Bring mac and cheese, fried catfish and sweet potato pie straight into your home.
A fried fish plate from Henry’s Soul Cafe isn’t complete without a side of mac & cheese. | April Greer/Thrillist
A fried fish plate from Henry’s Soul Cafe isn’t complete without a side of mac & cheese. | April Greer/Thrillist
During the first few weeks of my new life in Brooklyn, I felt homesick. Everything in New York is so fast-paced; the people, the trains, even the food. I needed to find a piece of real home somewhere in the vast city, and now more than ever do I crave a good home cooked meal from a kitchen that isn’t my own.
As someone who was born and raised in Georgia — in my grandma and great grandma’s kitchens — my palate craves collard greens cooked with ham hocks, fried chicken with hot sauce (legs are the best part, no debate here), and pork chops. New York’s soul food scene is where I was reminded of who and where I came from, that I’ll always have roots deeply planted in the soils tended by my family before me.
Not to be confused with Southern comfort food, soul food has historic roots that differentiate it from other American cuisines. The legacy of soul food is marinated in tenacity and soaked in a pot of togetherness.
When considering what the definition of soul food is, I looked to the expertise of soul food scholar and culinary historian, Adrian E. Miller.
“Soul food is the Southern food that Black migrants took outside the south and transplanted in other parts of the country,” Miller said. “Soul food is usually more intensely seasoned, relies on the use of a variety of meats, and usually borders the line between savory and sweet.”
A major impact on the development and preservation of what we know of as soul food in the United States was the Great Migration that started at the beginning of the 20th century and continued through the 1970s.
During this period of time, vast amounts of African Americans left the American South in pursuit of job opportunities not riddled with overbearing racism. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Washington, DC and Houston were the centers of this massive migration. Communal cooking became a time to show love and graciousness through the food that kept these Black migrants fed physically and emotionally.
“The reason why I talk about migrants and soul food is that I argue that soul food is the celebration food of the south and then that food was transplanted across the country,” Miller said. He added that people usually think soul food is an everyday meal, but it was really only eaten and available during special occasions.
Whether it’s the heavily praised baked macaroni and cheese from Henry’s Soul Cafe in D.C., or fried chicken smothered in savory gravy from Dulan’s Soul Food in Los Angeles, soul food now shows up on menus across the country.
I set out to check on the status of some of the most important soul food restaurants around the country given the difficult circumstances of COVID-19, and provide some ways on how local communities can support them. As of May 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 27.4% of COVID-19 cases were Black/African Americans. The economic impact of the pandemic trickled down into Black-owned businesses, including restaurants and cafes. With the common absence of business loans and the looming evidence of Black Americans being at a higher risk of being infected, many Black restaurant owners faced difficulty in deciding whether to stay open or close temporarily.
Although this list could go on forever, it is not exhaustive and works best as a launching pad on your soul food journey. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, I asked experts to name the soul food restaurants they considered the best in the cities that they live in or cover. Are the collard greens braised to near perfection? Can the macaroni and cheese stand the test of time it travels in a takeout container? Yes, the skin on the fried chicken is crunchy enough, but is it seasoned with onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper and paprika? Find the closest spot to you and order delivery or takeout to experience the greatness for yourself.
| Nolis Anderson/Thrillist
This midwestern city’s culinary culture is not one to miss. Options are plentiful for those who wish to coat their taste buds in rich seasonings and juicy goodness, but one place stands out above the rest in the minds of Chicago food bloggers. Located in Chicago’s West Town, Soulé’s creole-infused soul food has been a staple in the community since it opened in 2017. The Black Foodies, a husband and wife duo who have taken the YouTube food scene by storm with their reviews of Black-owned restaurants in Chi-town and around the world, told me Soulé reigns supreme.
“We appreciate having a diverse offering of ‘soul food’ to choose from, which heightens our dining experience,” Dino Dean, one half of The Black Foodies, said.
And a diverse offering is exactly what you’ll get at Soulé . From traditional soul food dishes like fried catfish, to New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp and grits, your mouth will take a trip around the diaspora.
