K’Lynn’s Cuisine – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho

The tethered banner in front of K’Lynn’s Cuisine in Rio Rancho lists a few of the delicious treasures available in the tiny restaurant: “catfish, BBQ, gumbo, po boys, jerk chicken, carne adovada fries & more!”  Yeah, we did a double-take, too.  One of those items just seemed a bit out-of-place?  If you’re thinking “carne adovada fries” don’t belong on the list because they’re not Soul food, you’d be wrong.  Carne adovada fries definitely belong on the list.  So does jerk chicken which, by most conventional definitions, isn’t soul food either.  The one item we thought to be out-of-place was “& more.” 

I mean what more could you possibly want listed on the banner.  If it didn’t have you at “catfish” you probably haven’t had catfish down South…and if it didn’t seal the deal with “gumbo,” you definitely need an infusion of South in your mouth.  Beyond catfish and gumbo, the rest is gravy and it’s absolutely delicious.  Until the summer of 2016, restaurant-goers craving Southern cuisine had only one option for soul food, albeit a wonderful option in Bucket Headz.  For those of us on the “west side,” the  trek to the International District for Malaika’s fabulous cooking is a long (though well worth it) trip.  With the launch of K’Lynn’s Cuisine, we now have a second option to succor our souls.

K’Lynn’s Tiny and Cozy Dining Room

Residents of the City of Vision may be asking themselves where this new denizen of deliciousness is situated.  Most restaurants in the Land of Enchantment’s third most populous city, after all, are clustered on three main arteries: Rio Rancho, Southern and Unser.  K’Lynn’s occupies a Lilliputian space on the northeast side of the Rio Rancho Marketplace, a retail shopping center whose anchor tenants include Target and Albertson’s.  Even if you take Ridgecrest west-bound, it’s not easy to spot.  Trust me.  It’s there and it’s worth a detour from the well-beaten, well-eaten path.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine is the restaurant arm of K’Lynn’s Cuisine & Catering, an enterprise owned and operated by Karen Johnson-Bey, aka K’Lynn.  A self-taught chef, K’Lynn launched her restaurant on July 7th, formerly focusing solely on catering.  It’s no longer Rio Rancho’s best kept secret.  Word is getting out about the tiny place where you can enjoy food for your soul–a mix of soul, Cajun and Caribbean cuisine.  Her culinary repertoire is even more expansive, catering “all types of cuisines from American, New Mexican, Italian and more.”  There’s that “and more” term again.

Gumbo and Cornbread

You probably won’t peruse K’Lynn’s menu too thoroughly.  That’s because the day’s specials, scrawled on a white board on the counter, are so value-priced and tempting.  Listing only a handful of items, the specials list may include such mouth-watering items as crab cakes, oxtail and barbecue ribs.  The menu itself befits the small restaurant.  You might not get any further than the baskets: catfish (one, two or four pieces), fried shrimp or fried crawfish served with your choice of fries or coleslaw, but if you do you’ll run into three entrees: gumbo, jambalaya and jerk chicken.  Hungry diners can opt for platters which are served with your choice of three sides or you can have a two- or three-item combo.  Either way, you won’t leave hungry…and we haven’t even gotten to the appetizers which include such sumptuous starters as popcorn shrimp and the aforementioned carne adovada fries.  Page two of the menu, if you somehow manage to get there, also lists several po’ boy and salad options.

Gumbo is an archetypal Cajun offering and almost inarguably the most popular dish ever conceived in Louisiana (as emblematic of the Bayou State as chile is to New Mexico).  It’s a veritable melting pot dish, transcending all class and income barriers.  With a fragrant bouquet that precedes it, a steaming bowl of good gumbo is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures.  K’Lynn’s offers two options for its gumbo: Andouille sausage and chicken or shrimp. We can’t speak for the version made with shrimp, but the version made with Andouille sausage and chicken is “close your eyes and let the aroma and flavors wash over you” satisfying.  It goes without saying that it pairs best with cornbread, some to sop up that great gumbo and some cornbread with lots of butter.

Catfish, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

One of the Southern traditions we quickly embraced upon moving to Mississippi was a family-style meal of catfish and fried chicken after church every Sunday.  For umpteen consecutive Sundays we visited Aunt Jenny’s in Ocean Springs for a bounteous repast.  Aunt Jenny’s set the bar for catfish rather high and only a handful of restaurants (such as the aforementioned Bucket Headz) in the Land of Enchantment are even in the same zip code as that bar.  Though K’Lynn’s source for catfish isn’t the murky ponds of Mississippi, Californian catfish is still very good.  Sheathed in a golden-hued, lightly seasoned batter, the catfish is light and delicate with a deliciousness that defines any notions you may have about the bottom-dwelling fish.  Catfish goes especially well with mac and cheese and fried green beans, both of which are quite delicious.

While you’re more likely to find restaurants pairing fried chicken with catfish than you are restaurants pairing catfish with jerk chicken, the latter combination goes very well together.   Infused with an assertive jerk seasoning, the beguiling fragrance of which wafts toward your waiting nostrils with a siren’s irresistible call, the chicken is moist and tender, but its most endearing quality is that it allows the deep, emphatic penetration of the slightly sweet, pleasantly piquant jerk seasoning.  If you prefer your jerk chicken to render you a coughing, sputtering, watery-eyed frump, K’Lynn’s version won’t do that for you, but you will enjoy it.

Jerk Chicken, Mac and Cheese and Fried Green Beans

In his terrific tome Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time culinary historian Adrian Miller  declared red Kool-Aid to be the official soul food drink.  That’s a pretty audacious claim for which he puts up a good argument.  In the South, Kool-Aid tends to be made with almost as many scoops of sugar as there are granules of Kool-Aid.  That’s why we prefer K’Lynn’s grape Kool-Aid and ginger ale.  Not only is it not cloying, it’s got a nice  effervescence and it makes you feel as if you’re getting away with something.

