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Wednesday, January 12,2011

Soul food with a Cajun twist

Granny Bee’s features many Southern classics, from gumbo to po’ boys

by Joe Torok

It was Aunt Beulla, from Yazoo City, Miss., who helped inspire Carter McWright to open Granny Bee’s in Lansing in the location where Ida’s Southside Carryout formerly dished up down-home soul food with a dose of Dixie.


To be fair, McWright’s father, a successful Flint-based business owner and music promoter, played an inspirational role as well.


"I’ve always liked to cook," McWright says. "And since he taught me how to run a business, I always thought I’d open a restaurant one day."


That day arrived last year on May 7, two weeks after Ida’s closed, when Carter and his sister, LaTasha, dived in.


The idea, says McWright, who is originally from the Flint and Saginaw area, was to continue in the mode of Ida’s and provide the area with something unique.


"There’s lots of different cultures in this town, especially around MSU," McWright says. "I just had to bring African-American food to this town."


So with relatives from the likes of Yazoo City and Baton Rogue and Shreveport, La., McWright has developed a menu that intermixes regional styles of authentic Southern recipes that any Cajun — or Creole-phile — would love, although the heart of the menu, McWright says, is soul food.


"This is more like the original soul food, the kind of stuff you
get when you go down South," he says. "It’s food that when you eat it,
you get that good feeling in your soul."


Soul food staples, McWright explains, include collard greens, cornbread, blackeyed peas, pinto beans and lots of barbecued meat. And there’s always plenty of catfish, fried okra and yams.


Chicken wings adorn waffles in a soul food favorite ($2.99). A dinner comes with two sides in addition to little cups of syrup and melted butter. It’s a style of food rooted in necessity (people ate what they had on hand) and utility: Getting plenty of calories and protein makes a whole lot of sense if you’re going to be working outside all day.


The Creole-inspired trimmings come to the surface with jambalaya, gumbo and po’ boy sandwiches. A po’ boy ($4) is a fried fish sub with coleslaw, lettuce, tomato and tartar or hot sauce.


McWright also offers Philly steak sandwiches. He even went so far as to call the standard-bearer of Philly steak preparation, Philadelphia’s iconic Geno’s Steaks, to learn how to make a hero ($7, complete with Cheez Whiz) that keeps them coming back.


In a small kitchen on a recent Thursday, McWright sliced red, yellow and green bell peppers, to prepare a jambalaya in which the fruits swim with sausage, tomatoes, rice and a mix of spices. He boasts that nearly all of his menu is homemade. He is especially proud of his original barbecue sauce and burgers.


On the Granny Bee’s sampler platter ($16),
melted butter varnishes a thick slab of cornbread. It’s surround by
macaroni and cheese, collard greens, jambalaya and red beans and rice.
The generous platter is completed with plates of breaded catfish,
barbecue shrimp and chicken wings, chicken and waffles, and a dessert.


Ah,
the desserts. McWright may be most proud of his burgers, but the sweet
potato pie ($2) is a must-try. Sweet bite after sweet bite of
cinnamon-infused pie is delivered with a smooth, creamy texture that
blends well with a chewier crust.


Kool-Aid
is a hit with customers, too, along with peach cobbler ($3 for small,
$5 for large). In a perfect world, the menu would grow even larger.


"My brother from Baton Rogue says, ’You got to get that boudin, you got to get that
boudin,’" McWright says, referring to an organ-meat pork sausage
popular in the Deep South, which is often balled, breaded and deep
fried. "I want to get it up here, but I talk to distributors, and it’s
hard to get."


Until then, McWright will have to tweak where he can.


Granny
Bee’s will soon offer much more than takeout. By March, McWright plans
to expand Granny Bee’s into the area’s only drive-thru grocery store.
Want bread or milk, a bottle of wine or lottery tickets? Drive on up.
While this area had a drive-thru party store on the north side of
Lansing before it closed a few years back, McWright says the concept is
prevalent around Flint.


After
the typical vicissitudes that come with a new restaurant, the waters
have settled around Granny Bee’s. Confidence is the key, says McWright.


"This
is like a story of believing in yourself," he says. "That belief and
self-determination and sticking with it is what’s keeping me going."

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