Few of us have a firm understanding of Southern cuisine — seriously, what the hell is a chitterling? And even fewer of us have Southern grandmothers who cook it. For the bulk of us who are not so fortunate, we are lucky to have Brenda Franklin, who opened Big Mama’s House of Soul last spring.
Franklin’s restaurant is scantly decorated. The walls are lined with pictures of Pittsburgh notables, including former Steelers Head Coach Bill Cowher — Big Mama’s catered his retirement party. Like the decor, the seating is sparse. Besides three picnic tables off to the side of the building, the restaurant has no seats and is takeout only. But going to Big Mama’s House of Soul for the ambiance would be like going to the ‘O’ for a salad — you don’t go for the atmosphere, you go for the ribs.
The ribs alone could keep the restaurant in business. They are simply delicious — lightly charred on the outside with an inside that’s nearly perfect. The meat is succulent and falls effortlessly from the bone, and the ribs come dressed with a liberal amount of dark barbecue sauce, its sweetness balanced by vinegar and spices.
Big Mama’s dinners range from staples such as fried chicken, fish, and meatloaf to more obscure dishes like barbecued pigs’ feet. One highlight is the pulled pork sandwich, a generous portion of smoky pork doused in a sweet barbecue sauce. Less impressive was the fried chicken, a serving of bony wings which would have benefited from some breast or thigh meat.
While most of her dishes are traditional, Franklin’s sides are a bit more experimental. One example is the seafood cornbread stuffing, which blends the saltiness of crabmeat, the spice of Old Bay seasoning, and the subtle sweetness of cornbread. Another departure is her potato salad, which combines golden, red, and sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes add both color and texture as well as a faint sweetness that helps to neutralize the sharp taste of the mustard. The candied yams, though surprising, were also satisfying: Franklin serves the dish brown instead of the usual orange. Here, Franklin uses spices to accentuate the natural sweetness of the yams, avoiding a dish either too sweet or too syrupy.
Some of the other side dishes were not so successful. The greens were as they should be — salty, slightly smoky, and cooked tender without being soggy — but something was lacking. Another side, the macaroni and cheese, managed both to please and disappoint — one forkful would be creamy and flavorful, the next dry and bland.
Ultimately, Big Mama’s provides some solid cooking at reasonable prices. As a general rule, if the dish includes pork or potatoes, it’s probably worth ordering. Whether or not you’re lucky enough to have a Southern grandmother to cook for you, Franklin’s home-style cooking is an easy alternative.