While the Land of Enchantment is second only to Georgia in the annual production of pecans, Southerners would argue that only in the South can pecan pie be made the right way.  The “right way” means an almost sickeningly sweet pie, palatable only to diners with a seriously sweet tooth.   In the South most pecan pies are made using dark Karo syrup which has a more pronounced and sweeter flavor courtesy of the addition of molasses.  K’Lynn’s version is made with the not-quite-as-sweet blonde Karo syrup and it’s topped with a smooth bourbon sauce redolent with the unique bouquet of the oak casks in which it is distilled.  Whole pecans and a flaky crust offset the cloying elements.   While some Southerners might complain it’s not sweet enough, most diners will enjoy it very much.

Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

Visionaries (isn’t that what residents of the City of Vision are called) have started to discover K’Lynn’s Cuisine, but it shouldn’t take long for savvy diners from throughout the metropolitan area to find out for themselves that food for your soul is good for everyone.

K’Lynn’s Cuisine
4300 Ridgecrest Drive, Suite O
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 453-3068
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 2 October 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Andouille Sausage Gumbo, Cornbread, Catfish, Mac and Cheese, Fried Green Beans, Jerk Chicken, Red Beans and Rice, Grape Kool Aid, Pecan Pie with Bourbon Sauce

K'Lynn's Cuisine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bucketheadz – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Bucket Headz in its new home on San Pedro just north of Gibson

“I think it’s easy to dismiss Southern food as nothing but grease and grits.
I happen to like both grease and grits,
And if you call them lardo and polenta, no one would have a problem with it.”
~
John T. Edge

Author John T. Edge acknowledges that negative stereotypes are rampant about Southern food, crediting some of those perceptions to how Southern food is marketed. Instead of Southern food being presented as one of America’s great culinary traditions, all too often it’s presented as bumpkinly and backwater. Instead of focusing on its soul-warming deliciousness and comforting properties, it’s presented as fatty, fried and laden with butter.  It could well be argued that Southern cooking is the Rodney Dangerfield of American cuisine; it gets no respect. Credit media, particularly the aptly named “boob tube” for perpetuating unsavory—and often inaccurate–stereotypes.

If you were a product of the ‘60s and 70s, your perceptions of Southern cuisine were probably gleaned from such television shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons. While these programs were generally family-oriented and depicted homespun values, they often portrayed Southern food in a condescending light. Who, for example, can ever forget the typical Beverly Hillbillies soiree of possum shanks, pickled hog jowls, goat tripe, stewed squirrel, ham hocks and turnip greens, gizzards smothered in gristle, and smoked crawdads? Or Aunt Bee’s homemade pickles on the Andy Griffith Show which were described as tasting “like they’ve been floating in kerosene?”

Bucket Headz Dining Room

It doesn’t get any better in contemporary times where today’s viewers are subjected to a barrage of bizarre and jejune wackery. Though we’ve never made it past the first commercial break on either Honey Boo Boo or Duck Dynasty, two minutes of each was enough to convince us that mealtime scenes were probably as bizarre and annoying as the “stars” of these prime-time reality nightmares. Nor have we endured more than a snippet of Chrisley Knows Best, Atlanta’s equivalent of the Kardashians…at least in terms of both plasticine families being ditzy and unlikeable. We don’t even want to imagine what constitutes a dining experience in their world.

Having lived in the Deep South (the Mississippi Gulf Coast) for nearly eight years, we were fortunate enough to discover what Edge describes as “the cradle of some of our great folk foods,” the traditional foods of a small group of people living in isolated or rural areas. Crawfish is one example of a folk food (and so are quelites (lambs quarters), a spinach-like plant enjoyed throughout northern New Mexico). We also discovered the dichotomy of a fierce pride in Southern culinary traditions and a self-effacing modesty that prevents crowing loudly about those traditions.

Catfish, Fried Pickles, Fried Okra, Cornbread

Southerners may not be prone to braggadocio and self-promotion, no matter how good their cooking is, but they are experts in hospitality. Whether in a restaurant or in a private home, Southern hospitality is more than a turn of phrase; it’s a way of life. Food figures prominently in Southern hospitality with heaping helpings expected at church fellowship suppers and picnics. We hadn’t been in our Ocean Springs home for a day before our neighbor Donna Pace welcomed us with a vinegar pie.  If the food doesn’t win you over, the genuine hospitality and warmth of the citizens of the South most certainly will.

Fond memories of Southern hospitality bubbled up when we drove up to Bucket Headz, a Southern restaurant on Louisiana Blvd which opened its doors in October, 2015.  NOTE: In June, 2016, Bucket Headz relocated to 1218 San Pedro, N.E., just south of Gibson in the former home of Talking Drums.   Even without “Southern Home Cooking” subtitled on the marquee,” we knew that a restaurant named Bucket Headz had to be a Southern restaurant. What we didn’t know until walking in was whether or not “Southern home cooking” also meant “soul food.” What’s the difference? San Jose University explains that “While not all Southern food is considered soul food, all soul food is definitely Southern.” Differentiating between the two can be complicated.

Fried Macaroni and Cheese Balls

According to most online definitions, the term “soul food” defines the cuisine associated with African-American culture in the southern United States. In wide use since the 1960s, the term originated and came into heavy use with the rise of the civil rights and black nationalism movements. Though still most widely associated with the African-American culture, over the years “soul food” has become synonymous with basic, down-home cooking, especially of comfort foods…and as Cracked magazine puts it, soul food is “the real reason why white people like Cracker Barrel.”

Bucket Headz is a family-owned and operated business grounded in Southern cooking traditions, described on the restaurant’s Web site as “no fancy frills, just good ol’ down home stick to yo ribs cookin’ just the way our Granny use to make it.” The name Bucket Headz, by the way, is a family nickname—what the family patriarch calls all of his grandkids. Step into the restaurant’s homey confines and you’ll find it readily apparent that the owners are a Godly people. Aphorisms attesting to their faith are splayed on the walls as are kitchen implements hung for decorative purposes.

