Is it soul food if there's not a deep fryer or ham hock in sight?

The crowd was waiting to find out when Soul Daddy opened its doors Monday at the Mall of America, after winning the TV competition in the nine-week NBC reality show, "America's Next Great Restaurant."

At the lunchtime opening, diners waited patiently, snapping photos as the line snaked out of the restaurant and down the mall's hallway, Most, if not all, were fans of the TV show -- and of the winner, Jamawn Woods, whose perseverance and hard-luck tale as a laid-off Detroit autoworker prior to the competition had tugged at the heartstrings of both judges and viewers. "I liked his story," said Pat Langer of Edina, who had picked him as a winner weeks ago. She wasn't alone. By evening, the restaurant had closed early, unable to keep up with the crowds.

Its premise -- soul food with a twist -- hopes to break new ground by offering more healthful versions of the traditional calorie-laden fare.

Forget fried chicken or mac-and-cheese; this menu's vision lies in fresh and light food.

You can see Steve Ells' fingerprints on the concept. As founder of Chipotle and a judge/investor in the restaurant competition, he has used his own success story as a model for this fast-casual restaurant. At the service counter, Soul Daddy looks like a Chipotle. Its "meat and three" approach -- a Southern standby -- offers a choice of main dish, two sides and bread. Diners piece together their freshly made meal just as Chipotle visitors pick out fillings for their burritos.

Even the look of Soul Daddy is inspired by Chipotle, with a vaguely industrial style that includes metal light fixtures above sturdy wooden communal tables and oak booths. Followers of the show will be relieved to know that Woods' desire to paint the place purple, initially criticized by the judges, has resurfaced, though it's limited to a small wall of lavender and the color of the T-shirts worn by the staff. Motown, too, has gone light from his original soundtrack -- think Dionne Warwick rather than James Brown.

Freshly made flavors

Even on the first day, it was evident there are some winning dishes at Soul Daddy. Until a couple of weeks ago, Woods had been making chicken wings and waffles at his home to sell to friends. If those waffles were the cornbread ones served at Soul Daddy, no wonder he had a following. Light, with a hint of corn, and only 3 inches across, they're just the right size for a "healthy" meal. Biscuits were a treat, too, sturdy yet flavorful even with their whole-wheat touch.

Cheesy grits were just that, creamy, thick and satisfying -- think cheesy polenta, if you're new to them. A pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw was moist and flavorful, although the whole-wheat bun was no match for the bread used in a similar sandwich by local chef Alex Roberts at his Brasa restaurants.

Sweet potato salad, served cold with vinaigrette instead of mayo, was sweet, colorful and pleasant. A black-eyed pea salad, tossed with diced red pepper and an excess of celery, was simple but had a clean, fresh taste. Three meat sauces (remember Bobby Flay's interest in dipping sauces during the show?) definitely perk up the meal, with the sweet-molasses/mustard version being the most memorable.

Not enough flavor

In general, though, the flavors at Soul Daddy tend to err on the side of bland (where's a neck bone when you need one?), which caused grumbling from diners who hadn't bought into soul food "lite." Consider the ribs: Soul Daddy's were tender, with a spicy rub that carried much of the flavor. But they were served dry, with sauce added at the table as desired. With Tony Roma's next door and Famous Dave's nearby, the ribs at Soul Daddy need to be better than OK to draw a crowd. Nor do the three ribs, at $11.95, fit the "value" concept that Flay preached on the show. You can find better -- and bigger -- slabs elsewhere at the MOA.

As for the chicken, there's nothing wrong with baked. Nor is there anything compelling about it.

To the surprise and disappointment of many diners coming out of a six-month winter, most of the sides are served cold, with only collard greens and 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."

The misfit on the menu clearly is the wild rice salad which, though tasty with good crunch and dried cranberries for extra flavor, doesn't fall under anyone's definition of soul food.

Others didn't care what the food was called. A fan of the TV show, Karen Swanson of Florida (but formerly from Minneapolis) was there with friend Kandace Condon of Shakopee. Why? "We're in love with Bobby Flay," they said with a laugh. They noted that the grits were too salty. "In fact, all the sides are on the salty side," Swanson said. However, while they nibbled on each other's meals, they were smiling. "I love this food," said Condon.

Ash King, the general manager, is mindful of diners' confusion. "It's a totally different take on soul food. We want them to be willing to try it out."

With or without a fryer, Soul Daddy won't be the last word on soul food. But look to its model. No one would call Chipotle an authentic Mexican restaurant, either.

Lee Svitak Dean • 612-673-1749