As a response to shelter-in-place policies, Soulé closed on March 25 and reopened roughly three weeks later on April 16. Soulé’s owner and head cook, Bridgette Flagg told me her decision to reopen her restaurant after three weeks of it being closed was heavily based on taking care of her employees and keeping her business afloat.
“100% of my employees are from low income communities, so they didn’t have any way of getting resources or making money,” Flagg said. “I also don’t have any business loans or anything so I just didn’t want my business to fail.”
Flagg was only able to keep 14 out of 26 of her employees on staff and said she has been trying to help the unemployed staff members in any way she can, including offering small work tasks just so they will have some type of income.
As for the restaurant’s menu, Flagg told me some food items have been removed due to quality concerns, such as the fried green tomatoes which can get soggy if they sit for too long and the jerk salad. Even with a reduced menu however, the flavors and freshness of Soulé’s remaining food items seen on the menu prior to the pandemic still draw in a large number of takeout and delivery orders.
For Chicago native Jeremy Joyce, the founder of Black People Eats, a site that promotes Black-owned restaurants and food and drink companies around the world, Soulé gives familiar dishes an exciting spin.
“When it comes to food, their bold take on family favorites brings life back to the table,” Joyce said. “I mean every bite into the succulent boneless catfish, coupled with savory chicken spaghetti and sauteed green beans will have your mouth jumping for joy.”
Until we’re able to also enjoy the homey atmosphere and lush white seats that have been graced by celebrities such as Chris Rock, Lil Baby, and WNBA star Erica Wheeler, you can support Soulé by ordering takeout or delivery.
Atlanta: Home of the Braves, Outkast, and an abundance of exquisite soul food spots like Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours are waiting for your arrival. As the restrictions in Georgia loosen, many restaurant owners are still pushing back against opening so soon as putting their customers and employees at risk remains a major concern. As of right now, Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours is only open for takeout and delivery.
As a Georgia native, I have a few places that I consider staples, but to lessen my own bias, I reached out to award-winning blogger Erica Key, creator of Eating With Erica, to inquire about her favorite spot in the city. She’s been featured on Good Morning America and has written about a vast amount of Atlanta restaurants on her blog.
“Today’s soul food isn’t about reinventing the wheel as it is about making classic soul food dishes your own. When you think of the word ‘best,’ it is defined as that which is the most excellent, outstanding, or desirable,” Key said. “Truer words could not describe Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours, as they are the best in their league when it comes to distinctive and delectable soul food…”
Owner and Executive Chef Deborah VanTrece takes a creative approach to soul food at Twisted Soul Cookhouse. On the normal brunch menu, you’ll find dishes like the Nashville Hot Catfish Po-Boy, Dirty South Fried Chicken Omelette, and Fried Chicken Monte Cristo with jalapeño cheese and cranberry maple bourbon glaze.
When it’s safe to dine in for dinner again, be sure to order one of their signature cocktails like Fire and Desire, which features Casamigos mezcal, hibiscus, Himalayan salt, and Aztec chocolate bitters; or Billie’s Holiday, which consists of D’Usse Cognac, caramelized fig syrup, balsamic splash, and Tawny Port wine.
In the meantime, take advantage of Twisted Soul’s reduced takeout and delivery menu, which includes the “Georgia Chick,” a southern marinated fried half chicken with chutney, and classic sides like garlic mashed potatoes, three cheese macaroni and cheese, and slow braised greens with jalapenos.
How to order: Order delivery and takeout through their website
While Los Angeles may not be the first place you think of when you’re craving soul food, that doesn’t mean your stomach will be left growling.
Owned by Gregory A. Dulan and Terrence Dulan, sons of the late “King of Soul Food,” Adolf Dulan, Dulan’s Soul Food Kitchen’s three locations all serve the same entrées, sides and desserts no matter which location you order from, you won’t miss out. Adolf Dulan was also the founder of Aunt Kizzy’s Back Porch, a successful soul food pillar in the Marina del Rey community of Los Angeles that was visited by many celebrities such as Little Richard, Janet Jackson, Kobe Bryant, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Much like every restaurant across the country for the past few months, business has not been usual for Dulan’s. Co-ownner Terrence Dulan said all three restaurant locations were closed for ten days to “get a lay of the land” and figure out how to move forward. Currently, all three are open for takeout and delivery.
