Good flavor but way too sweet and soft, there was no body left to the dish. Morton the Mouse is right when suggesting Nellie's yams serve duty as a spread for the corn muffins. The yams at the Southern Cafe are a bit better. Large succulent chunks with a great spice blend, still too sweet but not as over the top as Nellie's.
Greens. Sadly there were no greens left to try last night, so therefore no comparison. But I'll be back soon. I am loathe to be too judgmental when comparing these two restaurants. They both excel at the fine art of southern cooking. Southern Cafe offers a homey ambiance that exudes care and honesty, it would not be out of place in my mothers hometown of Abbeville, South Carolina.