Under-Promise and Over-Deliver

. May 2, 2012.
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Ann Arbor’s historic Elks Club is no longer keeping its soul food to itself. The torch has been passed, and it is smokin’ hot.

For a long time the kitchen was low-key. Elks’ brothers Sam Perry and James Wesley would start spareribs and chicken on the outdoor smoker on Friday nights, for feeding club members on Saturdays.
In recent years, the Elks Club has been increasingly accessible. From their popular weekend dance parties (including the monthly “Funky Kingston” reggae events), to the live jazz series from Thursdays – Saturdays, the Club is now serving it up to the public.

Chef Kelli Harden, assisted by Kevin Cook, continues the spareribs and chicken, but has turned everything else up a notch. They’ve ditched the canned beans and white bread for fried chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese, savory black eyed peas and collard greens, and fresh baked corn muffins. “We want to take it to a different level,”
says Kevin.

Kelli adds, “People don’t expect anything special out of this kitchen. A wise man once said, ‘under-promise, and over-deliver.’ Some of my most memorable meals were unexpected.” Guests from the South have praised Kelli, telling her it was among the best soul food they’d ever had. One said, “This is Mississippi good!”

Kelli got her start cooking at home (“No baking! Ever!”), and found it an outlet for anxiety and stress relief. “I also liked to feed my dad,” she said. At the University of Michigan, where she had initially intended to follow the academic lifestyle of “class, research, teaching, thesis,” she found herself cooking to pay the rent. She got sucked into the adrenaline rush of restaurant work, “If you’re not going to race cars, you’ve got to be a line cook!”

Academics exhausted her. Cooking rejuvenated her. After work on the line at the Gandy Dancer, Kelli would come home, pour a glass of wine, put on music, and cook some more – for stress relief. Her friend Jenna Parks recalls, “One night we got back from the bar and wanted salsa and chips. Kelli made a roasted corn salsa, with fresh tomatoes and homemade corn chips — I don’t think we ate until 5am." Her roommates were mad it was so late — but it was the best salsa they’d ever had.”

After the Gandy Dancer, Kelli worked stints with Eve Aronoff at eve the restaurant and Frita Batidos. Michael Henry, then the Elks’ Exalted Ruler, “kept bugging me to come work in the kitchen, and finally I came.” She brought Kevin, who had worked with her at the Gandy Dancer and Frita’s. Their personal favorite is the crispy fried chicken, with a 24-hour buttermilk marinade, coated in a
“secret ingredient.”

“Soul food is the coolest food there is,” says Kelli. “Just come try it.”

Elks Neighborhood Kitchen is located at 220 Sunset Road.
Hours are Thursday and Friday 5-10pm and Saturday 4-10pm.

For more information, call 734-761-7172 or visit www.facebook.com/ElksKitchen.