By Nikkitha Bakshani
Is there a thing in the world more comforting than soul food? It’s not one of those cuisines that have a hundred or so dishes that chefs need to choose from. It simply consists of a handful of specialties that have been perfected over time. These nine tasty soul food spots have it down to a T.
What is soul food? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is “the type of food traditionally eaten by African-Americans in the southern U.S.” The term was popularized by Alex Haley and Malcolm X, and it attempted to move a number of well-loved dishes away from this notion of “slave food” to instead highlight ideas of commensality, family, and black culture that the eating of these foods engendered. This was especially true after the so-called Great Migrations of 1910 to 1930 and 1941 to 1970, when African-Americans who moved north and west craved foods that reminded them of the Southern homes they left behind.
To describe soul food as “made with love” is hokey and simplistic — it glosses over the skill it takes to get that perfect brine on a fried chicken, the tenderness of ham hocks, and the complex bitterness of collard greens. That being said, there is an unmistakable family-owned aura to most soul food restaurants, and the food is prepared with care and respect for tradition.
We pulled from our lists of the 101 Best Casual Restaurants and 75 Best Fried Chicken Spots, and did more research on African-American-owned places serving authentic fare, to gather a handful of establishments that really know how to serve delicious soul food.
Make sure to stop by some of these spots on your great American road trip.
Amy Ruth’s, New York City
A Harlem institution, Amy Ruth’s is famous for its chicken and waffles, but the other items on the menu — named after African-American celebrities such as DJ Afrika Bambaataa (fried whiting) and actress Gabrielle Union (fried or smothered pork chops) — also please. It is especially busy after church on Sundays, but that’s the best time to go, as the place bustles with women in beautiful hats and a general convivial air that complements this soul food very well.
Busy Bee Cafe, Atlanta
An Atlanta landmark, the Busy Bee Cafe has been serving traditional soul food to hungry locals since it opened in 1947. The cozy restaurant features a long lunch counter and a handful of tables, and the food is homestyle, delicious, and inexpensive. You’d be hard-pressed to find better fried or smothered chicken, pork chops, fried fish, smoked ham hocks, oxtails, slow-smoked ribs, or baked macaroni and cheese anywhere else in town, and the desserts, including scratch-made cakes and Georgia peach and blackberry cobblers, are the stuff of legend.
More from The Daily Meal: The 10 Best Places to Eat Fried Chicken in the South
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, New Orleans
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant began in 1939 as a sandwich shop and lottery ticket outlet, and grew to become a spot where Civil Rights leaders met to discuss politics and culture. Owner and chef Leah Chase is a legend who is often referred to as the “Queen of Creole Cuisine”; there’s even a portrait of her in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The secret to the extra-crunchy fried chicken is the evaporated milk that’s used in the egg wash; this is her recipe.
Eagle’s Restaurant, Birmingham, Ala.
Courtesy: Eagle’s Restaurant, Birmingham
Open since 1951, this casual eatery offers something different every weekday, from pig’s feet on Monday to cube steak on Tuesday, but you can always expect to find a few soul food classic side dishes that don’t disappoint: candied yams, okra, and the oh-so-delicious sweet potato pie.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen, Charleston, S.C.
Photo: Yelp / Wendy M
“If you want a fancy ambiance with a fancy price tag, you’ll have to go elsewhere,” warns Martha Lou’s website. But trust us: You don’t want to. The experience of eating their chicken, which is lightly dredged in flour and dipped in milk batter before being fried to perfection, is truly unique. Don’t miss the giblet rice or baked macaroni, either. What makes it even more worthwhile is that the eatery sits in a proudly feminine pink shack — the restaurant is run by Martha Lou, her daughters, and her granddaughters.
Motor City Soul Food, Detroit
Courtesy: Motor City Soul Food
The inside of Motor City Soul Food looks more like a government bureau lobby than a take-out eatery, but this will stop bothering you the second you take a bite of their fried chicken — in fact, you’ll be grateful that the setup makes the wraparound line move so much faster. This spot is not shy of the Southern classics that restaurants up North are too afraid to put on the menu, such as oxtails and chitterlings; Andrew Zimmern even paid it a visit when he was in Detroit. Oh, and the fried chicken, especially when paired with candied yams or mac and cheese? It’s divine.
Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe, Phoenix
Photo: Yelp / Chris H
Most people probably don’t associate soul food with Phoenix, but Mrs. White’s Golden Rule Cafe might change that. Chef Beau MacMillan described this spot’s fried chicken on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate as, well, the best thing he ever ate. Could the “golden rule” have something to do with the technique that makes this fried chicken such a warm, inviting gold color, or with a technique that makes their pork chops so succulent? We can’t be sure, but here’s a golden suggestion: Come early, because at lunch, this place is packed
Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles, Los Angeles
Photo: Yelp / Candy R
This late-night spot, originally located in Hollywood, has been serving up fried chicken and waffles since 1975 — when Harlem-bred owner Herb Hudson brought some recipes from home to the West Coast — and has since expanded into a small local chain. The list of celebrity diners is endless (which is no surprise, considering its Los Angeles locale), but regulars range from Snoop Dogg to Larry King; even President Obama made a pit stop at Roscoe’s during a visit to Los Angeles. The chicken is fried fresh to order, and make sure to ask for your waffles to be cooked extra-crispy to avoid potential sogginess. Roscoe’s has been mentioned in movies like Rush Hour and Swingers, as well as in a Ludacris song.
This Is It, Houston
Photo: Houston’s This Is It Soul Food / Facebook
Located in Freedmen’s Town, a predominately African-American neighborhood in the city’s Fourth Ward, This Is It has served soul food to a diverse mix of customers, from politicians to locals to Louis Armstrong himself, back when he lived in the neighborhood. The oxtail with “secret seasoning” is the thing to order here, but you can’t go wrong with their chitterlings, turkey necks, or smothered chicken either. In typical Southern fashion, all their dishes are meat and threes, meaning the entrées come with three sides (go for the Creole corn), and two cornbread muffins to boot.
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