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Good For the Soul

Familiarity with Celestia Mobley’s work as executive chef and general manager at the Westside favorite, Potter’s House Soul Food Bistro, should prepare one for what’s in store at Cleota’s Southern American Cuisine. But with a menu that takes a few adventurous turns on some well-traveled culinary roads, diners may be surprised where this country cooking eventually takes them.

Located in the former long-time Arlington mainstay Angelo’s Italian Restaurant, Cleota’s showcases a collection of framed photos and artwork with a Harlem Renaissance theme. The warm hues of deep reds and peach set the mood, along with the soft jazz tunes that filled the air on the night of our visit. The restaurant’s open, relaxed dining room was not too crowded with just over a dozen booths lining the walls, and four-top tables filling the center of the room.

Our waiter was responsive and conversational throughout the dinner service. After a few sips of some seriously sweet tea, we sampled our starter for the evening—complimentary hoecakes, a Southern classic few diners know about. While not responsible for the batter, our waiter admitted to frying up the fresh and warm sweet cornmeal medallions (see page 81). They were topped with honey and bacon. No complaints here.

The appetizer menu is where things start to take unexpected turns. We opted for fried green tomatoes and oxtail wontons, both $8. The wontons were the surprise highlight of the evening. Deep-fried and topped with a sweet soy glaze, they were filled with slow braised, shredded oxtail meat and cream cheese—they were decadent and addictive. The Panko-coated fried green tomatoes offered an interesting twist on an old favorite. A crabmeat topping added a nice bit of balance to the acididty of the tomatoes, and a spicy remoulade sauce topped it all off.

Things get back to Mobley’s roots with simple dishes like Southern chicken, $9, pork chops, $12, or jumbo fried shrimp, $12. For a lighter option, try the Cajun bourbon glazed grilled salmon, $12, grilled Basa (catfish), $9, or a three-vegetable plate with options like braised collard greens, field peas with smoked turkey or okra and tomatoes, $8.

The smothered pork chops were rib-sticking good with a savory gravy. The only complaint is that they were cut very thin; a thick chop would have been better. My companion’s fried chicken was peppery, moist and upheld the high standards set by Potter’s House.

Dessert is worth the caloric splurge. Staying true to Southern fare, the peach cobbler we ordered was the real deal. It had a buttery crust instead of drop biscuit dough that’s often used, and came topped with butter-pecan ice cream (it’s usually served with vanilla, but the restaurant was out). It couldn’t have turned out to be a more pleasant combination.

Cleota’s Southern American Cuisine

2111 University Blvd., N., Arlington, 800-2102; cleotas.com

Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 AM-9 PM; Sunday, 11 AM-5 PM

River City Roots: Chef Mobley obtained a degree in culinary management from the FCCJ (now FSCJ) Culinary School. She also worked at Downtown’s exclusive The River Club.

Hoe Down: During the Civil War, soldiers frowned upon carrying iron skillets because of their weight. Instead, they used the blades of their hoes for cooking, making johnnycakes (or journey cakes), which were eventually dubbed “hoecakes.”

Sweet Endings: Pastry chef Erika Davis of Top Chef, Just Desserts assisted with the dessert menu, which includes rotating daily specials. Although it wasn’t available the evening we visited, the banana pudding is something we will go back for.

Drink Up: Cleota’s doesn’t offer liquor drinks—just Southern sweet tea, coffee and sodas. Wine and beer are available upon request.