Wednesday, April 21, 2010 | 2:10 p.m.
It's a testament to Ella Em's that the soul-food restaurant has inspired Tea Party-esque fervor among its faithful, some of whom regularly travel from Summerlin and Henderson to visit the handsomely appointed North Las Vegas restaurant in a commercial center anchored by Big Lots.
The fuss has been mostly about the fried chicken. My meatnormous piece arrived properly spiced with a crunchy golden skin. It was extremely tasty, but not quite devotion-inspiring.
And that pretty much encapsulates an experience at Ella Em's — above average, with the potential for awesome. With recipes created and cultivated in Mississippi, the food is generally good, but on multiple visits I sensed that something is keeping the restaurant from hitting its culinary stride. I noticed that large crowds seem to fluster the young, but pleasant waitstaff (as witnessed by long waits for drinks, bouts of inattentiveness and jumbled orders).
But when time is no obstacle, the staff is prompt, and the kitchen produces spot-on catfish fillets, succulent shrimp and moist baked chicken, all of it seasoned with a back-of-the-throat-tingling blend of spices affectionately dubbed Granny's Special Seasoning. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the after-church crowd packed the place, and generally had favorable reviews of the food, even if service was a bit spotty.
After waiting for nearly 40 minutes to be served, a large group, clad in their Sunday best, raved about the red-snapper fillet, country-fried steak, pork chops and the gravy. A nearby couple sent their meal back to be nuked in the microwave, but said nary a word once they got their reheated pork chops and ox tails. The first layer of my peach cobbler was great, but after digging further, I found the dish was neither peachy nor cobbler-y, and largely lukewarm.
But Ella Em's flaws appear minor and correctable. On my second trip, the peach cobbler was slammin'. The third trip featured catfish and smothered chicken as good as I've had in this city — and scores better than that vaunted fried chicken. When fried, the catfish contained the perfect crunch-to-meat balance. The smothered chicken is a meal by itself — a supersized hunk; moist, meaty, perfectly baked. I could've done without the largely bland gravy.
Ella Em's serves traditional soul-food side dishes (collard greens, mac 'n' cheese, black-eyed peas, rice and gravy, fried cabbage, yams, etc.). Its best renditions are a nutty, satisfying red beans and rice dish, a tangy like-Mom-would-make potato salad and circular yams that hit all the right notes.
As for the restaurant's name, it's an amalgam of Ella Rae Gray and Aem Upachak. Rae learned to cook in her native Mississippi, passing down her recipes through the generations, eventually reaching her granddaughter-in-law, Upachack, who is of Asian-Pacific heritage. Armed with traditional family recipes, Upachak and Rae's grandson Pierre opened Ella Em's. Once the restaurant irons out its kinks, the legion of devotees is sure to grow.