“I went out and bought masks, gloves, and a plastic guard for our cashier. We moved our line of customers outside the restaurant,” Dulan said. “We’re just doing takeout and keeping people 6 feet apart and following all the California guidelines.”
One of the major challenges Dulan noted was how to reorganize the business to not only keep customers safe, but also keep the employees working. He was able to keep his entire staff employed and to give them time off as needed.
“Business is down 40 to 50%, but I wanted to keep everybody employed,” Dulan said. “It was just a tough decision on what to actually do and there was a lot of confusion.”
One thing that has kept the Dulan family’s legacy so strong over years within the Los Angeles community is the quality and soul that can literally be tasted in the food.
“[Dulan’s] does a great job at serving hearty portions of food that taste and feel like your grandmother’s cooking,” said Danielle Salmon, LA-based creator of Follow My Gut, a blog full of restaurant reviews and Q & A’s with various food industry leaders. Salmon’s authority on identifying the cream of the crop shows true with the section on her blog called “Best of the Best,” which showcases some of the “best ofs” in the Los Angeles restaurant scene.
Much like New York, Miami is a melting pot of cultures, cuisines and people. It’s known for being a mecca of Cuban culture and a place where authentic Cuban sandwiches reign supreme. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find other ethnic restaurants. Social distancing may still be in effect, but you don’t have to distance your taste buds from soul food if you order from Sunday’s Eatery.
It’s no surprise that Miami’s own rap icon, Trick Daddy, known for “Take It To Da House” and “Let’s Go” with Lil Jon, Twista and Big D, is the owner of Sunday’s. He joins a growing list of celebrities who’ve thrown their hat into the ring of restaurant ownership, like Ludacris’ Chicken-N-Beer at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport and Rick Ross, who owns a number of Wingstop franchises in several states.
Alexandria Jones, creator of The Frugalista Life, named Sunday’s Eatery as her Miami choice due to its comfortable atmosphere. Jones also recently filmed a documentary titled A Soulful Taste: Exploring Tampa Bay’s Black-Owned Food Scene, which shines light on Black-owned restaurants in Tampa Bay.
“Sunday’s Eatery is like being at your Granny’s house for Sunday dinner with your family,” Jones said. “Anita Baker and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly played through the speakers and it wasn’t out of the ordinary to bop around to the music while I’m eating my meal.”
Before you let go of your menu at Sunday’s, you should try one of the fried (of course) entrées like the fried ribs or the chicken wings. Pair it with seasoned rice and peas and string beans. But if you’re not a huge fan of fried food, then swap them out for something grilled or baked.
How to order: Order takeout and delivery on Uber Eats
Believe it or not, there are in fact fun things to do outside of the French Quarter in New Orleans, like a food crawl through The Crescent City. Since social distancing is in effect, your quest should be takeout or delivery only.
It’s important to note that Louisiana’s Creole cuisine has a large influence on its soul food scene, so many restaurants feature an infusion of soul and Creole. Louisiana Creole draws from West African, French, and Spanish influences. It is not to be used interchangeably with Cajun-style cooking, which unlike Creole, typically does not use tomatoes and tomato-based sauces.
Now that you’re more informed about Louisiana food lingo, you’ll have no trouble ordering at Heard Dat Kitchen in Central City, which is what Chasity Pugh thinks the best soul food spot is in New Orleans. Pugh is the creator of Let Dat Girl Eat, where she showcases New Orleans’s finest and tastiest food options.
“The reason why Heard Dat has some of the best soul food in the city is because it fuses the Cajun and Creole flavors of New Orleans with down south soul food that Louisiana is known for,” Pugh said.
New Orleans-based writer and photographer L. Kasimu Harris also selected Heard Dat as his soul food favorite. “The flavors are bold: crispy fried catfish topped with a crawfish cream sauce or a gumbo that a New Orleans born and raised grandmother would rave about,” Harris said.
