Despite having served up her homestyle dishes in four different restaurants in Seattle, Tacoma and Burien, Talya Miller doesn’t call herself a chef, because she was never formally trained. She considers herself “necessity-trained.”
Growing up, she assisted in the kitchen as her mother whipped up dishes for family and neighborhood friends who dropped by the house using whatever ingredients were available.
“You had to be able to make something out of nothing,” Miller said. “Because if you came over [my mother] wasn’t gonna let you be there hungry.”
Later, as a foster parent overseeing 11 kids and keeping alive the tradition of never letting a house guest go hungry, she grew used to cooking for large groups of people.
Now, along with her eldest daughter, LaShon Lewis, she is the co-owner of The Comfort Zone, a soul-food restaurant operating out of The Royal Esquire Club building in Columbia City. The mother-daughter team serve up soul-food staples that include fried catfish, shrimp and grits, oxtails with rice, greens and hush puppies.
“I’ve always had to cook for a lot of people,” Miller said. “It’s still people who just come over to eat. If I’m cooking, they’re eating whatever I’m cooking. So that’s what it was about — hospitality and comfort, and that’s why it’s called The Comfort Zone, because everybody says it’s so comfortable, it feels like home.”
The room at the The Royal Esquire Club where Miller and Lewis serve up their dishes looks more like a jazz club (because it essentially is) than a home, but the service is warm and friendly and the food tastes like home.
After the warm welcome and personal check-ins from Lewis, who was working as the server when I ate there, and a bellyful of perfectly fried catfish and creamy mac n’ cheese, you’ll find yourself full, happy and reluctant to leave, swaying in your chair as Marvin Gaye serenades you from the overhead speakers.
I ordered the catfish ($16), which comes with two sides (I chose greens and mac ‘n’ cheese), the oxtails with rice ($18), black-eyed pea dip ($6) and hush puppies ($6).
The catfish: The catfish is perfect. Perfect, I tell you! The skin is crispy and tastes almost like the skin on fried chicken that’s so good you tear it off first and just eat the skin. Inside, the catfish flesh was juicy, soft, light and fell easily into little slices.
Oxtails with rice: The meat practically melted off the bone at the lightest touch of the fork and soaked in the flavorful broth. It’s the kind of warm dish that makes you close your eyes and lean back in your chair after every bite so you can spend some time with the flavors.
The supporting cast
Black-eyed pea dip: It was thick with a cream-cheese-like consistency, and the green onions and cheddar shredded on top gave it the flavor of refried bean dip. It’s tasty, but if you’re a black-eyed pea fan like me and prefer to really taste the peas, dig in underneath the toppings. Hard and dry, the bread served with the dip left something to be desired, however. At home I tried some leftover dip with unsalted blue corn chips and found it much more satisfying.
The greens: I’ve often been disappointed by the greens I’ve eaten outside of my family’s kitchen. For me, they are often too loose and watery, the greens texture usually too chewy or practically indistinguishable from water. Happily, the greens at The Comfort Zone were just like the greens I grew up on — earthy and seasoned, and the leaves packed more tightly together. It might not be everyone’s style, but it’s mine, and it was a happy surprise.
Better luck next time
Pecan pie: I’m not big on dessert, but decided to get the pecan pie, because a soul-food dinner just doesn’t seem complete without dessert (technically this was a lunch, but I was getting paid to eat so … pie.) The pecan pie was too heavy on the gooey for my liking and the pecans were too soft, so I abandoned it and was easily consoled by an extra spoonful from the collection of savory, cheesy, creamy happiness still spread on the table.
The verdict: Go for a taste of home
The meals at The Comfort Zone are served on plastic plates and Tupperware that reminded me of the plates my aunties would urge me to load up and take home after a holiday dinner or cookout.
After I ate my fill, I felt so at home that I instinctively requested aluminum foil to take my plate home, and Lewis laughed.
“I’ll get you a to-go box. I know it looks like a cookout,” she said, before wandering off and returning with a box and an assortment of lids for the Tupperware containers.
The Comfort Zone really is aptly named. Despite the club environment of the Royal Esquire, the atmosphere created by the warm service and the food that tastes like it came out of your mother’s kitchen makes you feel right at home.
When I asked about the sorcery that must’ve gone into crafting that perfect catfish and greens that tasted just like my grandmother’s, Lewis furtively leaned in to give me one tantalizing detail of the secret catfish recipe (they began to cut the cornmeal with flour after an aunt said cornmeal batter hurt her mouth). Then she smiled and shrugged: “We’re greedy. We love to eat, so we love to cook.”
The Comfort Zone
Soul food; Tuesday-Friday noon-8 p.m., Saturday 3-8 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday; 5016 Rainier Ave S., Seattle; 206-246-2800, thecomfortzonesoulfood.com