The Big Boy with Red Beans and Rice

Air Force pride is also on display in signage indicating Bucket Headz is a veteran owned business. Owner Malaika Marks served for four years, while her husband, stationed at nearby Kirtland, has four years to go until he can retire. Malaika’s mother, a delightful “Okie from Muskogee” who helps out at the restaurant, is also an Air Force veteran. During her four-year stint Malaika would bake cakes for General officers, a precursor to her launching Trinity’s Custom Cakes when the family was reassigned to Kirtland. On display in a bakery case is some of her handiwork, including a cake you’d swear is one of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 sneakers.

The family’s Southern heritage has its roots in Louisiana, Oklahoma, Florida and…Chicago (where Malaika’s husband is from). Hospitality is part and parcel of your dining experience as you’ll read in the motto “Come in as a customer, leave as family.” You could also reword that motto to read “Come in hungry, leave full and happy.” In addition to such Southern soul favorites as catfish, chicken and andouille sausage gumbo, smothered pork chops, wings and macaroni and cheese served in more ways that you thought possible, Bucket Heads offers daily specials Monday through Friday. Thursday’s ox tail special is reputed to be exceptional.

Gumbo, the very best in Albuquerque

27 February 2016: As you’ve read (perhaps ad-nauseum) on this blog, one of the foods we’ve missed most from our days in the South is catfish. Most of the catfish we’ve had in New Mexico is so desiccated we wonder if it’s been battered in sawdust. Bucket Headz knows how to prepare catfish, serving lightly breaded, golden-hued filets that are moist, tender and absolutely delicious. Your best bet is the two catish and two sides option. Make those sides fried okra and fried pickles, both as good as you’ll find anywhere in Dixie. The catfish is served with a terrific tartar sauce we practically ignored because of the buffalo-garlic sauce served with another entrée we ordered. The accompanying corn bread relies on sweet niblets of corn for its sweet flavor, not on sugar. It’s a moist corn bread baked “hoe cake” style meaning it’s flat (similar to a pancake).

27 February 2016: Described as “the big brother of po’boy,” the Big Boy has nothing to do with a restaurant of that name. The Big Boy is a behemoth sandwich in which two catfish filets are crammed between a sandwich roll where they share space with a handful of shrimp as well as lettuce, tomatoes and pickles. You can apply as much or as little of buffalo-garlic sauce as you’d like. This sauce packs a bite and has enough garlic to ward off a family of vampires (that’s a good thing unless you’re into Twilight). The shrimp are lightly battered and so fresh, they snap when you bite into them. The Big Boy, much like its little brother the po’ boy, bespeaks of the fine sandwich traditions of the South.  Instead of the usual sandwich sides, ask for the red beans and rice, the best we’ve had outside New Orleans, so good you’ll want a second bowlful.

Bucket Burger Stuffed with Mac and Cheese

27 February 2016: During our eight years in Mississippi, we never ran into anyone who didn’t think Kraft’s version of macaroni and cheese was a travesty. Mac and cheese is always homemade south of the Mason-Dixon line and it’s usually much better than you’ll find north of that demarcation. Obviously recognizing that people are passionate about their macaroni and cheese, Bucket Headz serves it in two unique ways. One is a mac and cheese stuffed burger you’ll have to open wide to bite into. The other is Fried Mac n’ Cheese Balls. Served four to an order, these golden-hued orbs are crispy on the outside and ooey-gooey on the inside with lots of cheesy flavor.  These, as a Southerner might say, are to die for. 

30 March 2016:“There is no dish which at the same time so tickles the palate, satisfies the appetite, furnishes the body with nutriment sufficient to carry on the physical requirements, and costs so little as a Creole Gumbo. It is a dinner in itself, being soup, piece de résistance, entremet and vegetable in one.” That’s how author William Coleman described gumbo, the spicy, hearty, flavorful dish enjoyed throughout the Gulf Coast…and now Albuquerque. The version offered at Bucket Headz is better than many we enjoyed in New Orleans. The swimming pool sized bowl (described by my friend Bill as “a vat”) in which the gumbo is served will feed a small family. Brimming with vegetables, chicken and Andouille sausage in an addictively spiced broth atop rice, the steaming hot bowl is amazingly delicious. Every spoonful is a pleasure trip, the type of which you’ll want to repeat frequently. Though there are a number of hot sauces on your table, it’s a true testament to this gumbo’s greatness that you won’t even be tempted to add more heat to this just right elixir.

Oxtail with Rice and Gravy

30 March 2016: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver is a believer in the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. As he perused the Bucket Headz menu, it was the two photographs of the Bucket Burger that snared his attention. He was intrigued at the notion of a mac and cheese stuffed burger and even more pleased that he could design the burger to his liking with a variety of standard fixin’s and fixin’s for a slight additional charge. Sr. Plata’s masterpiece included lettuce, grilled onions, mushrooms and a fried egg—toppings which increased the girth and volume of this behemoth burger from a half-pound to well over a pound. Not for the faint of heart or calorific underachievers, this burger is as flavorful as it is large. The mac and cheese, stuffed inside hand-formed beef patties, provides the cheese element that makes it a cheeseburger and the element of nostalgia that makes mac-and-cheese a childhood favorite for children of all ages. The mushrooms are fresh, not out of a can. The burger is served with Texas-sized fries about as big as a stick of firewood.

30 March 2016:As she had during my inaugural visit, the delightful Malaika stepped away from her busy kitchen to meet and greet as many diners as time permitted. One of the guests with whom she visited looked very familiar, but it wasn’t until we were leaving that we noticed it was Daniel “Pepper” Morgan, the pitmaster extraordinaire at Pepper’s Bar-B-Q & Soul Food. In that one table at that precise moment, there was more culinary talent than anywhere else in Albuquerque and we were honored to share in conversation with them.

