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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 50.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Doug's Soul Food Cafe serves heavenly country-fried Southern comfort

When my mother was a little girl, her Alabama-bred mother used to cook up "a mess o' greens" on tough days. The recipe consisted of a slab of bacon, collard greens and turnip greens, all stewed up into a mass of nutritious and heavy gruel.

Sound like heaven to you? "Comfort food" is less a definition of ingredients than a description of a mental state: the food of your youth. Comfort food for most anyone born in the South is likely either Southern food or soul food. Debate rages over the distinction, but we are, by and large, talking about fried chicken, black-eyed peas, grits, hominy and ribs. If you are from the South or even grew up in a family that was, this is just what you want as the temperatures drop: rich, delectable, country-fried down-home cooking.

Enter Doug's Soul Food. Hailing from Alabama, namesake Doug Davis opened his own restaurant on Aug. 29 (along with co-owner Janie Wimberley) with a desire to put his skills to work after "seeing other Madison soul-food joints open...and then close." I hope this one is here to stay.

Doug's functions primarily as a takeout place; for much of the week the dining room is not open, but the takeout counter is. Choose from a list of main dishes, served with a choice of two sides. Most items are made to order and can take 20 minutes, so it's wise to call ahead.

We called in our order, buying everything on the menu (plus two desserts) for a humble $49, a payload that required three large bags to transport. Minutes later and in the comfort of home, we unpacked the spread and cracked open cold beverages.

A smorgasbord awaited, and the many small sides encouraged sampling and snacking (and, I should be ashamed to say, some violations of the proper use of flatware). Sharing the bounty among six people was a pleasure: This is real gather-the-family-around-the-table stuff - so long as the family has no vegans.

The kids we fed loved the meal, and why not? It's deliciously, atrociously, cholesterol-laden food. The macaroni and cheese has such a rich and buttery texture that it elicited wide-open eyeballs upon the first bite. Toddlers could barely get enough of the creamy, steaming-hot pasta with gooey cheddar.

The ribs are tangy and flavorful, if not purely adhering to the slow-cooking tradition. The short ribs are coated in a mild, sweet sauce with no discernible whiskey or Tabasco. The baby-back ribs are equally mild, but richer and more dense.

The fried chicken is dipped in egg and flour batter and deep-fried in vegetable oil. The crust is substantial and delicious. There are few finer things in the world than a properly prepared wing of fried chicken, and the difference between a poorly prepared fried bird and a good one is akin to the difference between Boone's Farm and a Chteau Lafite Rothschild. If you are a fried chicken fan, or, even better, if you've never liked it much (evidence you've never had the real thing), and you're eating at Doug's, this is a must-order.

The catfish is similarly sublime - and expectation-bursting for the snooty foodie. A low regard usually meets catfish from that quarter, but here the breading (made from cornmeal, flour, salt and pepper) and perfect frying time render this preparation succulent, robust and balanced between crisp and buttery. The fried perch, by contrast, is somewhat tasteless and wants lemon or malt vinegar (but, to be fair, most breaded perch does).

And we hear chitterlings will be on the menu this winter!

Black-eyed peas, collard greens, candied sweet yams, mac and cheese, sautéed vegetables, cornbread, corn muffins and hushpuppies are available as sides.

The corn muffins are kind of bland, so stick to the hushpuppies (fried balls of cornbread). The most common etymology suggests that these were tossed to hungry dogs by hunters and soldiers - "here, have one of these, and hush, puppy."

Black-eyed peas are mashed and cooked with fatback to lend flavor. Collard greens are packed with vitamins, and not too bitter.

Candied yams are made by baking the sliced root vegetables with brown sugar and butter. This side works quite effectively as a dessert, even without marshmallow topping.

For an official dessert, try the not-too-dense lemon pound cake with delicate sugar glaze or the flaky-crusted sweet potato pie. Both are old family recipes, are made fresh and, along with a tall glass of milk, will send you to the sweet release of sleep and dreams of your childhood.

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