Is Minnesota ready for soul food? It seems to be, judging from the long line Monday when Soul Daddy opened its doors at the Mall of America as the winner of the nine-week TV reality show, "America's Next Great Restaurant," or as it's referred to on Twitter, #angr. At lunch, diners waited patiently, snapping photos as the line snaked its way outside the restaurant and along the mall's hallway, Most, if not all, were fans of the TV show -- and of the winner, Jamawn Woods.
Anyone expecting a traditional taste of soul food will be in for a surprise since the premise of this restaurant is soul food with a twist -- a healthier, lighter version -- or as the subtext of the restaurant says, "new home cookin'." There's no mac-and-cheese or fried chicken here, but you'll find ribs, roast pork, pulled pork, baked chicken, biscuits and buns, albeit whole wheat ones.
You'll find them in a setting reminiscent of a Chipotle restaurant, which isn't surprising given that judge Steve Ells is the founder of the chain (something that followers of the TV show heard repeatedly). That means a long aisle at the entrance that channels guests to the counter, from where they choose their side dishes the way others at Chipotle do the makings of their burritos. It's an efficient model for a fast-casual restaurant. Like Chipotle, there's a vaguely industrial look throughout (cement block on a wall, metal light fixtures), but Soul Daddy also has a touch of country: sturdy wooden communal tables and dark oak plywood wainscotting and booths (instead of the metal of Chipotle). The most striking feature (photo at left) are two walls of what appear to be chalkboard drawings -- actually a wallpaper graphic -- of Jamawn Woods and the Minnesota connection to the restaurant (including a walleye, Mary Tyler Moore and MOA). The restaurant doorway looks far more refined, a montage of maple, fir and cherry strips in the horizontal pattern that's de rigueur these days. Followers of the show will be relieved to know that Jamawn's desire to paint the place purple was kept, though just barely, limited to a small wall and the color of the T-shirts worn by the staff. Motown, too, has taken a back seat from his original concept. Stevie Wonder sings quietly in the background, but so does Dionne Warwick. A patio out front offers some extra dining space.
Soul Daddy takes the Southern approach to a menu with "meat and three" -- a main dish and, in this case, two side dishes and a bread. Meals range from $7.95 (vegetarian or pork) to $11.95 (ribs). Side dishes a la carte are $2.50 each, with breads (biscuits or waffles) at $1.
Corn bread waffles. If these were what Jamawn was serving from his home catering business in Detroit, no wonder he had a following. The waffles are light and delicious, with a mild flavor of corn. At three inches in diameter, they're just the right size for a "healthy" meal. Wouldn't mind them for breakfast, should Soul Daddy want to open earlier. (Photo, from left: grits, baked chicken, waffle and sweet potato salad.)
Whole wheat biscuits: Warm and light, despite their whole-wheat touch, with a smattering of cracked black pepper atop.
Cheese grits: Very good -- creamy and thick, like cheesy polenta --though I speak as someone who doesn't have a long history with grits. Other diners complained vigorously that the grits were too salty. Ash King, general manager, suggests that these are suitable for a kids' meal, should your child be looking for mac-and-cheese.
Pulled pork sandwich with cole slaw: Moist and flavorful, though the whole-wheat bun is no match for the bread Alex Roberts uses at Brasa in Minneapolis and St. Paul for his Caribbean-based dishes that include pulled pork.
Sweet potato salad: Think potato salad, but sweet, colorful and tasty. Served cold, with a vinaigrette rather than mayo.
Black-eyed pea salad: Too much celery for my taste, but other diners were raving about the simple salad with peas, red pepper and celery in a vinaigrette.
In general: The food is fresh and made on the premises. (There's no freezer at Soul Daddy -- none at Chipotle either.) But the flavors tend to be on the bland side, with the exception of the sauces, which have punch.
Ribs: Soul Daddy is located next to Tony Roma's and a few doors down from Famous Dave's. If you're going to compete with ribs, they better be good. Soul Daddy's were tender, with a spicy rub that carried much of the flavor, but served dry, with the sauces (Jamawn's Hot Sauce, a memorable sweet-molasses mustard sauce, and a bbq sauce) to be added by the diner at the table. At $11.95, it's the most expensive item on the menu and the three ribs don't fit the "value" concept that Bobby Flay, judge and investor, emphasized. You can find better -- and bigger -- slabs of ribs elsewhere.
Chicken: There's nothing wrong with the baked herb chicken. There's just nothing interesting about it. I can make more flavorful chicken at home. You can, too. Bring me the fried chicken and I might indulge.
Wild rice salad: Soul Daddy's version has the optimum crunch of a good wild rice sald, and dried cranberries give extra flavor. But it's not soul food in any incarnation, except for Native Americans in Minnesota. And wild rice is an acquired taste, which may not find a following in Hollywood or NYC. Why is it on the menu?
Hot food vs cold: To the surprise and disappointment of many diners, the side dishes are mostly cold (six of them), with only the collard greens and cheese grits warm.
"Soul food is not cold," said Michael Cole Smith of Minneapolis, an outraged diner who had scheduled his lunch via Facebook with many friends, who were equally unhappy. "I was excited about having a soul food restaurant. But we still don't have soul food. And the food is bland. This is what you'd serve in a hospital to diabetics or those with high blood pressure."
Well, not everyone agrees. Karen Swanson, of Florida (but formerly Minneapolis) was there with her friend Kandace Condon of Shakopee to taste the food. Why? "We're in love with Bobby Flay," they said with a laugh about the judge who hosted the TV program. They agreed the grits were too salty. "In fact, all the sides are on the salty side," Karen said. However, as they sampled each other's food, they grinned. "I love this food," said Karen.
Despite the fact that much of the staff had only a few days training, and some only a single day, service at lunch was smooth and swift, given the potential for chaos at a widely publicized opening of a new restaurant.
Jamawn Woods will be in town next week to check out the MOA outlet. Stay tuned for details.
Photos by Courtney Perry and Lee Svitak Dean