My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott About to Dive Into A Plate of Pork Ribs, Black-eyed Peas and Okra

7 April 2016: Oxtail is to the South what menudo is to New Mexico.  Some people love it and others can’t stomach the notion of eating it (you can probably guess in which camp I stand).  Oxtail is exactly what its name declares it to be: the tail of an ox.  It’s officially classified as offal similar to other organ meats and sweetbreads.  As with other offal, the preparation of oxtail probably arose from the tradition of trying to use every part of every animal butchered.  At Bucket Headz oxtail is available only on Thursdays and if you don’t get there early or pre-order, chances are there won’t be any left.  Served over a bed of rice and a brown gravy, oxtail far from off-putting.  In fact, it’s absolutely delicious, so much so my friend the Dazzling Deanell declared the version at Bucket Headz to be better than oxtail she had in Spain (where amusingly it is known as osso bucco).  It’s better than any oxtail we enjoyed in Mississippi, too. 

15 April 2016: My friend Ryan “Break the Chain” Scott has visited most of the barbecue joints Texas Monthly has anointed as the Lone Star State’s best.  He’s also perfected the low-and-slow smoking techniques used to prepare mouth-watering barbecue at home.  As such, he’s got some serious barbecue creds.  You can’t pull the wool over his eyes.  Within a couple of bites he can tell you exactly how a meat was smoked.  You won’t find a smoker out in back of Bucket Headz, but Ryan quickly discerned the inimitable redolence of low-and-slow smoking on the Flintstonian pork ribs he enjoyed.  An order will bring you three meaty ribs with a lacquered-on sweet and tangy sauce.  The meat isn’t “fall-off-the-bone” tender, but barbecue aficionados know it’s not supposed to be.  Rather, the meat has just a little bit of “give” which means it’s smoked to perfection.

Chicken Fried Steak with Macaroni and Cheese and Sweet Potatoes

15 April 2016: Ryan has been known to tell me “where to go” on several occasions, but that’s only where to go to find great wings.  Only my friend Ralph Guariglio in Ahwatukee, Arizona and maybe an ornithologist or two know as much about wings as Ryan.  About the only thing he can’t tell you is the name of the chickens who gave themselves up so we could enjoy their delicious appendages.  When Ryan raved about the buffalo garlic wings at Bucket Headz, it was a certainty that they’d be superb.  They are!  These wings are huge, obviously coming from chickens who kicked sand in the face of smaller fowl.  Malaika fries them to a golden hued crispiness then slathers on the buffalo garlic sauce which has both the kick of buffalo sauce and the pungent heat of garlic.  The wings are meaty and delicious, as good as wings can be.  On the day Ryan and I visited, a table of six Air Force enlisted men put away some eighty wings.  They made me proud to have served in the world’s finest Air Force.

15 April 2016:  My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” may never forgive me in that I got to visit Bucket Headz on a day in which chicken fried steak with two sides was the special of the day.  Sr. Plata loves chicken fried steak even more than he loves his truck and that’s a lot of love.  While most chicken fried steak is good, it doesn’t always have a lot of personality and often the personality it does have is gleaned from artery-clogging gravy.  Malaika imbues her chicken fried steak with lots of personality, what might be called “sass” in the South.  The breading she uses is impregnated with Cajun spices which will give you an immediate kick.  The peppery white gravy lends its own sass to the tender breaded cube steak.  The perfect side and a wonderful foil for this personality blessed chicken fried steak is sweet potatoes, the very best I’ve ever had.  They’re buttery, sweet and rich, so good you’ll wish you had a sweet potato pie to go with them.

Cinnamon Rolls

27 February 2016: You won’t find better desserts anywhere unless you go online to Trinity’s Custom Dessert Studio where Malaika’s handiwork is on display.  Her repertoire of postprandial deliciousness includes such Southern favorites as sweet potato pie and red velvet cake, the latter being the best we’ve ever had.  Sinfully rich and sweet, it’s also ogle-worthy (but won’t be for long as you’ll want to dive into it quickly).  The cinnamon rolls are the size of bricks and as tasty as any you’ll find in the Duke City.  The operative word here is “cinnamon” and there’s plenty of it though not nearly as much as there is icing.  The interplay between the two is as harmonious as music performed by Musica Antigua de Albuquerque

Red Velvet Cake

One visit to Bucket Headz probably won’t cure you of any ill perceptions you may have about Southern cuisine, but this is not a restaurant to which one visit will suffice.  Bucket Headz could easily become a habit.

Bucket Headz
600 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 301-1314
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2016
1st VISIT: 27 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Red Velvet Cake, Cinnamon Roll, Catfish, Fried Macaroni and Cheese Balls, Fried Pickles, Fried Okra, Big Boy Sandwich, Red Beans and Rice, Hoe Cakes, Gumbo, Oxtail, Sweet Potatoes, Chicken Fried Steak, Buffalo Garlic Chicken Wings, Pork Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese, Church Punch

Bucket Headz Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gullah Cuisine – Mount Pleasant, South Carolina (CLOSED)

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Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

No culinary tour of South Carolina’s Lowcountry would be complete without sampling Gullah cuisine at least once.  In the Lowcountry, Gullah represents several things: people, culture and language.   As a people, the Gullah represent a distinctive group of African Americans living along the island chains and coastal plains which parallel the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The Gullah people are directly descended from the  thousands of slaves who labored on the rice plantations in the moist, semitropical country bordering the South Carolina and Georgia coastline. 

