What is soul food, anyway? A leftover from the 60s, "soul food" is still a perfectly good term. It was inspired by soul music, an expression first used by jazz musicians in the 1950s to acknowledge their inspiration in blues and gospel, and later deployed to describe a style of African-American pop that's still considered a golden age of American music. Soul food designates cooking that originated over centuries in the kitchens of African-American cooks in the South, but also included white, Native American, and Latin contributions.
Though African-Americans were prominent figures even during colonial times, soul food was more recently brought to New York City during what has come to be known as the Great Migration — a period that began a century ago in response to lynching and other forms of racial terrorism that drove vast numbers of African-Americans to resettle in the North. (Other reasons included the comparative superiority of economic opportunities here.) Neighborhoods like Harlem and Bed-Stuy, along with Ft. Greene, Greenwich Village, and Jamaica, Queens, became hotbeds of soul food.
Mainly pig and chicken based, and including elements carried to the South from Africa centuries earlier, the menu at these places included such standards as fried chicken, smothered pork chops, hot sage sausage, grits and eggs, collard greens (quintessentially African), mac and cheese (a Brit contribution), slab bacon, stewed okra with tomatoes, rice and black-eyed peas (aka hoppin’ John), cornbread, shrimp and grits, meatloaf (from the Germans), tamales (a Latin contribution), succotash (thank you, Native Americans), and fried whiting sandwiches.
This menu was often served in small cafes run by women. Sadly, few of these old places — many founded in the 60s and even earlier — still exist. But new places in the old style have risen to take their place. Here is a collection of 10 old-fashioned cafes worth visiting for the excellence of their fare, and the rich tradition of African-American hospitality that makes the soul food taste even better.
The Five Best
The business started out as a van in the 80s called Charles Mobile Soul Food Kitchen, which parked some days on 145th Street’s hilly and barren westernmost block. Eventually, it moved into a very small storefront in its present location in far northeastern Harlem, first called Charles Southern Style Kitchen. After a car crashed into the buffet and the place had to be redone, it was rechristened Charles Country Pan Fried Chicken. The proprietor — who hails from Raleigh, North Carolina and whom you might just see relaxing between frying bouts in a chair in his own dining room — is Charles Gabriel, who prides himself on his cooking methods. He uses big cast iron pans rather than deep fryers, which is the most traditional and best way to cook fried chicken, though it requires constant attention.
And the bird shows it. Charles’ chicken is not only cheap, it’s also excellent, with its light dusting of flour and crisp skin. Two pieces drawn from a glass case on the counter are likely to set you back only $3.50 or so. With sides it will be a couple of bucks more, and the sides include candied yams and collard greens seasoned with smoked turkey wing. Other main-course specialties: oven-glazed BBQ pork spare ribs that are especially meaty, baked chicken, and oxtails; for breakfast there’s eggs and grits, fried fish and grits, and, of course, chicken and waffles. 2841 Frederick Douglass Blvd, (212) 926-4313.
There’s no better old-fashioned Southern cooking in the city than at Mitchell’s Soul Food. Founded by Johnsie Mitchell, for 40 years the bright café has occupied the same deep storefront in Prospect Heights, even as the makeup of the neighborhood has shifted and gentrified. Drop by the humming front dining room — which has a tin ceiling, salvaged tables, and colorful paintings featuring food and music — and find one of Brooklyn’s most diverse clienteles. Over the last few years, seating has been added in the back kitchen, too, and the Plexiglas barrier has come down.
Your waiter is likely to be the gruff but lovable James "JB" Bromell, who also doubles as one of the cooks. The fried chicken is fabled — crisp skinned, moist textured, spare of flesh but concentrated of flavor. The mac and cheese has lots more extra cheddar on top than it needs, while the okra stewed with tomatoes is one of the best uses of both those vegetables. The cornbread is divine, often served warm from the oven. Also recommended are the smothered pork chops — two to an order in a saline brown gravy — fried porgy and fried catfish, oxtails, and the turkey wing dinner if you like to gnaw. 617A Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 789-3212.
The connections between West African cuisines and soul food are obvious — most specifically in the raw materials like collard greens, black-eyed peas, and okra (which is called gumbo in many West African languages). Soul Spot is a 12-year-old restaurant near Barclays Center that demonstrates what happens when West Africans come over here and start cooking soul food — and the results are delicious, via chef Yaya Ceesay. The fried chicken is spot-on, cooked with only a thin coating over the supremely crisp skin, which crunches audibly as you bite down on it.
One modern African contribution to the canon: the yams are not canned but freshly cooked, and it’s a vast improvement. The menu includes all the soul food classics like salmon croquettes (made from canned salmon with crunchy bones, a longtime luncheon favorite), smothered chicken, stewed okra, chicken and dumplings, fried whiting, BBQ beef ribs, and meatloaf, plus a scattering of Jamaican specialties such as curry goat and jerk chicken. Caribbean fare has worked its way onto many soul food menus in Brooklyn. Check what’s on the steam table before making your selection. A few tables are available in the small dining room — most patrons carry out. 302 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 596-9933
The specials change daily at Ma’ N Pop Restaurant (punctuation theirs), a fixture in Bed-Stuy for a decade, though it looks much older. Walk inside under the red-striped awning to find a cute and nicely arranged dining room, furnished with bent-cane chairs, red-checked tablecloths, and a red lunch counter that looks into the kitchen. (Yes, nearly everything is red.) This is one of the few soul food spots that also specialize in tea and coffee, and the staff encourages you to linger over your latte. Ham hocks and Ma’s meatloaf are good choices, and so are fried chicken and chicken baked with barbecue sauce in the Carolina style.