It would be impossible (and just downright wrong) to leave New Orleans without ever having a plate of shrimp and grits, and luckily for you, Heard Dat has you covered in that area. Or try one of their signature dishes on their no-frills menu like the “Superdome” (blackened fish, lobster potatoes, lobster cream sauce, sweet corn, and crispy onion rings) or the “Bourbon Street Love” (fried chicken over mac’n cheese and “Crawdat” cream sauce and potato salad). Then when you’re all done, wash it down with “DAT TEA!!!!!” (yes, that’s really how it appears on the menu).
How to order: Call the restaurant directly at 504-510-4248 or order on Uber Eats
To find the best soul food in Washington, D.C., I turned to Cornelia Poku, co-founder of Black Girls Eat DC, an Instagram handle sharing food from different restaurants around DC. Henry’s Soul Cafe on U Street came in the lead due to Poku’s belief that the mac and cheese is one of the most important signs of a good soul food restaurant and the cultural impact of its U Street location (there is another location in Oxon Hill).
“Because mac and cheese is a difficult dish, and despite its role as a side, it can easily be the star when done right,” Poku said. “Henry’s Soul Cafe is one of the last strongholds of the culture of DC in one of the neighborhoods where the Black population was heavily concentrated.”
Poku said that with it being on the same block at the historic Howard Theater, the African American Civil War Museum and Ben’s Chili Bowl, it’s a part of a deep history within the community. In the first half of the 20th century, U Street was one of the most vibrant places for African American culture and livelihood. Its impact on the music and arts scene in Washington, DC was seen through the presence of acts like Duke Ellington, who was born in DC.
Jermaine Smith, son of Henry Smith, the original founder and owner of Henry’s Soul Cafe, told me the restaurant started out as a small spot similar to a convenient store and offered some takeout items like hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches. Henry began to add more items to the menu as time went on, including what he became best known for: sweet potato pie.
Smith said the D.C. U Street location has been spot opening due to the majority of its customer base being government workers, which resulted in less traffic. The Oxon Hill location has adapted to only allowing one customer in at a time and credit card only.
The decision to remain open was rooted heavily in his late father’s belief that the restaurant had an obligation to the public to serve.
“When I was growing up, there would be snow blizzards and ice storms, and my dad would still open up because he had an obligation to feed people that may not be able to get a meal,” Smith said. “When the pandemic came, my first inclination was that we were going to stay open and we’d take the necessary precautions to try to lessen the effects of the virus, but we have an obligation to stay open.”
Take Poku’s advice and pair your fried chicken wings with cabbage, fried okra, stuffing, or coleslaw. Finish off your meal with a slice of the “Homemade World Famous Sweet Potato Pie,” or really treat yourself and just order a whole one.
How to order: Pre-order for carryout can be done on their website or by calling the Oxon Hill restaurant directly at 301-749-6856
Commonly referred to as the original birthplace of chicken and waffles in the United States, Harlem is not only rich in its cultural roots and history, but also in its array of Black-owned restaurants and cafes. The Harlem Renaissance movement produced one of the most significant acts of Black migration in the early 20th century. The movement resulted in a surge of cultural explosion in Harlem, prompting the opening of many Black-owned clubs, publishing houses and music companies. It paved the way for the Black-owned spaces we see today, including numerous soul food treasures.
One of these treasures is Melba’s, located on West 114th street in Central Harlem. Another unanimous winner in the New York soul food Olympics, multiple food bloggers cited Melba’s as having the best soul food in the city that never sleeps.
The six degrees of separation may be even smaller than you think. The owner of Melba’s, Melba Wilson, is also an alumna of Sylvia’s Restaurant, owned by her aunt Sylvia Woods, a historic icon in New York. There’s always room for more than one spot at the top of the soul food chain, and with the effects of gentrification and the current pandemic making it difficult for Black-owned businesses to thrive and survive in New York City, the more the merrier. Bottom line? Melba’s is in good company.