Because of their relative isolation, the Gullah have managed to preserve their dialect and culture more completely than virtually any other group in the country.  Where Gullah culture is most in evidence is in the foods of the region.    Gullah cuisine reflects the rich bounty of the islands: crabs, shrimp, fish, oysters as well as vegetables (greens, corn and tomatoes).  Rice is omnipresent, served at nearly every meal.  You can’t really say you’ve experienced Lowcountry cuisine unless you’ve had Gullah cuisine.

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Chef Charlotte Jenkins

It’s often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Because the original Gullahs had very few cookware provisions, many of the dishes they prepared were cooked in one large pot. Fish, poultry and meat were cooked together with rice, vegetables, peppers, potatoes and/or legumes to create stews and soups still served today. Meats, fish and poultry were also smoked over an open flame, advancing the development of barbecue techniques still in use. Traditional Gullah cooking uses a special spice blend similar to Cajun seasonings in their assertiveness.

It can also be said that without the presence of the Gullah culture, there would be no Lowcountry cooking; it would all be Southern cooking. To the Gullahs, preparing and sharing food has always meant more than sustenance. Preparing and serving meals was often almost ritualistic in nature, feeding the soul as well as the body. The Gullahs describe their cuisine as “food that speaks to ya.” It certainly did speak to me!

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Cornbread with butter

The epicenter of contemporary Gullah cuisine lies just east of Charleston in the burgeoning hamlet of Mount Pleasant.  That’s where Chef Charlotte Jenkins plies her creativity, serving the best Gullah-soul food in the country.  That’s not just my opinion.  Southern Living magazine, Gourmet magazine, The New York Times and a phalanx of other publications have said so as well.  Chef Jenkins is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant and is as friendly as can be.  When she asked to see the photograph I took of her, she intercepted my “you’re very photogenic” response, replacing “photogenic” with “cute.” I’ll grant her that.  She is very cute.

Chef Jenkins had to surmount humble origins to achieve the acclaim she has earned.  She learned to cook Gullah the way her mother, grandmother and all other mothers that preceded her–by working alongside one another.  The work ethic and discipline she learned from her upbringing prepared her well for more regimented training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston where she learned to adapt healthful elements into traditional recipes.  She launched Gullah Cuisine in 1997.

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Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

While pondering the menu, a single cupcake baking cup nestling a sweet crumbly cornbread with butter was delivered to my table.  It’s as simple and no-frills as cornbread can be, but that purity is what makes it so good.  The only thing wrong with the cornbread is that two or six more weren’t brought to my table.

If it’s sexist to admit preferring she-crab to he-crab, picture me a male chauvinist pig.  A week in South Carolina has left me besotted with she-crab soup.  Made from crab stock, blue crab meat, heavy cream and most notably, crab roe then finished with a splash of sherry, it’s a Charleston specialty.  The “she” portion of this soup, of course, is courtesy of the female crab roe.  Charlotte’s she crab soup is unctuous and replete with blue crab.  The sherry is discernible with its crisp, sweet, spicy and refreshing properties. 

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Smothered fried chicken with collard greens and red rice

Daily specials are priced ridiculously low, especially considering the quality and portion size. Great fortune smiles upon diners when smothered chicken is served. This isn’t a de-boned chicken breast out of a bag.  It’s a whole, moist thigh with an attached wing.  White meat a plenty is just below the surface of a thin-crusted skin.  Smothered means gravy and though thin, this brown gravy is flavorful (corn bread would have been useful here).  The collard greens and red rice are excellent, too.

The dessert menu lists only five items, but savvy diners stop reading after bread pudding. This is no pedestrian bread pudding. It’s in the pantheon of great puddings I’ve ever had, in no small part due to its simplicity. Served hot, it’s stuffed with spiced peaches and punctuated with raisins.  The spiced peaches are a revelation, pairing wonderfully with a soft, spongy bread.

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Bread Pudding

American cuisine owes much to the Gullah culture.  So much more than Southern cuisine, soul food and even Lowcountry cuisine, it’s great cooking incomparably exemplified by Chef Charlotte Jenkins.

Gullah Cuisine
1717 North Highway 17
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Smothered Fried Chicken, Bread Pudding, Collard Greens, Charlotte’s She Crab Soup

Gullah Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Magnolias – Charleston, South Carolina

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Magnolias on a rainy Charleston afternoon

Some four million visitors flock to Charleston, South Carolina every year.  Charleston is the beguiling Southern charmer, a siren which lures guests with its storied history, artistic communities, architectural styles (which range from antebellum to art-deco), pristine beaches (on ninety miles of coastline) and, of course, incomparable Lowcountry cuisine.  Known as the “Holy City” because of the prevalence of churches on the city skyline, the sub-sobriquet “foodies’ heaven” is fitting; however, as songster Steve Miller reminds us in his hit tune Jet Liner, “You know you got to go through hell before you get to heaven.”

A great number of Charleston’s very best restaurants are clustered around the historic district, an area several  times larger and much more crowded than the Santa Fe Plaza.  Getting there is akin to being on a parade route, one with dozens of stop lights.  Arriving is only half the challenge.  Finding an empty parking spot is comparable to finding a car with working eight-track player.  You’ll drive around in circles for a while before finally wandering further out.  When you finally locate that elusive parking spot, you now have to traipse that much further on uneven cobblestone walkways to the restaurant while heat and humidity (or often the case, rain) sap you of energy and enthusiasm.  A restaurant had better be good for what it puts diners through to get there.

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Sourdough bread with a whipped butter

Located in the very heart of the historic district and situated in the site of the original customs house, Magnolias is worth the frustration and the trek. Open since 1990, it is one of the South’s most revered destinations for upscale Southern cuisine, a culinary approach it calls “Uptown/Down South.”  Magnolias is credited widely with helping spur the creative use of fresh seasonal bounty that sparked a revolution in Lowcountry cuisine.  Roadfood founder Michael Stern says it best: “…this restaurant has set standards of classic down south food served with uptown panache.”

