Supping from heaven's plate

 

Thanks, Charlene, wherever you are. It’s true: You didn’t know who “goes out and tries the food at different restaurants” when you wrote your message back around March 15, extolling the virtues of Emmanuel’s Heavenly Chef, a wee soul food shop on the far Eastside. But when you issued your edict that “Someone needs to let Indiana know the best fried chicken in town is in a little place you might drive by and never look at,” well, I figured that “someone” would have to be me. Thanks for steering me in the right direction — chicken-wise, at least.

You were right about another thing, Charlene. When I loaded up a legion of hungry but definitely skeptical friends to head all the way out to Post Road for some homey comfort food, we did exactly as you had predicted: drove right past the place. To be fair, this low-slung eatery is a lot easier to spy when you approach it from the east. Vibrant pictures of butter toffee coconut and banana chocolate delight pie, as well as a big chef’s hat with a halo, give you a vision of the eats that await you at this ethereal establishment.

Inside, a dining room ponderous with floral draperies, along with matching floral seat covers and plenty of plastic ivy, gives this place a bit of the formal feel of a chapel or funeral parlor. Just what sacrifices were we supposed to make to dine on food cooked by heaven’s chef? Far from being a solemn, morose space, however, Emmanuel’s is one of the friendliest restaurants in town. An eclectic selection of DVDs at a TV in the corner, as well as a stack of board games, lets you know you’re to make yourself at home. A spirited round of Hangman helped us while away the minutes until our made-to-order food arrived.

Navigating all of the different combo meals, family dinners and three-meat trios on this menu can frustrate indecisive diners. It’s not just manna they’re fixing up in the big guy’s kitchen but pot roast, rib tips and tenderloins! The menu is also full of admonitions that whole pies, pot roasts or meatloaves must be ordered a day in advance. But don’t believe the heading that says they’re closed on Sundays. They’re now open noon to 6 p.m. for all-you-can-eat meats and two sides for just $9.99.

Our waiter, co-owner Larry Smith, warned us that fried chicken took an extra 15 minutes to prepare — they won’t serve chicken that’s been sitting around all day. Nor will they serve white meat; they aim to keep their costs low. But with Charlene’s bold claims on our minds and stomachs, we were ready to wait an hour for our legs and thighs. Soon enough, however, huge platters of food emanated from the kitchen. One bite of that fried chicken ($6.95), so light and flavorful without being greasy, confirmed Charlene’s good word. This was, no doubt, some of the city’s best.

Indeed, all of the food demonstrated the skills of Vickie, Larry’s wife, in seasoning her food to set it apart from other similar down-home joints. Meatloaf ($6.95), also heartily endorsed by one of Charlene’s dining companions, was beefy with overtones of oregano and other Italian spices. Huge slabs of tender, meaty ribs ($8.95) came with a tangy, slightly spicy sauce. Boneless catfish filets were some of the meatiest around, again in a light but nicely seasoned breading. Even a classic Hoosier breaded tenderloin ($5.95) impressed — probably not hand-breaded but appropriately giant and crispy.

Side dishes didn’t exactly issue from hell’s kitchen, but they were inconsistent. Coleslaw is perhaps the best, creamy and sweet. Greens and beans are good enough, though the baked beans could have spent more time in the oven. Macaroni and cheese was creamy but also not baked. Mashed potatoes seemed too smooth for homemade and a temporary shortfall of gravy meant we had to make due with a pat of butter instead. We didn’t realize rolls were an extra 50 cents, but we were happy to save them for the next visit.

Come dessert time, the aforementioned pies ($3/slice) — though sadly not chocolate banana delight, which they were out of — begged some rather esoteric culinary questions. What is the nature of a pie? Were these super-rich, almost cake-like confections with cookie crusts and thick toppings really “pies”? Did it really matter when we were sinking our forks into gooey layers of apple, caramel and coconut? The sweet potato most approximated the traditional dessert, with a fat ridge of creamy filling, but, despite some uneven reheating, we were sold on this unique redefinition of a classic.

Whether these are the victuals you’ll be granted in the afterlife, they’re making life on Earth pretty tasty for locals in the know. So, thanks, Charlene, for the tip. You signed off as “Fried Chicken Lover,” and, after dinner at Emmanuel’s Heavenly Chef, I can sign off as one, too.

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