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 its way outside the restaurant. Most, if not all, were fans of the TV show -- and of the winner, Jamawn Woods, whose hard-luck tale (laid off as a Detroit autoworker before the competition) and perseverance had tugged at the heartstrings of the judges and followers. "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.
The premise of the restaurant -- soul food with a twist -- hopes to break new ground by offering a healthier version of the traditional fare. Forget fried chicken or mac-and-cheese from the past; this menu's vision for the future lies in fresh and light.
You can see the fingerprints of Steve Ells, Chipotle founder and judge/investor in the restaurant competition, on the concept. 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 the fillings for their burritos. Even the look of Soul Daddy is inspired by Chipotle, with a vaguely industrial style combined with wooden communal tables and oak wainscoting.
Even on the first day, it was evident that there are some winning dishes at Soul Daddy. Until a couple of weeks ago, Woods had been making chicken wings and waffles from 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 mild flavor of corn, and only 3 inches across, they're just the right size for a "healthy" meal. The biscuits were a treat, too, even with their whole-wheat touch.
The cheesy grits were just that, creamy, thick and satisfying -- though admittedly I speak as someone without a long history with grits. The pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw was moist and flavorful, though the whole-wheat bun is no match for the bread used in a similar sandwich by chef Alex Roberts at Brasa.
The sweet potato salad, served cold with a vinaigrette instead of mayo, was sweet, colorful and pleasant. The black-eyed pea salad, tossed with diced red pepper and a lot of celery, was simple but with a clean, fresh taste. The three sauces for the meat (remember Bobby Flay's interest in dipping sauces during the show?) definitely perk up the meal, the sweet-molasses mustard sauce the most memorable.
In general, though, the flavors at Soul Daddy tend to err on the bland side (where's a neckbone when you need it?), 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. But they were served dry, 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. And to the disappointment of many diners, most of the sides are served cold, with only the collard greens and grits warm.
Ash King, 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."
Soul Daddy won't be the last word on soul food. But look to its model. No one would call Chipotle a Mexican restaurant, either.