A classically elegant fine dining restaurant combining true Southern flair with Charleston charm, Magnolias lives up to its name.  Though too early in the year to imbibe the sweet fragrance of blossoming magnolias, I could still appreciate the glossy leaves someone else would have to rake when they fall.  Freshly cut magnolia branches in clear vases festoon the main dining room and large paintings of magnolias hang on the wall.  An elevated horseshoe-shaped bar with tall stools provides the best vantage point if you’re into people-watching.  The most obvious observation may be that everyone is dressed better than you are.  South Carolinians are remarkably fastidious and ridiculously thin considering almost everything they eat is made with cream and butter.  Hmm, can their svelte physiques possibly be attributed to walking long distances from parking spots to restaurants?

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Blue Crab Bisque
fresh chives

The nattily attired wait staff is professional and on-the-spot with recommendations based on your taste preferences.  While you’re contemplating the menu and the day’s specials, a small loaf of sourdough bread with  a housemade whipped butter arrive, nestled in a white linen napkin.  The sourdough is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside.  Because it’s such an excellent bread, it may be a challenge to save a slice or two for dredging up some of the wonderful sauces that will soon decorate your plates.

In that my stay in the Palmetto State was so relatively short (one week), I made it a point to consume as much blue crab bisque as possible. Yeah, that’s the reason.  It has nothing to do with the fact that blue crab is one of nature’s perfect foods (just ask Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate). Magnolias version of blue crab bisque may be the best I’ve had.  It’s served steaming hot and has a rich creaminess redolent with delicious crab meat.  Larry will probably attribute their deliciousness to the fact that these blue crabs migrated from Maryland.

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Down South Egg Roll

Perhaps the most famous (featured even on Southwest Airlines Spirit magazine) appetizer on Magnolias menu is the Down South Egg Roll, a crispy egg roll engorged with spicy tasso (a smoked ham), minced chicken and collard greens served with a moderately piquant red pepper puree, spicy ground mustard and topped with a sweet peach chutney.   These egg rolls have replaced the fabulous duck egg rolls at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro as my very favorite.  The key to maximizing their enjoyment is to ensure every sauce is represented on every bite though these egg rolls are fabulous even sans sauce.

Magnolias is open seven days a week and serves lunch every day but Sunday from 11:30AM to 3:45PM.  Brunch is served on Sundays.  There are significant commonalities between the lunch and dinner menus–not only in the starters, salads and soup menus, but even among the Down South Entrees.  This is a very welcome departure from fine-dining restaurants who demote lunch to overly expensive sandwiches.  One traditionally Southern entree which should be served for every meal (and even snacks) is fried chicken.  Magnolias is among the very best I’ve ever had, on par with Stroud’s in Kansas City.

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Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast
cracked pepper biscuits, mashed potatoes, collard greens, creamed corn, sausage-herb gravy

To honor my Kim, I ordered her very favorite foods, all served on one entree.  Picture a cold December day as the Dallas Cowboys are squandering yet seemingly insurmountable lead to lose another game.  My solace is buttermilk fried chicken, mashed potatoes,  gravy, biscuits and creamed corn.  These comforting foods are all available in one plate at Magnolias.  The buttermilk fried chicken breast is absolute perfection, a large de-boned chicken breast marinated overnight in buttermilk then deep-fried to a golden hue.  The mashed potatoes are partially covered (not submerged as is my preference) with a sausage-herb gravy.  Two cracked pepper biscuits, creamed corn and collard greens round out this plate (and my belly).  This is comfort food at its very finest. 

Dessert (which I ordered only as a public service should you ever need to know what to have) is limited to six items plus a number of ice creams.  Being limited in number is certainly not synonymous with lacking in deliciousness.  The Southern Pecan Pie is fantastic courtesy of South Carolina grown pecans, a bourbon caramel sauce and a topping of vanilla bean ice cream.  As with most pecan pies, this one is almost preternaturally rich, but so addictive, you can’t stop eating it.

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Southern Pecan Pie

In 2010, Charleston was named America’s “Friendliest City” by Travel & Leisure Magazine Two years later, it garnered the magazine’s number one spot for “Fine Dining Restaurants.” Magnolias ranks with the very best restaurants in Charleston, serving memorable meals that beckon for a return visit someday soon.

MAGNOLIAS
185 East Bay Street
Charleston, South Carolina
(843) 577.7771
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 26
COST: $$$
BEST  BET: Blue Crab Bisque, Southern Pecan Pie, Buttermilk Fried Chicken Breast, Down South Egg Roll

Magnolias on Urbanspoon

A Taste of Soul – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

A Taste of Soul Restaurant on San Mateo

1 think it is important to point out that barbecued ribs,
black-eyed peas, grits, and collards may,
in fact, be a choice dish to many black Americans.
But it also sounds pretty darn good to me, a white man.
I grew up on soul food. We just called it country cooking.
My grandmother cooked it. My mother cooked it
.
– Lewis Grizzard

American writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard, a fiercely proud Southerner, delighted in assailing Yankees, liberal politics, feminists and political correctness.  It was the latter which rankled his ire and prompted a rather incisive diatribe from which the above quote is taken.  Grizzard, who even named his beloved Labrador “Catfish,” rose up in defense of barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas, grits and collards when they were pulled from the menu of an automobile plant in Illinois because of complaints that these dishes stereotyped “black dining habits.”

Having lived in Mississippi for eight years (1987-1995), I can attest to the fact that these dishes stereotype the dining habits of most Southerners, not specifically those of black diners.  Those dishes were inculcated into our dining habits, too…and we didn’t care if the name on the restaurant’s marquee read “soul food,” “Southern food” or “country cooking.”  All that mattered is that these dishes were hearty and delicious.  Almost invariably they were.

