Shirley Mae’s Cafe is a Louisville institution. Located in the Smoketown neighborhood, the tiny spot has been serving fried chicken, ribs, chitterlings, and other soul food specialties since 1988.
Upon entering, guests are enveloped in a laid-back vibe that makes lingering at Shirley Mae’s so pleasurable. There’s music on—nothing too loud—and groups of families and friends are having a great time over cocktails (sweet, stiff) and fried chicken (crisp, addictive). It’s rather dark in the restaurant—the space is narrow, with an open kitchen and bar and tables for maybe 20 people—and corners are piled with stuff that looks like it needs putting away.
But there’s plenty of good cheer to go around. My group dined and stayed for close to two hours.
We ate most of the house specialties, all made-to-order: whole fried chicken wings (drumette and wingette included), smothered pork chops, ribs, hot water cornbread, and all the sides: green beans, corn off-the-cob, macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes, turnip greens. Everything is fabulous. This is a cliche, but it’s called comfort food for a reason.
Chicken wings are as they should be: crunchy on the outside, juicy on the inside, each one meaty and well seasoned. The smothered pork chop is tremendously satisfying, its meat offering a chew that is light but luxuriously rich. With each bite, I felt more comfortable with life. (Can you believe that?)
Hot water cornbread is the showstopper. It’s made by mixing corn meal with boiling water, and forming the dough into rounds the size of hockey pucks. They are then deep fried and come to the table piping hot. The texture is heavenly; crisp on the outside with added texture from the corn meal, and soft on the inside.
Among the sides, my favorites are corn kernels pan-fried in butter, macaroni and cheese, and turnip greens.
Ending the meal with banana pudding is the only reasonable thing to do after an experience like this. So we did. The pudding is cloyingly sweet, sure. But after the savory richness of the dinner, it’s just right as the opposite side of the coin.
Adding to the pleasure of a meal are its low prices: $5 for 4 fried chicken wings, $5 for a pork chop, $6 for spare ribs, $1 for cornbread and $3 for each side. Make a bee line for Shirley Mae’s!