“Melba’s has always been my top pick for soul food in New York City. Melba started in the kitchen of the world-famous Sylvia’s and then decided to strike out on her own,” said Dominek Tubbs, food blogger and creator of Dom N’ The City, where she provides New York restaurant reviews on restaurants around the city and other Black-owned spots like Fieldtrip, The Crabby Shack and Beatstro. “Who can say no to a woman that beat Bobby Flay with her delicious chicken and waffles recipe?”
The chicken and waffles recipe Tubbs refers to are Melba’s southern fried chicken and eggnog waffles. Yes, you read that correctly — eggnog waffles, and they are certainly worth a try (they’re available for delivery!). You’ll never want buttermilk waffles again. Fluffy, yet firm enough to soak up the sweet strawberry butter and maple syrup, it’s no surprise Bobby Flay deemed Wilson the “Queen Bee” of chicken and waffles.
Food enthusiast and creator of No Ordinary Grub, Brandi Bodega echoed Tubbs’ choice of Melba’s, praising their mac’n cheese and turkey meatloaf. “Harlem is historically known for its soul food eateries and Melba’s stays true to Harlem southern soul food flavors,” she said.
How to order: Call the restaurant directly at 212-864-7777 or order on Seamless, Uber Eats, Postmates or Grubhub
Many great things and people come from Houston: delicious BBQ, the Houston Rockets, and of course, Beyoncé and Solange. But H-Town is also home to Mikki’s Soul Food Cafe, a cafeteria-style spot in southwest Houston that’s been visited by artists like Biz Markie, Wale, Too Short and Letoya Luckett. Opened in 2000 by owner and founder, the late Jeanette Williams, Mikki’s serves traditional soul food dishes at both the southwest Houston location and the Pearland location, which is about 16 miles from Houston.
Mikki’s current takeout only menu changes throughout the week at both locations, as a few food items are only served on certain days. Main dishes like oxtail, turkey wings, smothered pork chops, and smothered baked chicken are served daily, but the fried chicken and catfish are only served on Fridays and Sundays..
Valerie Jones and Kim Floyd, Houston-based founders of 2 Girls Who Travel, a joint blog where the two review Houston events and restaurants consider all of the food at Mikki’s to be tasty and generous in portion. But for Jones and Floyd, the sides are the real standouts.
“Save time and order the greens, sweet potatoes, and mac’n cheese,” they said. “We’ve never had sweet potatoes so sweet and delicious.”
If your sweet tooth is still in need of more attention, look no further than Mikki’s dessert selections which include red velvet cake, peach cobbler, pound cake, and white chocolate bread pudding. Mikki’s is also serving daiquiris to-go with flavors like mango, strawberry, pina colada, and specialties like the Hurricane and Hypnotiq.
The Lou is home to more than just BBQ, Jazz music, and Nelly and his Air Force Ones. It’s also home to Gourmet Soul Restaurant and Catering, Jeremy Joyce’s (of Black People Eats) pick for the best soul food in St. Louis. The spot is located on Delmar Boulevard, just steps away from the City Museum.
Gourmet Soul closed due to the effects of COVID-19 on March 29, but Chef Lavinia McCoy said the restaurant side will be reopening on May 25. In the interim, the staff has partnered with Purina to serve food to the first responders of St. Louis.
When the restaurant is open for a normal schedule again, peruse their lunch and extensive catering menu. Gourmet Soul serves your traditional soul food offerings like smothered pork chops, cornbread dressing and baked chicken. But what makes them stand out is their gourmet approach to their dishes, which is clearly seen in their plating style.
Before to-go containers became the “new normal” at restaurants, Gourmet Soul was serving their customers meals in sturdy, colorful plates and side dish cups to match the vibrant flavors.
“They pride themselves in producing soulful gourmet touches to our favorite meals such as baked chicken, smothered pork chops, chicken wings, peach cobbler, and caramel cake,” Joyce said. “We tried their chicken wing meal with mac and cheese and collard greens and it was a flavorful experience. St Louis might be known for their BBQ and music, but this restaurant is opening doors to new possibilities of what this city has to offer.”
How to order: Gourmet Soul is currently closed, but will be reopening on May 25.
Photographers: Nolis Anderson, April Greer, Bethany Mollenkoff
Illustrator: Chelsea Marotta
Designer: Maitane Romagosa