The interior at Taste of Soul

There are several things about living in the Deep South we don’t miss in the least: the oppressive humidity; evacuating our home every time a hurricane approached the Gulf, and not knowing what, if anything we’d come back to; the scarcity of green chile…  What we have missed immensely is the excellent soul food and its plenitude.  Here, with apologies to Lewis Grizzard, I actually distinguish “soul food” from “country cooking.”  The difference, we found was sometimes attitudinal…and yes, racial.  Not racist!  Racial! Soul food reflects the cultural spirit and culinary traditions of black Americans.

In the fifteen years since our return to the Land of Enchantment, we’ve seen the much ballyhooed launch of several promising soul food restaurants only to be left disappointed scant months later when those restaurants closed.  For the most part, these restaurants served very good to excellent soul food, at least one restaurant being on par with some of the best we experienced on the Gulf Coast.  Considering the Duke City’s broad-minded acceptance of diverse culinary cultures, it’s always surprising…and sad, to see soul food restaurants go by the wayside.

The "Mess-Around-Basket" (Half Order) - 1 fish, 1 chicken, 6 fried oysters, fried pickles, French fries

When Shannon McKigney, a New Orleans native, gave Albuquerque’s newest (as of July, 2010) soul food restaurant a rousing endorsement, we had to try it.  Like me, Shannon doesn’t mind waiting for food to be prepared from scratch if the wait proves worthwhile.  In her estimation, the food at the aptly named “A Taste of Soul” is “totally worth it.”  A Taste of Soul cafe is situated at the former home of Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant, a magnificent shooting star which fizzled away much too quickly, but left an indelible impression.

A Taste of Soul is a family-owned and operated cafe with Alvin Bailey at the helm.  Before striking out on his own, Alvin  spent the better part of two decades working at several hotel restaurants including the Pyramid and Hotel Albuquerque.  Originally from Texas, he prepares some of the very best home-cooking style soul food we’ve had in fifteen years–and that includes soul food from several highly regarded  soul food restaurants in Las Vegas, Nevada and Chicago.  Alvin told us there’s more to come.  He plans on introducing soups and gumbos to the menu over time, describing them as mouth-watering.

Tasty Chicken and Waffles--Fried chicken and home-made buttermilk waffles

The restaurant’s mission statement, printed on the menu, should heighten your expectations: “We put our hearts and soul into the food and service that is provided.”  Isn’t that an approach every restaurant should take?  Service is cordial and accommodating, friendly without being obtrusive.  Alvin’s lovely better half is A Taste of Soul’s hostess and ambassador, a gracious lady who makes all guests feel welcome.   The ambiance is also quite welcoming, starting from the cranberry red exterior that makes the restaurant very conspicuous in an earth-tone dominated street.

Signage on the roof is nondescript, while signage on an exterior wall depicts a mammy, the most enduring racial caricature of African American women.  The interior walls are also cranberry as are the table cloths, atop of which are  condiments which grace many a Southern table: ketchup, Trappey’s hot peppers, barbecue sauce in a plastic squeeze bottle and McIlhenny brand hot sauce.  A wooden planked floor painted beige lends a creaky character.  Only about a dozen tables adorn the restaurant, but they’re well-spaced for privacy.

Mac-N-Cheese

A Taste of Soul is open six days a week: Tuesday through Sunday and features daily soul soup specials ranging from meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes on Tuesday to smothered oxtails with rice, greens and black-eye peas on Sunday.  All daily specials come with cornbread or white bread and a beverage–either tea (sweetened or unsweetened) and Kool-Aid.  There are only ten items on the menu, all prepared to order so it will take time for you to be served.  The kids’ menu includes a free drink or a scoop of ice cream.  A number of side orders and a la carte items are also available.

Hearty appetites will gravitate to “The-Mess-Around-Baskets,” available in half-order or full-order sizes.  The full-order, we were told, feeds three or four people.  A half-order would easily feed two.  The half-order includes one fish (either catfish or red snapper), one piece of chicken, six fried oysters, fried pickles and French fries.  The platter is brimming with delicious fried goodness, but also includes sliced dill pickles, onion slices and a hot Louisiana cherry pepper.

The catfish is sliced into several long strips (they must start with a very large catfish) and coated in a light cornmeal batter. The golden-hued batter provides a textual contrast to the light, flaky catfish which maintains a nice juiciness despite being fried and battered. The chicken is moist and delicious, surprisingly meaty considering the piece I got was a rather large wing. The fried oysters are crunchy on the outside and explode with characteristically briny flavor within, just the way oysters should taste. Fried pickles are a Southern delicacy and an acquired taste with a delicate coating complementing the tangy dills. The mountain of fries is best eaten when dipped in a ketchup-hot sauce mix.

Peach Cobbler

Perhaps the most popular soul food combination across the fruited plain is the marriage of crispy, Southern-style fried chicken with waffles draped in maple syrup and butter.  A golden, orb-shaped waffle sliced into four pieces, has just a slight crunch that belies a silken texture.  The syrup, flavored with butter and vanilla, is served warm, covering an already warm waffle with even more comforting heat. The combination of sweet and savory makes for an excellent meal, better than an entree and dessert pairing.

From the single items menu, a real winner is the Mac-N-Cheese, a bowlful of rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, a complete antithesis of the popular child’s favorite that comes from a box. This Mac-N-Cheese is served hot, but not quite bubbly so you can dig right in. It’s a melt-in-your-mouth macaroni and cheese dish that exemplifies the best of “down home” mac-and-cheese with none of the pretensions high-end restaurants like to add.

The dessert menu features peach cobbler, sweet potato pie, banana pudding and a green chile apple pie.  The peach cobbler is fabulous, some of the very best we’ve had in the Duke City.  It is served warm and is redolent with the spicy fragrance of cinnamon and cloves.  The crust is buttery, fluffy and light while the peaches have a fresh and moist deliciousness.  The cobbler is neither too sweet nor is it replete with pectin.    The foundation of the sweet potato pie is a light, flaky crust.  The sweet potato pie is very nicely sweetened with just a hint of nutmeg.  Served warm, the only way to improve it would have been with a dollop of vanilla ice cream for which I forgot to ask.

