“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
BEST BET: Chicken and Waffles, Mess-Around-Basket, Sweet Potato Pie, Mac-N-Cheese, Peach Cobble