On a recent re-visit, shrimp and grits were on the specials menu. Not quite the Lowcountry favorite featuring crustaceans in a bacon-shot white gravy, but rather fresh shrimp coated with Old Bay and fried, then scattered over a bowl of buttered grits — the entree was exceedingly tasty nonetheless. Another highlight are all-day breakfasts, including fish and grits, corned beef hash with eggs, and salmon cake on toast. You won’t find a friendlier welcome in Brooklyn. 349 Lewis Ave, Brooklyn, (718) 574-6735
Dubbed the Queen of Soul Food and commemorated by the renaming of a nearby street, Sylvia Woods founded her landmark café in Harlem in 1962, having migrated from Hemingway, South Carolina in the 1940s. The Sylvia’s Restaurant complex now includes two plush dining rooms, a banquet hall, and an annex, but the best place to eat is still at the original lunch counter, right in the middle, where the strains of an electric blues combo drift in from the dining room and help to season some of the most traditional soul food in town.
The fried chicken is justifiably famous, the cornbread rich and crumbly and served with margarine as it’s been done since the 60s. The sassy waitresses will hook you up with beer, wine, or a cocktail, which is unusual for such a joint, but then Sylvia’s has become a tourist trap of massive proportions, a veritable temple of ancient African-American fare. I’d skip the ribs if I were you (too sweet!), in favor of the fried catfish, smothered pork chops, or chicken livers, and don’t miss the collards or mac and cheese. Sylvia passed in 2012 at the age of 86, leaving behind her condiments and real estate empires, in addition to her sprawling eponymous eatery, which is still well worth a visit. 328 Malcolm X Blvd, (212) 996-0660
Here are Five More
Paula’s Soul Café — Great buttermilk-dipped fried chicken, oxtails, fried whiting sandwiches, and banana pudding are four of the specialties of this newish spot with an old soul and minimal seating in the Wakefield neighborhood of the Bronx near a 2 train stop. 746 East 233rd St, Bronx, (718) 655-1022
Xcellent Soul Food — The steam table here is the longest you’ve ever seen at this Weeksville classic, and the range of soul food displayed is awesome. Ketchup-topped meatloaf is especially good, and entrees with sides come in several sizes at mind-bogglingly cheap prices. A few comfy tables encourage eating-in. 372 Ralph Ave, Brooklyn, (317) 663-6111
Burgandy’s Café — This lively café in Jamaica, Queens defines soul food rather broadly, including Caribbean fare. A particular focus is chicken wings served in nine different styles (including fried and then smothered in gravy), but you can also get more conventional fried whiting, barbecued beef ribs, and fried chicken sandwiches. 153-35 Hillside Ave, Queens, (347) 475-0187
Sam’s Soulfood Restaurant — This combination nightclub and soul food café is a favorite of court employees and Yankees fans, and its rib sandwich is one of the borough’s best-kept secrets. Open very late most evenings. 596-598 Grand Concourse, Bronx, (718) 665-5341
Napoleon’s Southern Cuisine & Bakery — Not only can you get red velvet cake, you can also chow down on red velvet waffles, with some of the best fried chicken in Brooklyn. As befits a bakery, the room is light and sunny, and plenty of lunch specials are available, including a bone-in fried chicken sandwich featuring a quarter bird that will set you back only $5. You figure out how to eat it. 1180 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, (347) 663-3069
Soul Food R.I.P.
Ten years ago there were many more soul food restaurants in the five boroughs. Here are a few now gone, and sorely missed.
M & G Diner — This snaking lunch counter dating from the 40s on West 125th Street was as mobbed with Columbia students late at night as Harlem locals. Marcus Samuelsson snagged the famous sign and it now hangs in his rotisserie chicken restaurant. M & G closed in 2008.
Margie’s Red Rose — A Hamilton Heights stalwart since the 70s, Margie’s Red Rose was featured in the film Finding Forrester. The place closed when owner Margie McCray — born in South Carolina — passed in 2009. Her daughter and son-in-law revived the place for a couple of years, but then it closed, too. What happened to the amazing soul music jukebox?
Carolina Country Kitchen — This offshoot of the sausage concession at Carolina Country Store (which still exists in truncated form just down the street) had one of Bed-Stuy’s best soul food menus. Fried chicken and multiple forms of Carolina pork and Georgia beef-heart sausages were the focus, and breakfasts came with real country ham. Closed sometime around 2010.
Carmichael’s Diner — Located in the Baisley Pond neighborhood of South Ozone Park not far from Kennedy Airport in Queens, Carmichael’s was outfitted as a traditional diner from the 60s, but offered a menu that was half soul food and half diner standards, and the food was above average for either genre. There was jazz in the basement every Wednesday evening, and the place closed in 2007 after the original owner died.
Also: Copeland’s (Harlem), Ma’s Soul Food Café (Bed-Stuy), Pan Pan (Harlem), Rosscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles (Flatbush), Royal Rib House (Bed-Stuy)*, Soul Fixin’s (Hell’s Kitchen), S & V Soul Food Castle (Jamaica), Poor Freddie’s Rib Shack (South Jamaica)
*-Update: reportedly still open Thursday through Saturday at 303 Halsey St, Brooklyn
Check out the other posts in the 10 Old-Fashioned series:
- 10 Old-Fashioned Italian-American Restaurants to Try in Brooklyn
- 10 Old-Fashioned French Bistros to Try in New York City
- 10 Old-Fashioned Spanish Restaurants to Try in New York and New Jersey
- 10 Great Old-Fashioned Brooklyn Neighborhood Pizzerias
- 10 Old-Fashioned New York Neighborhood Pizzerias
- 10 Old-Fashioned Chinese-American Restaurants
- 10 Old-Fashioned German Restaurants to Try in NYC