Sweet Potato Pie

Famished masses longing for a taste of soul food will find none better than at A Taste of Soul!  This is a crowd-pleasing, appetite satisfying restaurant that will hopefully be making Duke City diners smile for a long time.

A Taste of Soul
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chicken and Waffles, Mess-Around-Basket, Sweet Potato Pie, Mac-N-Cheese, Peach Cobble

A Taste of Soul Cafe on Urbanspoon

Almost Gourmet Soul Food – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Almost Gourmet Soul Food

Almost Gourmet Soul Food

NOTE:  Although the Almost Gourmet Soulfood restaurant is now closed, owner Genice Monroe remains in the catering business, working out of a commercial kitchen in the city.  She is working on a Web site from which you will be able to order the fantastic soul food you fell in love with at her restaurant.  Call Genice at (505) 353-0799 for all your catering needs.

One of my favorite catechism words, concupiscence, might best describe my passion for soul food.  Concupiscence of the body, I was taught, is “the blind tendency of your feelings and animal appetites to seek satisfaction, regardless of intelligence and reason.”

Having lived for nearly eight years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and within short driving distance of New Orleans, we became intimately, even passionately, familiar with soul food.  It was among our very favorites of any cuisine. To quell our yearnings for soul food (the more authentic the better), we often frequented less than savory” neighborhoods which even Mother Teresa herself might have avoided.  Such “boldly go where no white man has gone before” excursions resulted in our introduction to, among other things, the pit barbecuing of goats, an experience which reminded me somewhat of the matanzas with which I grew up in New Mexico.

Sadly our return to New Mexico would mean dim prospects for finding not just palatable soul food, but any soul food whatsoever.  Since our return to the Land of Enchantment in 1995, we have seen about half a dozen soul food restaurants open to critical acclaim only to close shortly thereafter.  It seems no sooner do we discover a new soul food gem that our hearts are broken by its closure.

Fried Chicken with two sides: Okra and Mac & Cheese

Fried Chicken with two sides: Okra and Mac & Cheese

We’ve got our fingers crossed that the Almost Gourmet Soul Food Restaurant will buck that heinous trend–even though at month’s end (February, 2009), the restaurant will vacate its San Pedro and Copper premises in search of new digs. preferably on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side.

The San Pedro area where the restaurant is situated is directly across the street from one of the main entrances to the New Mexico State Fair complex.  This part of San Pedro is very heavily trafficked, but that hasn’t necessarily worked to Almost Gourmet’s advantage.  The restaurant sits back on an inconspicuous storefront location and sometimes southbound traffic is so heavy that it completely blocks northbound traffic’s visibility to the restaurant.  Coupled with an austere parking situation and it’s no wonder the restaurant isn’t better known.

Almost Gourmet Soul Food began as a catering business in 2006 with the restaurant following suit some two years later.  The name “Almost Gourmet” is seemingly a contradiction in terms.  Soul food is generally antithetical to gourmet.  Where gourmet is cuisine, soul food is the kind of stuff ordinary people eat at home every day.  Proprietor Genice Monroe defines soul food as “country cooking.”  It’s what she grew up with here in Albuquerque even though the genesis of her family recipes is the Dallas, Texas area.

BBQ Babyback Pork Ribs

BBQ Babyback Pork Ribs

Almost Gourmet Soul Food is also antithetical to fast food.  Everything is made from scratch and to order.  Genice will escort you to your table, take your drink order (the sweet tea is exactly the way we grew to love it in Mississippi) and hand you a menu.  When she returns with your drinks, she’ll be happy to answer any questions you may have on the preparation of the entrees on her menu.

It’s a terrific menu replete with smoked, fried, barbecued and gravy-laden entrees all Soul food aficionados love. The most “gourmet” sounding entree is baked salmon, the most hard-core is pig feet.  There are main entrees such as fried pork chop dinners and catfish plates.  There are also sandwiches and stews.  Because she grew up in the Duke City, Genice even offers red or green enchiladas with beans, probably not the most frequently requested item on the menu.

That honor probably goes to the fried chicken dinner–two hulking pieces of juicy Southern-fried chicken with a brittle, lightly peppered crust.  This is chicken the way it’s supposed to be made–a 20-minute preparation time ensures it arrives at your table at the height of juiciness and fried to a golden sheen.  Cut into the crust and steam wafts upwards with the aroma of pure deliciousness.

The fried chicken dinner is served with your choice of two sides: blackeye peas, cabbage, greens, mac and cheese, sweet potato, fried okra, potato salad, rice, black beans, pinto beans, red beans or salad.  A single slab of cornbread also accompanies this plate.

The Mac and cheese is terrific–artery-clogging cheese coagulating around perfectly cooked macaroni. The best parts are where the cheese has just a bit of crust.  The fried okra, a simple Southern classic, is lightly breaded to a golden sheen that leaves it just slightly crispy.  On the inside, it’s soft, chewy and terrific.

Another must-have entree is Almost Gourmet’s BBQ babyback pork ribs (the most expensive entree on the menu).  The ribs are slathered in a slightly vinegary tomato-based sauce with just a hint of sweetness.  These are meaty, fall-off-the-bone tender ribs with nary any fat.  These are the type of ribs you want about a dozen of.

A dozen visits (at least) to Almost Gourmet is what the future should bode for savvy soul food lovers–should Genice decide to reopen her restaurant.  In the meantime, her catering business will continue to please Duke City soul food fanatics.  This is soul food too good not to find a good home, hopefully one close to me.

Almost Gourmet Soul Food
303 San Pedro, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 353-0799
LATEST VISIT: 21 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Fried Chicken Dinner, BBQ Babyback Pork Ribs, Sweet Tea