M N Mmmmmm

Photo by Joy WeberHaving drained our usual 25 cups of coffee one recent chilly day, the wife and I needed protein to counterbalance the caffeine. This was a job for one of the area's best barbecue joints.

M&M Soul Food in Long Beach is the place to go to feed your gastronomic—but not aesthetic—soul. You see, soul food is about throwing caution to the Santa Anas, rolling up your sleeves and greasing up your hands with slabs o' something that'll ultimately piss off your cardiologist. Best of all, there's that unmistakably pungent odor of barbecue sauce you'll be sniffing under your fingernails for a week.

Architecturally, M&M is wedged between the last decade that had true Gamble-and-Huff soul (the 1970s) and the '80s, which gave us parachute pants, Members Only jackets and MC Hammer—but demanded our soul in exchange. Ask the folks here to comment on the peach-hued walls, lowered ceilings and general bunker-like atmosphere (livened up only by an animatronic James Brown doll and a display case full of dolphin-shaped oil burners for sale), and they'll decline. Wisely so.

Deciding it was better to save our retinas from being burned by M&M's cozy walls, we ordered our dinners to go. The sensational smell of 'cue inside the car only made the short drive home seem longer. I quickly tore into the bag and discovered my short ribs had been perfectly grilled, so well done that the bones fell out of the pork, 'stead of the other way 'round. They were infused with M&M's signature smoky, barbecue tang. Definitely worth ruining a shirt over.

My wife decided her barbecue chicken was too dry, but that obviously didn't stop her from devouring the bird—much to M&M's credit.

Unfortunately, two sides we chose were disappointing. The string beans with green onion slivers were woefully overcooked and could only be flavor-corrected with mad dashes of seasoning salt. And the queso in our macaroni and cheese was all chunky—perhaps the fallout from the drive home.

We figured this was but another example of how barbecue and sides don't always mix well, which is generally due to one demanding slow simmering and the other a quick flash in the pan. M&M would thus join a long list of local food joints where too-busy cooks don't always time the preparation for two distinct food types just right.

I was ready to jot down in my notebook a bold pronouncement: M&M should take a page from Brazilian barbecue houses and nix roughage altogether. Then something hit me: the corn and okra. Their truly sublime take on the soul standard is served in a tasty tomato-based red sauce. Even as the next day's leftovers, the okra retained its original snap with nary a touch of sliminess. If people who badmouth okra were forced to down an entire serving of M&M's, they'd scream on street corners to try to convert the masses.

The wife had no time to sermonize; too busy eating her side orders of pungent black-eyed peas and red beans and rice, which were both prepared so perfectly the cook must've put his entire soul into making them.

Happy and satisfied, we felt like passing out on the couch with a nudge from a good belt of Kentucky bourbon from the dirty old bottle we got when the folks cleaned out their liquor cabinet. Ever the sober one, my wife broke out something we'd forgotten we'd even ordered: peach cobbler. It proved to be a far smoother nightcap, going down just right—not too soggy, not too crunchy. We put the bourbon back in the cupboard and pulled the milk out of the fridge to more properly wash down the winning pastry.

All in all, a helluva meal. But something was definitely missing. Looking around our tiny kitchen, we saw no dolphin oil burners, no stuffed little Godfather of Soul, no ghetto gate and awnings that block any possible natural light while simultaneously trapping in all heat. Worst of all, the constant, glorious smell of sizzling barbecue was gone.

We made a pact: next time we're at M&M, we're staying. We'll just have to slap on some dark Ray-Bans to avoid those peach-colored walls.

M&M Soul Food, 5400 Cherry Ave., Long Beach, (562) 422-8395. Open Sun.-Fri., 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $20, food only. Amex, MC and Visa Accepted.

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