Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Tori’s Place is a soul food find

Tori’s Place doesn’t look like much. The soul food restaurant is housed in a little wood building painted vivid violet – a step up from being a shack, really — across the street from the Grant High School football field. The only seating is outside at five tables, with another table in a shaded area on the side. On our visit, a lone stereo speaker blasted R&B music by Maze from its (loud) concert at the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.

Do not, however, let appearances fool you. The sign out front promising “home cooking” delivers in a big way: excellent from-scratch fried chicken, gumbo and fish, and outstanding side dishes. Portions are hefty, prices are fair ($1.50 to $12.50), the ingredients fresh.

Lunch pal Bruce Forman and I arrived at 11:30 a.m. and placed our long order at the little window. Forman is a naturalist with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, knows a lot about mountain lions and is a veteran explorer of small restaurants.

“Do you have lemonade?” he asked the woman behind the window, who turned out to be Veronica Richmond.

“I do,” she said with a wide smile. “I even put my finger in it to make it sweet.”

Veronica helps work the gumbo shack with her twin sister, Victoria (as in Tori) Haggins, who opened it in January after retiring from a career at AT&T and who does the cooking.

“I’ve been cooking since I was 12,” Victoria said on the phone later. “My Auntie Mattie, my mother and my grandmother taught me. The recipes I use are mostly from them.”

After a wait, we were picking up white-foam containers (and plastic utensils) of steaming-hot dishes from the tiny service window. In our experience, soul food doesn’t get any better than this.

We shared juicy chicken thighs (legs and wings are the options) dipped in an egg-milk mixture, dredged in seasoned flour and fried to golden-brown. The thin crust was crunchy, not too salty, and bits of it crumbled into a side dish of tender and sweet collard greens in pot likker, making it even better.

The gumbo was another taste-and-texture sensation. The Creole-Cajun stew was chunky with chicken, sausage coins and two sizes of shrimp, along with okra, green and red bell peppers, onion and enough seasonings to knock our senses upside the head. Tori’s used to serve gumbo only three times a week, but demand was so great it’s now served regularly. We also demolished a crisp, non-oily catfish fillet (you can opt for snapper, a.k.a. rock cod). The entrees included a pancake-shaped disc of crisp-soft buttered cornbread.

Side dishes are skillfully tended: Firm, perfectly seasoned black-eyed peas and pinto beans in luscious broths nudged up against carrot, celery, onion, peppers, okra and tomato. Mac ’n’ cheese was gooey with pepper jack and cheddar.

Frankly, food this good should be served in a better setting, a notion very much on the twins’ minds.

“I have plans to relocate when I can,” Victoria said. “This place is like (a fast-food joint,) but it’s my lifelong dream to open a place that has waterfalls, plants and lots of wood, where people can sit (indoors) and be served. I would like to have live jazz and a gospel brunch on Sundays. There would be white linen on the tables.”

Meanwhile, the present incarnation of Tori’s Place is a find, but caution is advised: Because a two-person staff does all the work in a tiny space, and because most of the dishes are cooked to order and take some time, expect a wait, especially if there’s a crowd. Best bet: Arrive early or late, or phone in your order ahead. We all know the old saying about patience, right?

Ladle the soup

The fall chill is here, and the winter freeze will follow, so we’ll be on the lookout for steaming bowls of soup over the coming months, and sharing what we find. Get going with these:

• Siam Patio owner Kaiyakant Teerapairojn and her staff prepare some of the best Thai food in town, including duck-and-noodle soup. The dark, sweetish broth is aromatic and vibrant with a melange of flavors. The broth starts with the boiled bones from roasted ducks, and moves on to include star anise, cinnamon, coriander root, cloves, cardamon, peppercorns, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galanga (a.k.a. blue ginger).

A big pile of rice noodles and shreds of tender duck are added. Then the concoction is topped with chopped cilantro and scallions, and crunchy bean sprouts ($10).

Siam Patio is at 9830 Fair Oaks Blvd., Fair Oaks; (916) 844-0356,

• The chicken tortilla soup at La Rosa Blanca begins with dark, from-scratch chicken broth with a touch of fire from chipotle peppers. Next come hefty pieces of tender meat from chicken thighs and breasts. Big cubes of creamy avocado bob about in the broth, bumping up against strips of crisp tortilla chips. A heavy sprinkle of cheddar and jack cheeses are next ($10.50).

La Rosa Blanaca is at 402 Natoma St.; (916) 673-9085, A sister restaurant is at 2813 Fulton Ave., Sacramento; (916) 484-6104.

Black truffle time

Just how “gourmet” are you? If you say “very,” then you should know the fourth annual Napa Truffle Festival will be Jan. 17-20. Once again, it offers an a la carte lineup of tastings, events and special lodging packages. The star of the show is the black truffle, a treasured ingredient in haute cuisine and one of the most precious delicacies in the global marketplace.

Festival highlights will include truffle-accented lunches at Nickel & Nickel and Hall wineries, food-and-wine pairings and tastings, and a special truffles-and-wine multicourse dinner at the four-star La Toque restaurant.

Also: cooking demonstrations, truffle cultivation seminars, truffle orchard tour, winery tours, and a marketplace that will showcase specialty wines and foods in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa.

Returning will be a wild mushroom-foraging expedition, followed by a cooking demonstration and lunch at Hall winery.

Tickets are limited and the festival sells out early each year, bringing foodies from all over California and a few foreign countries. For more information and to reserve a spot: (888) 753-9378 or