Daily Memphian Posted “Caritas Village fills bellies and nourishes community” which features Caritas Village.
I was hungry, they fed me, and when I paid the folks at Caritas Village for my meal, I added $10 to the check so they could feed someone who is hungry and can’t afford to pay. With that donation, my lunch for two came to $27.50 – and it was really for three.
Caritas Village opened in Binghampton in 2006, the answering of the call for Onie Johns. Until last year, she served as the director of the community center with a café at its heart, just as the village is the soul of the community. When she stepped down, veteran restaurateur Mac Edwards stepped in.
With a long history in the restaurant business that includes hits and misses, Edwards came in with no nonprofit experience but with a passion to the mission that he also exhibited when he was a founding member of the Memphis Farmers Market. Despite some business failings, one thing Edwards has delivered is good food, whether it was at McEwen’s, The Farmer or Brooks Pharm2Fork.
Now his food – at least food from his menus, as he’ll be the first to say that real chefs laugh at him when he dons the white jacket– is on the menu at Caritas Café and at present is being cooked by Spencer McMillin, a talented chef who has worked in numerous restaurants, most recently taught at L’Ecole Culinaire and is the private chef for the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley.
He can cook.
A plate lunch changes daily at Caritas, with some consistency. Friday is always catfish, and Monday is usually pork, for example. But as the café is run with the same farm-to-table philosophy that Edwards used in his restaurants, sometimes what’s being cooked has to do with what is available and at its peak.
We ate pork sirloin with smoked mashed potatoes and broccoli casserole on a recent Monday, a hearty meat-and-three (if you count the roll) that could’ve been proudly served at any place in town. The pork was tender, with caramelization from a good sear and covered in a light brown gravy. McMillin’s potatoes were first boiled, then put in a stovetop smoker for extra flavor before they were mashed. The broccoli was tender but still crisp, coated with just enough cheese and breadcrumbs to keep it together and give it some crunch.
Best Choices: Plate lunch ($9.50); grilled cheese with potato salad and soup ($8); vegetable plate ($8.50)
Hours: The center is open 9 a.m.-8p.m. Monday through Saturday. Food is served 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a,,m,-4 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on Saturday.
2509 Harvard• 901-327-5246
Price: ($=$10 or less per entrée; $$=$11-$25 per entrée; $$$=$25-$35 per entrée; $$$$=$35+ per entrée)
Noise: Not an issue
Bottom Line: The food at Caritas is cooked by a chef; it’s restaurant quality. Prices are exceptionally reasonable and the money raised is used to continue the revitalization of the Binghampton neighborhood.
The black bean soup we ate that day was excellent, spicy and thick. Soup is in a tureen on a table when you enter the café, sitting there with cornbread and anything else that might go with it. I ordered it with grilled cheese, because sometimes there is just no meal more perfect. The sandwich was top-notch, cooked to an ideal golden crisp outside, with plenty of melted cheddar and Swiss cheese that pulled in strings as I separated the sourdough halves. It came with some of the best potato salad in town, one Edwards has carried and adapted since the days of McEwen’s (which he opened in 1997 and sold to Bert Smythe and John Littlefield in 2008). Potatoes are diced and roasted and while still warm, tossed with salt and pepper, whatever herbs are handy, olive oil and a bit of mayo.
But the grilled cheese and the soup, sans the potatoes? That’s free to anyone in need. The plate lunch? Same. That’s the meal you make possible when you pay it forward with some extra money at checkout.
You can also order a grilled pimento cheese, and it comes served with a side of habanero pepper jelly, which I asked to try. I immediately purchased a jar; it’s made by the kids in the cooking program at Knowledge Quest and – finally! Pepper jelly that is as hot as it is sweet. Good stuff.
Another day, we enjoyed a plate lunch of grilled chicken in a lemon butter sauce, served with a side of rosemary roasted potatoes and steamed spinach, and again, the plate lunch was $9.50. We also ordered a vegetable plate, which was just fabulous. The selection changes daily; unless you seriously hate cauliflower, like in a bad, sad, betrayed-by-it way, you have to order it. It’s broken in florets, roasted in oil with fragrant spices – curry forward – and browned a bit in spots. It was outrageously good for the usurper of the produce world, the vegetable that went for Brussels sprouts and came away with the crown.
Greens were good; their likker over an order of Grit Girl grits, even better. Edward’s sloppy joe, the one that made an appearance of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” on Food Network, is served at Caritas. It starts with carrots, onion and celery, cooked down and amped up with allspice, cloves, cider vinegar and tomato paste. It’s tangy but mellowed by a slow cooking with ground beef and served on a big toasted bun.
Caritas serves a full lunch Monday through Friday and everything except the plate lunch on Saturday. Soon, likely late this month, a Saturday brunch and one dinner a month are planned.
The dining hall is large and simple, furnished with a few booths along the windowed north wall, tables in the rest of the room and a soft seating area where folks can relax with a cup of coffee or just visit. It’s a place of community, where it’s easy to linger a little.
Take note that Mac Edwards is the guest on the “Destination: Delicious” podcast scheduled for 4 p.m. March 4; tune in to learn more about Caritas and its mission.