Tyler's booming restaurant scene is one of the things that draws people to the city from surrounding areas.
When a new restaurant opens, people flock to it, willing to wait in line for hours to try it out. A trip down South Broadway reveals numerous options available, from different Tex-Mex eateries, gourmet burger joints, and various pizza places.
But if you're looking to satisfy a craving for soul food, you'll want to turn around and head north on Broadway instead, to find Freddie Mae's Soul Food Restaurant on Martin Luther King, just off North Broadway.
Freddie Mae's is a family-owned eatery which opened in August 2016, a collaboration between relatives Chris Ross, Jay Hampton, and Fred Ross.
Fred is the head chef, as well as being half of the name of the restaurant's namesake. Mae is after his grandmother, Ardie Mae. Fred spoke with us about the origin of his recipes, his inspiration, and what really qualifies as soul food.
Fred told us he's been working in food since he graduated from Lindale High School, but his training began well before that.
"My grandmother Ardie Mae was always cooking, was always at the stove. I'd go to her house after school and I'd say 'Grandma, what are you doing, you're always cooking!' and she'd say, 'I'm just getting dinner ready.'"
Soon, though, Fred decided her food was so good that he wanted to learn how to make it, too.
"I said 'Can I help you cook?' And she said, 'Sure, come on in here.' And I did. I can still see her making the dough for the dumplings from scratch. It tasted so wonderful," he recalled.
Fred said that she started by teaching him how to scramble eggs, but he moved up quickly from those to more difficult things.
"She taught me everything - from the eggs to making the pork chops, fried chicken, greens, meatloaf, all of that. And of course the chicken and dumplings," he recalled with a smile.
Fred's instruction from Grandmother Ardie Mae led him into a now decades-long career.
"After I graduated from high school, I didn't have the benefits to go to college, you might say, so I got a job in a kitchen. I started at Hideaway Lake Country Club as a dishwasher. I guess the manager there took heed of my cooking, as I always asked him if I could make my own dinner on my break, until finally he came in one day and said, 'Fred, I want you to not wash another pan. I want you to move to the kitchen," Fred said.
"I was excited. I was about to be a cook! There was a lady there named Odessa, and she was awesome. She's still there, in fact; we're talking 30-plus years. She was real deep into casseroles and that kind of thing, and taught me some of that. And we just got together and it was pretty good." he said.
Fred moved on eventually, this time to Emerald Bay Country Club.
(Left to right: Kadeisha Broussard, Keke Amie, Manager Cameron Donnell, LaShunda Willas, Jonathan Smiles, and Chef Fred Ross)
"I went to Emerald Bay and I was there for 22 years. We had fried chicken nights, fried fish nights, that kind of thing, and the people loved it. Then I came here, and some of those people will come by here and say, 'We sure do miss you, you want to come back, don't you?'" he laughed. "They loved my cooking, I guess."
But now he's thriving at the helm of a kitchen in his family restaurant, inspired by his grandmother Ardie Mae's recipes, some of which he makes just like she did, but he says he adds his own touch to many things. However, for one classic soul food, he does it pretty much the same way she did.
"When you cook greens, whichever kind you cook, you've got to get the water right," he said, referring to the pot liquor the greens will cook in. "Whatever you put in there is what your greens are going to taste like. Use ham hock, some "salt joe" (salt pork), cut you off a hunk of that to drop in there, and then let it reduce down. Add a little salt and pepper, a little garlic, whatever you like. When your water starts changing color and it starts to smell good, taste it and make sure it tastes like you want it to. That's when you add your greens, and then you let them cook down for an hour or two to get them real tender," he explained.
Another family member joined us at the table then, just as we were discussing National Soul Food Month and had begun trying to narrow the list of essential soul foods down to just five must-haves.
"I'm all about baking, my love is sweets," said Cameron Donnell, who Fred said he's raised as his son since he was 3 months old and who now, at 30, is the restaurant manager. "Banana pudding, sweet potato pie, lemon meringue pie, buttermilk pie, peach cobbler, blueberry or mixed berry cobbler, they all go in there."
Eventually, we decided we could not have all sweets on the Top 5 soul foods list, so we tweaked it a bit after some discussion.
Fred and Cam's Top 5 Soul Foods:
1. Greens - any kind
2. Fried chicken - deep fried if at the restaurant, pan fried if you're at home, using a cast iron skillet
3. Candied yams - cooked down with a syrup made from sugar and spices
4. Peach cobbler - Fred makes it two ways, both with pastry strips and with a self-rising method
5. Macaroni and cheese - Baked in a creamy cheese sauce, topped with a blend of shredded cheeses
In addition to each of these scrumptious offerings at Freddie Mae's, Fred adds that a couple times a month he makes neck bones in gravy, which he cooks until the meat is tender and falling off the bone; he is also well-known by fans for his smothered pork chops.
"The smothered pork chops, as well as the meatloaf, are big sellers. They go fast. Sometimes the baked chicken will sell out, too," he said.
"The smothered pork chops are a favorite because they're cooked so tender you don't have to use a knife. One man said they're so tender he could eat them with a spoon," he laughed. "That's when you know they're right."
So for National Soul Food Month, which has been declared for the month of June in the U.S., Fred and Cam and the rest of the family say to come try their food out, because not only is it local and family-run, but there's something special about soul food, in general.
"For good soul food, you can't just follow a recipe and think, 'I can do that.' It might taste OK, but that's not the same. You have to learn it from hands-on experience, you have to really get in there and put in the work and make it pay off. It's more of a tradition thing, where we put the heart and soul into it," Fred said, patting his chest.
And Cam says that with their family's friendly service and Fred's food, he knows one thing for sure.
"I can promise you that when you eat here, your stomach is going to be happy. It's going to have a big smile on its face," he laughed, while Fred just shook his head with a grin.
As for Grandmother Ardie Mae, and what she'd think of her young family members taking her recipes and launching their dream with it, Fred said just one thing.
"I think she'd be proud. I know she would."
Freddie Mae's is located at 403 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd in Tyler. Their number is 903-630-8680. They are open 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 7 a.m.-4 p.m. on Sunday. Click here to visit them on Facebook.
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